You may remember having a cut, sprain, or sore throat that was painful and hot and looked red and swollen. These are tell-tale signs of inflammation. Inflammation is a natural and essential process that your body uses to defend itself from infections and heal injured cells and tissues.
Inflammation produces specific biochemicals that can destroy invaders like bacteria and viruses, increase blood flow to areas that need it, and clean up debris. So, it can be a good thing. But, sometimes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Before we talk about the power that certain dietary and lifestyle habits can have on inflammation, let’s sort out the two different types of inflammation.
Types of Inflammation
There are two kinds of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is short-lived. It’s like a flaming fire that produces the painful, red, hot, swollen symptoms described above. When inflammation is acute, it’s usually at high levels in a small localized area in response to an infection or damage to the body. It’s necessary for proper healing and injury repair.
When your cells detect infection or damage, they send out warning signals for your immune system to help out. For example, your immune system sends over many types of white blood cells to help fight off invading bacteria and clean up damage so you can heal.
Symptoms of acute inflammation may need short-term treatment, such as pain relievers or cold compresses. More serious symptoms like fever, severe pain, or shortness of breath may need medical attention. In general, acute inflammation goes away after the damage is healed, often within days or even hours. Acute inflammation is the “good” kind of inflammation because it does an essential job and quiets itself down.
Chronic inflammation is different. It’s more of the slow-burning and smoldering type of fire. This type of inflammation can exist throughout your whole body at lower levels. This means that the symptoms aren’t localized to one particular area that needs it. Instead, they can appear gradually and last much longer—months or even years. This is the “bad” kind of inflammation.
How does chronic inflammation begin? It may start acutely—from an infection or injury—and then, instead of shutting off, it becomes persistent. Chronic low-grade inflammation can also occur with exposure to chemicals (e.g., tobacco) or radiation, consuming an unhealthy diet or too much alcohol, not being physically active, feeling stressed or socially isolated, and having excess weight.
Now that we see that inflammation underlies so many of our medical conditions, here’s what to do to put out those slow-burning, smoldering fires.
Nutrition and Lifestyle Tips for Reducing Chronic Inflammation
Studies show that reducing inflammation can reduce the risk of several conditions, including heart disease and cancer. Medications such as corticosteroids, immunosuppressants, and biologics help lower inflammation and treat some of these diseases. However, there are also several lifestyle changes—including a healthy diet—that can be very helpful to prevent and scale down inflammation to reduce its many damaging effects on the body.
“For chronic low-grade inflammation not caused by a defined illness, lifestyle changes are the mainstay of both prevention and treatment,” says Harvard Health. The good news is that anti-inflammatory foods help you stay healthy and reduce your risk of many diseases. It’s estimated that 60 percent of chronic diseases could be prevented with a healthy diet. Here’s how.
Enjoy an anti-inflammatory diet
- Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, oats, bran), nuts (almonds), seeds, fish, poultry, legumes (beans, lentils), and healthy oils (olive oil)
- Pay particular attention to foods high in antioxidant polyphenols, including colorful plants such as berries, cherries, plums, red grapes, avocados, onions, carrots, beets, turmeric, green tea, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.
- Omega-3 fats can help reduce pain and clear up the inflammation. Salmon, trout, mackerel, soy, walnuts, and flax contain omega-3 fats.
- High fiber foods (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes) encourage friendly gut microbes to help reduce inflammation.
- Avoid charring foods when cooking at high temperatures.
- Limit inflammatory foods such as red and processed meats (lunch meats, hot dogs, hamburgers), fried foods (fries), unhealthy fats (shortening, lard), sugary foods and drinks (sodas, candy, sports drinks), refined carbohydrates (white bread, cookies, pie), and ultra-processed foods (microwaveable dinners, dehydrated soups)
Be physically active
- Regular exercise reduces inflammation over the long term, so try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (brisk walking) per week, about 20-30 minutes per day.
- To this, add two or more strength training sessions (using weights or resistance bands) each week.
Get enough restful sleep
- Disrupted sleep has recently been linked to increased inflammation and atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the vessels linked with heart disease), so aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep every night to help the body heal and repair.
- Tips for better sleep: try to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule every day, get exposure to natural daylight earlier in the day, avoid caffeine later in the day, cut out screens an hour before bedtime, and create a relaxing nighttime routine.
Quit smoking and limit alcohol
- Quitting smoking can help reduce inflammation and several other health concerns by reducing exposure to toxins directly linked to inflammation.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one or two drinks per day
Manage your stress
- Engage in relaxing stress-reducing activities such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or tai chi
- New research suggests that feeling socially isolated is linked with higher levels of inflammation, so reach out to family and friends (or make new ones)
See your doctor or dentist
- Get your cholesterol and blood lipids tested because high amounts of “bad” LDL cholesterol is linked to inflammation and negatively affects your vessels
- You can request a blood test to measure levels of CRP (C-reactive protein), which is a marker of inflammation (this test is also used to check your risk of developing heart disease)
- If your gums bleed when you brush or floss, this may be a sign of gum inflammation (gingivitis), so ramp up your oral hygiene and see your dentist
Chronic, long-term, low-level inflammation is linked with many health issues. The first approach to preventing and improving this is through food and lifestyle changes. Start by focusing on adding colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish to your diet. Then layer in lifestyle upgrades like physical activity, restful sleep, and stress management.
Integrate these lifestyle changes into your day-to-day practices. First, try adding one additional fruit or vegetable to your day. Then, several times a day at each snack or meal. For inspiration, try recipes from my Anti-inflammatory Meal Plan.
An award-winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the author of the Diabetes Guide to Enjoying Foods of the World; The African American Guide to Living Well With Diabetes.