You can’t see it or feel it, but inflammation may slowly be damaging your body.
Inflammation (swelling), which is part of the body’s natural healing system, helps fight injury and infection. But it doesn’t just happen in response to injury and illness.
An inflammatory response can also occur when the immune system goes into action without an injury or infection to fight. Since there’s nothing to heal, the immune system cells that normally protect us begin to destroy healthy arteries, organs and joints.
“When you don’t eat healthy, don’t get enough exercise, or have too much stress, the body responds by triggering inflammation,” says Varinthrej Pitis, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “Chronic inflammation can have damaging consequences over the long term. So the food you eat, the quality of sleep you get and how much you exercise, they all really matter when it comes to reducing inflammation.”
Early symptoms of chronic inflammation may be vague, with subtle signs and symptoms that may go undetected for a long period. You may just feel slightly fatigued, or even normal. As inflammation progresses, however, it begins to damage your arteries, organs and joints. Left unchecked, it can contribute to chronic diseases, such as heart disease, blood vessel disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.
Immune system cells that cause inflammation contribute to the buildup of fatty deposits in the lining of the heart’s arteries. “These plaques can eventually rupture, which causes a clot to form that could potentially block an artery. When blockage happens, the result is a heart attack,” says James Gray, MD, a cardiologist at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine.
The most common way to measure inflammation is to conduct a blood test for C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), which is a marker of inflammation. Doctors also measure homocysteine levels to evaluate chronic inflammation. Finally, physicians test for HbA1C — a measurement of blood sugar — to assess damage to red blood cells.
You can control — and even reverse — inflammation through a healthy, anti-inflammatory lifestyle. People with a family history of health problems, such as heart disease or colon cancer, should talk to their physicians about lifestyle changes that support preventing disease by reducing inflammation.
Follow these six tips for reducing inflammation in your body:
Your food choices are just as important as the medications and supplements you may be taking for overall health since they can protect against inflammation. “Making good choices in our diet to include fresh vegetables and fruits as well as reducing refined sugar intake can make a big difference," Dr. Pitis says.
Eat more fruits and vegetables and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. Some of the best sources of omega-3s are cold water fish, such as salmon and tuna, and tofu, walnuts, flax seeds and soybeans.
Other anti-inflammatory foods include grapes, celery, blueberries, garlic, olive oil, tea and some spices (ginger, rosemary and turmeric).
The Mediterranean diet is an example of an anti-inflammatory diet. This is due to its focus on fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and limits on unhealthy fats, such as red meat, butter and egg yolks as well as processed and refined sugars and carbs.
“An anti-inflammatory diet also limits foods that promote inflammation,” Dr. Gray adds.
Inflammatory foods include red meat and anything with trans fats, such as margarine, corn oil, deep fried foods and most processed foods.
Limit or avoid simple carbohydrates, such as white flour, white rice, refined sugar and anything with high fructose corn syrup.
One easy rule to follow is to avoid white foods, such as white bread, rice and pasta, as well as foods made with white sugar and flour. Build meals around lean proteins and whole foods high in fiber, such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains, such as brown rice and whole wheat bread. Check the labels and make sure that “whole wheat” or another whole grain is the first ingredient.
“Regular exercise is an excellent way to prevent inflammation,” Dr. Gray says.
Make time for 30 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise and 10 to 25 minutes of weight or resistance training at least four to five times per week.
People who are overweight have more inflammation. Losing weight may decrease inflammation.
Chronic stress contributes to inflammation. Use meditation, yoga, biofeedback, guided imagery or some other method to manage stress throughout the day.
“We may not be able to change many of the stressful situations we encounter in life, but we can change our response and perception by learning to manage stress better,” Dr. Gray says.
“It’s important to remember also that measures to reduce inflammation pay off over time with improved heath and reduced risk of chronic disease.”