Inflammation is a proven killer but there are simple things you can do to fight it off.
Inflammation is more than a buzzword; it’s one of the ways your body protects itself. “Inflammation is a general response to some kind of stress that’s being placed on the body,” says inflammation expert Tom Shook, PA, of Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California. “White blood cells and other chemicals are mobilized to an area to combat whatever injury there is.”
The problem comes when the immune response continues after the damage is cleared up, or if there is no damage in the first place. If inflammation goes too far, or goes on for too long, it can contribute to serious health problems, from cancer to heart disease to depression.
So, what can you do about inflammation? Here are seven natural ways to fight back.
Get up and move
You know that soreness you feel after a workout? That’s inflammation, but a temporary, non-harmful kind. Studies show that exercising regularly actually reduces the other kind — the bad inflammation in your blood vessels that leads to heart disease and various problems. In fact, a small March 2017 study found that even one moderate 20-minute cardio session helped reduce this bad inflammation.
Researchers think that some of the chemicals released during exercise counteract the effects of the chemicals that increase inflammation. “Plus, you secrete hormones and neurotransmitters that can cause you to experience a sense of well-being,” If you’re new to exercise or have been out of the game for a while, start with a brisk walk and go from there.
Related: Walk Faster, Live Longer
Add inflammation to the long list of health risks from smoking. “Smoking affects every cell in your body,” Shook says. “The tobacco burning itself and the byproducts are both hugely inflammatory.”
Quitting is hard — the US Surgeon General’s office declared nicotine to be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. Still, it’s one of the best things you can do to cut your chances of disease — and reduce inflammation. In fact, one small study of women at risk for heart disease found that signs of inflammation were lower in the weeks after quitting. Setting a quit date can help you put the smokes down for good.
Get enough shut-eye
“Sleep is restorative,” says Shook. “It allows your body to rebuild and repair itself.” Research suggests that not getting enough sleep can raise inflammatory markers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night.
But be careful — it may not be as simple as the more sleep, the better. A 2016 meta-analysis published in Biological Psychiatry suggests that sleeping for a very long time was also associated with more signs of inflammation.
Related: Tell Me Why…I Dream
Cut your stress levels
In the distant past, stress helped our ancestors fight off or flee from hungry predators. It’s still a trigger of that important fight-or-flight response, but times have changed. Now, while there are still plenty of serious things to worry about, some stressors are more like: Did I pay the electric bill on time? Will I be late to work? Can I get the kids to soccer practice?
“What you have is this chronic low-grade stress,” says Shook. "But the body’s still interpreting it with the fight-or-flight mechanism." Though there's evidence the stress hormone cortisol helps keep inflammation at bay, when stress levels are chronically high, cells develop a tolerance, cortisol can’t do its job as well — and inflammation goes unchecked. This constant tension can harm your physical and mental health, leading to conditions like heart disease and depression.
Shook recommends meditation as one effective strategy for cutting stress. A few minutes of meditation is enough to get started.
Free radicals are nasty little molecules that harm cells on a subatomic level. If there are too many around and they do enough damage, free radicals can even kill cells, leading to chronic inflammation.
But free radicals have natural predators known as antioxidants, which can stop the cell death process and help prevent inflammation. What’s the best way to get antioxidants? Food, says Shook, especially plants. “Eating a diet rich in fresh, plant-based products will provide you with enough nutrition and antioxidants to combat those cellular stresses,” he adds. Antioxidant-rich nibbles include berries, nuts, tea, coffee, and high-cocoa chocolate.
Avoid certain carbs (especially added sugar)
“Anybody dealing with or who wants to prevent chronic inflammation should get sugar out of their diets as much as they can,” says Shook. Added sugar and refined grains may trigger the release of chemicals that cause inflammation, and also limit anti-inflammation molecules. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of added sugar a day for men and 25 grams for women. Consider reducing the amount of sugar in your diet.
Pop an aspirin
Certain powerful prescription drugs can lower inflammation, but plain old aspirin can also do the trick. A healthcare provider might recommend a daily regimen of aspirin for someone between the ages of 45 and 75. Aspirin blocks some of the chemicals, known as prostaglandins, that cause inflammation. However, it has the potential for side effects such as stomach bleeding and allergic reactions, so it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider before taking it regularly.