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If you were reading about inflammation 20 or 30 years ago, you might walk away with an understanding like this: When you got hurt—say, from a sprained ankle or an infected cuticle—your body’s immune system would send a rush of different types of cells to start the healing process. This would trigger the telltale inflammatory symptoms of redness, swelling, and warmth at the area of injury. (Here’s what you can do to help a cut heal faster.)
“Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection,” says Michael Langan, MD, an internist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It represents the immune system’s effort to repair damaged tissue through the recruitment of critical cells and chemicals to the site in question.”
But fast-forward a couple of decades and boatloads of research studies and health headlines later, and you might have a very different understanding of inflammation’s role in your head-to-toe health.
Doctors now recognize that there are two kinds of inflammation, Dr. Langan explains. Acute inflammation, described above, is usually characterized by warmth, redness, swelling, and pain at the point in your body where the inflammation is occurring. This, the Cleveland Clinic notes, is the body’s first line of attack. Quite simply, at this stage, your immune system is producing beneficial inflammatory cells to “trap the offending substance or heal the tissue.”
The other kind is chronic inflammation, which is what gets all the attention among medical and wellness communities alike. “The chronic form of inflammation is a little less recognizable and implies an ongoing systemic issue in the body,” Dr. Langan says. When those inflammatory cells linger, your body remains in a state of “high alert”—perpetually thinking it’s in need of an immune system response. Remaining in this state over time can start damaging your blood vessels and organs.
“We’ve found that over time, inflammation plays a role in everything: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus all have some inflammatory process,” says Matthew M. Hand, DO, director of integrative medicine at Elliot Health Systems in Manchester, New Hampshire.
“Inflammation can have a negative effect on the health of arteries,” says Mary Ann McLaughlin, MD, a senior cardiologist and an associate professor of cardiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
When inflammatory cells linger in various parts of your body—in blood vessels, for example—it could contribute to dangerous plaques forming. The presence of the plaques signal the immune system to send even more “helpful” inflammatory cells to help fix the problem, which creates a vicious cycle that can damage blood vessels and contribute to your odds of having a blocked artery or heart attack.
Potential heart problems aren’t the only issues chronic inflammation can cause. Autoimmune diseases are another big category of disease thought to be affected by the chronic inflammation. Autoimmune disorders occur when immune cells mistakenly attack cells they are supposed to protect (for example, attacking the joints in rheumatoid arthritis, or attacking the central nervous system in multiple sclerosis).
Clearly, for the sake of your health, it’s important to try to avoid or control the levels of chronic inflammation in your body. Here’s what doctors recommend you start now.
The food you eat is a powerful way to tamper down levels of inflammation levels in your body. Certain foods have anti-inflammatory properties, including antioxidants and other plant-based compounds; others have pro-inflammatory properties that keep your immune system on high alert and levels of inflammation elevated.
The good news is that you don’t really need to think too hard about which foods decrease and which foods increase inflammation—they’re more or less the same foods you think of as being nutritious (decreasing inflammation) or junky (increasing inflammation). An anti-inflammatory diet is very similar to a Mediterranean diet.
An anti-inflammatory diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, nuts and seeds. A pro-inflammatory diet is rich in refined carbohydrates (white bread), sugar, fried foods, soda, red meat or processed meat, or margarine/shortening/lard.
A few years ago it was acai; today it’s turmeric; who knows that tomorrow’s anti-inflammatory superfood will be. If you like experimenting and trying new food trends, that’s great. But don’t feel like you have to jump on a superfood bandwagon to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Some of the most basic foods at the supermarket—spinach, almonds, blueberries, to name a few—have anti-inflammatory properties.
“People sometimes go to extremes about positively, absolutely not eating—or trying to always eating—a certain thing,” Dr. Hand explains. Consider standing by these basic principles: Eat more fruits and vegetables, don’t shy away from olive oil, and consume less sugar.
Ah, good old sugar. Let’s face it, most of us indulge our sweet tooth from time to time. But according to The Mayo Clinic, Americans’ collective consumption of added sugars far exceeds dietary guidelines; the 2015-2020 guidelines say that added sugars should comprise no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. Yet—U.S. adults get 13 percent of their total daily calories from added sugars, which is clearly above the recommended guidelines.
For starters, too much added sugar not only offers zero nutritional benefits, but plenty of studies suggest that inflammatory markers in your blood spike when you eat or drink excess sugar. And unless you eat dessert with every meal, chances are good that your sugar intake is coming from foods that don’t even seem that sweet. Many processed foods in your daily diet—cereals, salad dressing and other condiments, yogurt, etc.—are much higher in sugar than you think.
Your taste buds might need time to adjust to foods with less added sugar. If you swap fruity yogurt for plain Greek yogurt and then add fresh fruit to it, the yogurt will probably taste tart for a while, but over time your taste buds will acclimate to the lack of extra sweetness.
Or do any stress reliever that works for you. Chronic stress fuels inflammation—so the better you can cope with everyday life stressors, the better off you’ll be at fighting inflammation. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that chronic psychological stress is linked with the body’s inability to manage its inflammatory response. Inflammation is, in part, regulated by cortisol, a stress-relieving hormone. Exposure to prolonged stress impedes cortisol’s function; immune cells actually become numb to the hormone’s beneficial ability, which increases the probability that you’ll experience an unhealthy inflammatory response.
Stress-zapping habits like mindfulness, guided imagery, and moving meditation such as tai chi and yoga are some other specific forms of relaxation that may help reduce inflammation, notes Dr. Hand.
When you give yourself a bedtime that allows you to snag a healthy seven to eight hours of sleep, you help reduce unhealthy levels of inflammation in your body. A large study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2016 looked at data from 72 separate studies on more than 50,000 people. It concluded that getting too little (as well as too much!) sleep led to increased inflammation levels, though more research is needed to understand how sleep contributes to levels of inflammation.
If you do, you’ll be halfway to a goal of getting about 30 minutes of exercise a day. Physical activity helps reduce markers of inflammation in your blood, multiple research studies have shown. This may be especially important in older adults, where long-term, low-grade, chronic inflammation can contribute to the development of conditions like arthritis and heart disease. According to a review paper called “Exercise, Inflammation, and Aging” published in the journal Aging & Disease, study authors note that at least nine large studies have examined the relationship between participants’ self-reported physical activity and measures of inflammation. While there were a few exceptions, the authors concluded that data consistently shows that more exercise people reported, the lower their levels of inflammation markers, “even at relatively modest activity levels.”
And you needn’t be a three-hours-a-day in the gym workout aficionado to reap the benefits. In 2017 study from the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine, researchers had participants walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes, then took blood samples to measure inflammatory markers. They found that even a 20-minute session of moderate exercise was enough to have anti-inflammatory effects.