There’s no denying inflammation has a bad rap: it’s tied with stress, it usually comes with pain and discomfort, and it’s the root cause of many diseases. But PSA: not all inflammation is bad. In fact, we all have some inflammation present in our bodies that keep us healthy (more on that to come). On the flip side, chronic inflammation (read: elevated levels for extended periods of time) is the invisible culprit of many health woes (think: chronic diseases, gastrointestinal issues, depression and anxiety) that you want to avoid. But just how do you combat it? I sought out experts to get their hacks for fighting chronic inflammation. Read on to start adding them to your routine and feeling your best.
What is inflammation?
It’s neither possible nor healthy to completely eliminate inflammation in the body because ICYMI, there is “good” inflammation. “Inflammation is a biological response to injury or infection,” said Dr. Onikepe Adegbola, MD, PhD, Founder of digital gut health platform Casa de Sante. Acute inflammation (AKA the beneficial kind) “is the body’s way of protecting itself from harm and promoting healing,” Dr. Adegbola continued. “Inflammation occurs when the immune system releases white blood cells, proteins, and other chemicals into the affected area to fight off foreign invaders and repair damaged tissue. This process can cause redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function in the affected area.”
“When you get a cut or bruise, your body sends inflammatory cells to the site of the wound to begin healing,” described Dr. Casey Kelley, MD, Founder and Medical Director at Case Integrative Health. “You might feel heat or see red skin or some swelling at the site of the injury. These are all signs of inflammation, and that your body is doing what it should to keep you safe and healthy.” In other words, acute inflammation helps your body heal when you get a cut or come down with a cold and can be beneficial in the short-term.
But when inflammation persists and lingers in the body, it can develop into chronic inflammation. “We now know that chronic inflammation is a major risk factor, which if unchecked, can eventually start damaging your healthy cells, tissues, and organs, leading to cell damage,” explained Dr. Akil Palanisamy, an integrative medicine expert and author of The T.I.G.E.R. Protocol. “Over time, chronic inflammation may contribute to diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, Alzheimer’s, and others.”
Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, MD, PhD, Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer at Clearing, agreed: “Chronic inflammation could be a sign of the body ‘getting stuck’ in defense mode, attacking the wrong cells or tissues and maintaining an overly reactive immune system at the cost of your overall health.” The good news? Dr. Hascalovici said that chronic inflammation can often be prevented or controlled, and that even if you have it, there are things you can do to reduce it.
How to know if you’re dealing with chronic inflammation
You’re probably thinking the key to inflammation is as simple as pinpointing whether it’s acute or chronic, right? The short answer is no. Chronic inflammation doesn’t manifest in the form of telltale physical signs like acute inflammation does. Dr. Palanisamy cited that you may not actually realize you have chronic inflammation until you get some blood tests done through your doctor. However, some red flags to look out for include headaches, fatigue, mood issues, brain fog, joint pains, weight gain, skin rashes, and digestive issues such as gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. Dr. Hascalovici echoed that stiff joints and weakening muscles, tiredness that won’t go away, and disruptions in your digestion can be signs of chronic inflammation. Bottom line: If you suspect you have chronic inflammation symptoms, seek an evaluation from your doctor.
Tips to fight inflammation in the body
1. Be mindful of what you’re putting in your body
There’s no sugarcoating it: What you eat can either increase or decrease your body’s inflammation levels. According to Dr. Palanisamy, your gut microbiome is a key factor that regulates the level of inflammation not only in your gut but throughout your entire body. So what did he recommend to include in our diets? Cold water fish, fermented foods, vitamin D, and spices—all of which can reduce inflammation. As for what to watch out for, Dr. Palanisamy suggested minimizing processed sugar and high fructose corn syrup, cutting out trans fat often found in processed foods, and preventing excess alcohol consumption because they can disrupt gut health and contribute to inflammatory processes in the body. When in doubt, stick to a balanced and varied diet, rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, as recommended by Dr. Adegbola.
2. Incorporate movement
It should come as no surprise that diet and exercise go hand-in-hand in terms of inhibiting the inflammatory response. “Besides having dozens of health benefits in general, exercise promotes joint flexibility and blood flow, which can be related to less chronic inflammation,” Dr. Hascalovici expressed. “Yoga, in particular, has been shown to provide relief for arthritis pain and restore mobility in clinical trials. Even just a stretching routine in the morning can help reduce inflammation levels.”
A 2017 study found that just 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (in this case, walking on a treadmill) can have an anti-inflammatory effect. Go on a Hot Girl Walk and check off exercising and soaking up some vitamin D on your to-do list, be a Pilates girl, or hit the gym for some good ol’ fashioned primal movement exercises. Just be mindful of not going overboard on exercise. Too much intense exercise can lead to higher levels of inflammatory mediators, and thus might increase the risk of chronic inflammation. Listen to your body, take rest days regularly, and mix cardio or strength training with lower impact workouts like walking and yoga throughout the week.
3. Get enough sleep
Work emails, TikTok, and season 4 of You can wait. “Make sure you’re starting the day with a full night’s rest,” Dr. Hascalovici recommended. “Sleep is often overlooked when it comes to controlling inflammation, and yet getting adequate sleep (usually around 8 hours) helps your body repair itself and reset, stabilize your mood, and handle stress better, all of which means you’re likely to have less inflammation.” Translation: When you get quality Zzzs, your body is able to properly regulate and reduce inflammation. So if quality shut-eye is the missing link in your wellness routine, consider this a sign to unplug and wind down for at least 30 minutes before bedtime (that means no scrolling!), keep your bedroom at a cool 65°F- 72°F, and aim for at least 7-9 hours of blissful sleep a night to keep chronic inflammation away.
4. Reduce stress
We can all attest to how stress is detrimental to our mental and physical health (hello, anxiety and digestive drama)—all the more reason to pay attention to your stress levels and practice self-care to reduce daily stressors and “bad” inflammation. “Prolonged high levels of stress or anxiety are associated with inflammation,” Dr. Kelley confirmed. “Try to incorporate some form of deep breathing and take (at least) a few minutes to yourself each day.”
“After prolonged exposure to the chemicals released by the body when it’s under stress, the body’s immune system can weaken,” Dr. Hascalovici explained. “Stress can also contribute to cellular damage and changes in how your genes function, which can increase inflammation.” The solution? Practice relaxation techniques like restorative yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or a lymphatic massage—anything that will help you chill TF out.
5. Identify and address allergens
PSA: Exposure to certain foods and environments alike can spur on inflammation. “If you are allergic or intolerant of some food or something else in your environment, it can keep inflammation activated,” explained Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson, a functional medicine doctor and author of Vibrant: A Groundbreaking Program to Get Energized, Own Your Health, and Glow. “Start to pay attention to what triggers a response in you. Do you always feel a little sick after eating eggs, does milk give you a stomachache, or do you feel unwell in certain environments?”
It can be as simple as being on the lookout for any cues your body gives, getting a blood test, finding alternatives to foods you love but don’t agree with your body, and making edits to your wellness routine as well as your home and office. Maybe that looks like keeping a food journal, incorporating more plant-based meals in your weekly rotation, swapping out traditional cosmetics and household products for clean, non-toxic substitutes, or buying an air filter for your bedroom. Before you know it, the small changes you’ve added to the mix will add up. Inflammation, be gone!
Please consult a doctor or a mental health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.