Whatever health woe you’re experiencing—whether it’s a rash or something more serious such as cancer or cognitive decline—Googling your condition will likely lead you to one word: inflammation. While it’s true that high levels of chronic inflammation can lead to health problems, this connection also raises important questions. For example, can inflammation be prevented and if so, does that mean you can protect yourself from sickness and disease?
While we can’t control everything that happens to us (even the health-obsessed can get cancer), there are proactive ways to reduce inflammation and make health problems less likely. Intrigued? Keep reading to learn more about what inflammation is and how to keep it at bay.
What is inflammation and what causes it?
Though inflammation is often talked about as something to avoid, functional medicine doctor Dr. Marzena Slater, MD, explains that it isn’t inherently bad. “Inflammation is the body’s natural defense system,” she says. “It can be a good thing as long as it’s in the right balance.” For example, she says that when we get a cut, the skin around the cut becomes red and swollen, which is the body’s way of repairing the tissue. “The immune system is constantly scanning the environment and responding to what it sees, but when it shifts out of balance, that’s when it becomes a problem,” she says.
Family medicine doctor Dr. Mari Ricker, MD, who is an associate professor at The University of Arizona College of Medicine, explains that it’s high levels of prolonged inflammation that is problematic. “Instead of helping your body heal, the same inflammatory factors, when they stick around can damage the body,” she explains.
Chronic inflammation can manifest in vastly different ways, depending on the person. “Inflammation can impact many chronic conditions, often worsening them,” Dr. Ricker says. “Conditions such as asthma, arthritis, diabetes, persistent pain and heart disease can be exacerbated.”
If you are experiencing any health problem for a prolonged amount of time, Dr. Ricker says that you should see a healthcare provider. This is key for getting to the bottom of what is causing the inflammation in your body and for determining a treatment plan.
In addition to working with a doctor, there are also proactive steps you can take to reduce inflammation through diet and lifestyle habits.
How to Reduce Inflammation In the Body
1. Eat nutrient-rich foods and minimize overly processed ones
Diet can play a major role in preventing or reducing chronic inflammation. “There are some individual foods that have been shown in studies to reduce [inflammation markers] in blood tests, but a comprehensive approach is going to be more effective,” Dr. Ricker says. In other words, instead of focusing solely on one food or herb that you’ve heard is anti-inflammatory, it’s important to consider your entire diet.
An anti-inflammatory diet consists of nutrient-rich foods and minimizes overly processed foods that are high in sugar or sodium. Dr. Slater says that eating lower-glycemic foods, incorporating fiber and healthy fats into meals, and eliminating simple sugars and refined carbs are all ways to reduce inflammation through diet.
Dr. Slater says that the reason why diet plays such a big role in reducing inflammation is because 70 percent of the body’s immune system lies in the gut. Because of this, it’s no surprise that gut health is so strongly connected to brain health and heart health.
2. Prioritize moderate exercise
Besides prioritizing healthy foods, moving your body regularly is an important part of reducing inflammation. “In the very short term, exercise stimulates production of some inflammatory markers, however with regular exercise studies show that the inflammatory molecules and subsequent inflammatory pathways are reduced,” says Dr. Ricker.
The term “everything in moderation” is especially relevant here as taking exercise habits to the extreme can cause more inflammation in the body. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommend aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and two days of strength training every week.
3. Find a way to manage stress
Have you ever gotten a rash or experienced digestive distress during a time of high stress? This is because stress has an inflammatory effect on the body. Dr. Slater says that stress causes cortisol levels to rise, which can lead to inflammation in the body.
Dr. Ricker says that while a little stress is beneficial, constantly feeling stressed out negatively impacts the body. “Stress hormones, when released chronically, eventually lead to the pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are small proteins used for cell signaling. Over time, it makes it harder for the body to do the usual jobs of responding to acute stress and recovery from that stress,” she explains.
This is why finding ways to regularly manage stress in your life is greatly important to reducing inflammation. You can’t always prevent stressful things from happening, but you can do your best to keep them from affecting your health by prioritizing self-care.
4. Get adequate sleep
“Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown in studies to also increase those same molecules that are proinflammatory,” Dr. Ricker says. Dr. Slater echoes this, saying that sleep is when the immune system has the chance to rest and renew. “During the day, our brains are very active and produce a lot of metabolic waste. At nighttime, a system called the glymphatic system comes through and cleans up the debris,” she says. When lack of sleep gets in the way of that happening, Dr. Slater explains that debris can pile up, which then creates inflammation.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends aiming for between seven to nine hours of sleep a night, so make that your window to aim for.
5. When needed, take appropriate medications
Both doctors say that there are times when medication can help reduce chronic inflammation. This is one reason why it’s so important to work with your healthcare provider to manage your symptoms. “There is a class of medicines that are used for acute inflammation called NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” Dr. Ricker says. However, she adds that they should only be used for a short period of time and for acute injuries causing pain.
Dr. Ricker explains that all five of the diet and lifestyle habits highlighted here work together to help reduce inflammation; it’s important to put them all into practice and not just one. Again, no one can control their health completely, but focusing on what you can control can go a long way. “[These diet and lifestyle] habits are the pillars of good health,” Dr. Slater says. “If we focus on these areas, we will live well.”