Research shows that inflammation is often the root cause of major diseases in the body. Learn how to defend yours from it daily and with ease.
inflammation fruits and vegetables
Credit: Paola + Murray

Inflammation is the health buzzword of our time. It's linked to just about every ailment and disease, and to countless diets promising to reverse it. But what causes the condition, and can we really quell it?

The real culprit is chronic inflammation, an ongoing immune response triggered by stress, processed foods, poor sleep, and other modern-day menaces. Essentially, your body is pumping out white blood cells to protect you from perceived threats. (Acute inflammation, on the other hand, is a helpful, temporary influx that helps heal a paper cut or fight a cold.)

Persistently heightened levels of white blood cells and their by-products (like cytokines, proteins that can trigger inflammatory reactions) can damage tissues and organs and impair immune function, says Christopher D'Adamo, Ph.D., director at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. That damage can outwardly manifest in symptoms like skin rashes and persistent joint pain, fatigue, or digestive problems—and contribute to diseases including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and depression.

Mounting research shows that you can, however, mitigate and even prevent the chronic type with simple, sustainable lifestyle adjustments like these.

1. Avoid Excess Sugar

The occasional scoop of ice cream is A-OK, but too many high-glycemic foods (treats and snacks with lots of added sugars and refined carbs) can cause your blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly after eating. Oxidative stress can also ensue, which is when unstable free radicals outnumber the body's antioxidant defenses and contribute to cell and tissue damage, sparking inflammation.

Eat with Balance in Mind

"To avoid blood-sugar spikes, aim to eat a balance of food groups at most meals," says Desiree Nielsen, RD, a registered dietitian specializing in inflammatory and digestive diseases and the author of Good for Your Gut. She suggests filling a quarter of your plate with starchy vegetables (like sweet potatoes) or whole grains, half with other produce, and the last quarter with plant or animal protein. Garnish with good fats like olive oil, nuts, or seeds (more on these foods in a sec).

2. Consume Foods That Fight Inflammation

By now, you know to eat the rainbow every day. But within that spectrum, certain plant-based foods specifically target inflammation. The reason is they're rich in phytochemicals, which work like antioxidants to combat oxidative stress and keep certain proteins from turning on inflammatory genes, explains Britt Burton-Freeman, Ph.D., director at the Center for Nutrition Research at Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago.

Colorful, Aromatic Foods Are Best

These helpers, which include flavonoids and carotenoids, are abundant in deeply pigmented, aromatic foods like citrus, berries, tomatoes, red cabbage, broccoli, dark leafy greens, parsley, garlic, ginger, dark chocolate, turmeric, and tea. Turmeric, for example, may calm inflammation with curcuminoid compounds, while blueberries contain flavonoids called anthocyanins. And cruciferous and allium vegetables (cauliflower, onions) can help support the liver's natural detoxification mechanisms, says Nielsen, meaning they may help the body eliminate pro-inflammatory environmental toxicants you've been exposed to via air pollution and cleaning products.

But here's real news you can use: More colors deliver more oomph. A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry in 2019 found that when some phyto-chemicals were consumed together, their anti-inflammatory effects were enhanced. Bottom line: Throw bright ingredients into every meal.

3. Care for Your Gut

When bad bacteria (including potentially harmful pathogens like E. coli) are disproportionate to good ones, we can develop gut dysbiosis. This condition lets harmful substances (toxins produced by gut bacteria) to leak from the intestines into the bloodstream, which can cause chronic inflammation throughout the body, according to gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, MD, author of The Fiber Fueled Cookbook.

Consume Probiotic-Rich Foods

Anything from saturated fats to stress can drive this process, but plants help undo it. When good bacteria feed on the fiber in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains, they produce short-chain fatty acids shown to "rebalance the gut microbiome and repair injury to the gut barrier," says Dr. Bulsiewicz. Fermented foods (like kombucha and kefir) are beneficial, too. In a study published in the journal Cell in 2021, subjects who started eating probiotic-rich fermented foods increased healthy microbial diversity in their guts, and lowered levels of inflammatory compounds.

Avocado toast and a halved avocado on wooden table
Credit: Getty Images

4. Eat Superfats

Opt for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated (from fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil) rather than saturated (common in fried foods). In high quantities (more than 13 grams a day, for most people—think a bacon cheeseburger), the latter may decrease the diversity of beneficial microbes in your gut, priming you for a flare-up. Too many omega-6 fats relative to omega-3s can also fan the flames. Both are essential polyunsaturated fats, but most of us get a surplus of omega-6s, because oils rich in them (soybean, safflower, and corn) are used in countless processed foods, says Dr. D'Adamo. Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish, seaweed, and seeds, which we tend to eat less often.

Balance the Fat Ratio

To balance the ratio, opt for more whole foods, including twice-weekly servings of salmon, mackerel, or sardines, or three tablespoons a day of walnuts or hemp, flax, or chia seeds, says Nielsen. Sprinkle them on salad or yogurt, or blend them into a smoothie.

5. Move More

Working out causes normal, short-term bouts of acute inflammation (which help your muscles repair and grow), but it can also have net benefits over time. In a study published in Gut Microbes in 2021, Dr. Bulsiewicz and colleagues at the University of Nottingham, in the U.K., found that just 15 minutes of strength training a day led to changes in the gut microbiome associated with higher levels of short-chain fatty acids and reduced inflammatory markers. Exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight, which is important because excess fat tissue releases pro-inflammatory cytokines.

Aim for 30 Minutes of Daily Exercise

Try to fit in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a day, such as brisk walking, yard work, swimming, or weight lifting. But don't overdo it, especially if you have an inflammatory condition, like an autoimmune disease. Training too intensely can impair immune function—i.e., backfire.

6. Get Quality Sleep

Quality shut-eye helps your body regulate cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone secreted in response to stressful events to boost alertness and prime you for physical activity. When it flows unchecked, it may increase inflammation. Stress also often leads to poor eating habits, compromised immune function, and digestive issues—all of which contribute to chronic inflammation.

Develop a Sleep Baseline

So prioritize good rest. Set your thermostat to between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, try to get seven to nine hours a night, and keep your bedtime and wake-up times consistent. From that baseline, implementing other stress busters, like yoga, meditation, and crafting, will feel worlds easier.

Food Styling by Greg Lofts; Prop Styling by Tanya Graff


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