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Chronic inflammation can lead to a host of health problems. But you can help control — or even reverse — it with this plan.
Despite its gloomy name, inflammation isn’t always bad.
When a virus, bacteria or toxin threatens your body, your immune system quickly mounts a defense, sending antibodies to fight it and promote healing.
During this healthy response, “immune cells rush to the area,” says Sonya Angelone, M.S., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who specializes in inflammatory conditions. These cells flag the affected area and release special molecules to get rid of the “outsider” and help protect you from infections, she explains.
This is what happens with acute inflammation. It’s a brief, intense reaction — like the warmth, redness and swelling that comes with an injury, or the fever you get with an illness. The key: It’s short term.
But when inflammation is ongoing, that’s when it may cause serious problems.
Inflammation That Won’t Go Away
As opposed to acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is a drawn-out reaction. Your immune system is in fight mode for so long that your inflammatory response starts hurting you instead of the unwanted pathogen.
Chronic inflammation, explains Angelone, motivates your immune system to trigger an inflammatory response when there’s no actual danger. Now, instead of playing the role of protector, the immune system may go after healthy cells and tissues. That can result in health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of arthritis and certain cancers.
Some causes of chronic inflammation are out of your control. These include autoimmune disorders, or conditions where your immune system misidentifies healthy tissue as somehow dangerous. Long-term exposure to environmental irritants and toxins can prompt chronic inflammation, too.
Lifestyle choices — mainly what you eat, but also factors like smoking — can also trigger chronic inflammation. This is where you have some control. Use these steps to help manage and even prevent chronic inflammation.
Step #1: Rethink Your Plate
Eating a healthy, mostly plant-based diet is one of the best strategies to keeping chronic inflammation in check. A simple guideline: Choose foods that are as close to whole and unprocessed as possible, says Angelone.
Adding inflammation-fighters is half of the equation; the other is avoiding or greatly limiting foods that promote inflammation. Use this quick guide when you’re planning your meals.
Foods That Fight Inflammation
Fruits and vegetables. Blueberries, apples, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are examples of foods rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and compounds known to be anti-inflammatory.
Fiber-filled foods. Both soluble fiber (found in foods like beans and legumes) and insoluble fiber (found in whole grains and fresh vegetables) help in two ways. First, a high-fiber diet can help you lose weight (if needed) and improve gut health, both of which help ease inflammation and lower your risk for heart disease.
But some studies also show that people who eat high-fiber diets have lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in their blood. CRP is a marker that indicates inflammation, and it has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
Green and black tea. Compounds known as polyphenols in these types of tea help prevent the formation of free radicals, according to the National Cancer Institute. When free radicals build up in cells, they may cause damage that can lead to inflammation-linked diseases, such as hardening and narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and some cancers.
Oily fish. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids — which include salmon, mackerel and sardines — are smart dietary choices, because omega-3s are associated with lowering inflammatory markers, says Angelone. Aim to eat at least two servings a week.
Foods That Worsen Inflammation
Processed foods. Packaged cookies and cakes, chips, crackers and frozen meals are often high in unhealthy fats, sodium and added sugar, and low in fiber and other nutrients.
Not only have they been linked to inflammation, but according to the Mayo Clinic, they may actually promote chronic inflammation. In addition, says Angelone, “they may not retain the nutrients from the original food.”
Foods high in added sugar. “High-sugar foods can increase uric acid levels, which drive inflammation and can lead to insulin resistance,” explains Angelone. (Insulin resistance, in turn, can give rise to diabetes.)
Two more reasons to minimize the sweet stuff: 1) Sugar in all its forms (white sugar as well as ingredients like fructose and high-fructose corn syrup) contributes to the growth of bacteria that release inflammatory proteins in your gut. And 2) Excess sugar stimulates your liver to make fatty acids, which can produce inflammation, Angelone says.
Foods high in saturated fats. For one thing, these fats — plentiful in red meat, dairy and coconut — can increase bad cholesterol and negatively impact heart health. For another, a 2016 study published in the journal Cell Reports suggests that saturated fats cause an inappropriate inflammatory response.
Step #2: Exercise Regularly
People who exercise regularly are more likely to keep their weight in check, which may help them avoid inflammation-linked conditions such as cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Even more compellingly, research from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine shows that even a modest, 20-minute exercise session produces an anti-inflammatory response in the body.
A daily walk, which was used in the study, is a great form of moderate-intensity exercise. For a different kind of cardio, try the 20-minute Break a Sweat Workout plan website. It also builds muscle, which is a nice bonus.
Step #3: Find Ways to Unwind
It’s not just poor food choices or a sedentary lifestyle that can send your body into attack mode. Angelone says stress can, too.
How it happens: The stress hormone cortisol plays a key role in regulating your inflammatory response, notes research from Carnegie Mellon University. But stress that goes unchecked (aka chronic stress) restricts cortisol’s ability to do its job, meaning inflammation can run wild.
That’s where coping techniques come in. If you don’t have a favorite way to unwind, it’s time to find some new relaxation tricks. Exercising is one good way to blow off steam. But it’s certainly not the only thing you can try — watching funny videos, playing with a pet, journaling, doing a hobby and meditating are other actions that give your mind a chance to rest.
Extra Step, if Needed: Quit Smoking
There are countless arguments for not using tobacco — one of which is reducing the negative effects of inflammation.
Though doctors have long understood that smoking increases inflammation, it’s only recently that research uncovered the link. In 2016, a team of scientists from the U.S. and Sweden found that nicotine activated certain white blood cells (called neutrophils), which released inflammatory molecules. If you'd like to break the habit, talk to your health care provider.
Need Help Quitting?
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