This term gets used a lot, but many people don’t understand what it means. Here’s how chronic inflammation harms your health and how you can prevent it.
You may have heard about inflammation, but you might not understand what it is. And that’s because the concept can be confusing. Inflammation is a natural immune-system response that can help your body fight infections.
But if your immune system stays revved up for too long, it can lead to serious health problems. That is called chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is linked to many of the most common long-term health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma.
These inflammatory diseases are responsible for more than half of all deaths worldwide, according to a study in the journal Nature Medicine. That’s a scary statistic, especially since inflammation is invisible and people don’t always know that they have it.
Here’s everything you should know about inflammation, including what you can do to help prevent it.
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What is inflammation?
Inflammation is one of your body’s defense mechanisms. And it isn’t always a bad thing. In the short-term, it’s an important part of the body’s healing process. This is called acute inflammation.
When you catch a virus, for example, your body kicks into gear to fight it. First, your immune system sends white blood cells called leukocytes to the rescue. These release toxins that attack the invading virus.
This could result in a fever, pain, or swelling. Yes, you feel sick, but your body is using inflammation to heal you. After the invading virus has been destroyed, inflammation levels lower and your body is restored to its usual state.
So why do I hear that inflammation is bad?
There are two different types of inflammation, acute and chronic. It’s chronic, not acute, inflammation that puts your health at risk. Chronic inflammation happens when your immune system continues to think there’s a threat to the body. Chronic inflammation keeps your immune system in a constant, harmful state of alertness.
Inflammation is like soldiers below the castle wall, says registered dietitian nutritionist Sonya Angelone, R.D. She is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who specializes in the treatment of chronic inflammation. “The inflammatory chemicals are like bullets, and sometimes there’s damage because of friendly fire.”
That’s why if inflammation levels stay high for long periods of time, you’ll end up with long-term tissue or organ damage.
What causes chronic inflammation to happen?
Chronic inflammation is often caused by environmental factors like air pollution and smoking. It may be partly caused by your diet, exercise and lifestyle habits too. It isn’t usually triggered by viruses, bacteria or injuries.
It can also be caused by an autoimmune disorder like type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, or rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA can make the immune system attack healthy tissues in the joints.
What are the health risks of chronic inflammation?
Inflammation is invisible, but it increases your risk for many diseases:
- Autoimmune diseases, like type 1 diabetes and lupus
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel diseases
- Mental health conditions like depression
- Type 2 diabetes
- Parkinson’s disease
- Some cancers, including colon, kidney, prostate, and lung cancers
What are the symptoms of chronic inflammation?
Acute inflammation can cause swelling, fever, and pain. Chronic inflammation, however, doesn’t always trigger any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Mouth sores
How is chronic inflammation diagnosed?
If you have a chronic condition like heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease or lupus, your doctor may test you for inflammation with a c-reactive protein (CRP) test. CRP is a protein that’s made in the liver. When you have inflammation, your body releases more of this protein into your blood.
A CRP test can track your inflammation levels. When your CRP levels are higher, you have more inflammation. If they’re lower, the inflammation is less. The test can’t tell you what’s causing the inflammation or where it’s located in the body.
How is chronic inflammation treated?
Your treatment will depend on what’s causing your inflammation. For example, if you have chronic inflammation due to inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, your doctor may prescribe a drug that will lower the activity in your immune system.
If you have an autoimmune condition, and your inflammation is located in a particular muscle or joint, your doctor may give you a steroid shot. People can usually only have three or four steroid injections a year.
In addition to medical treatments, doctors may also “prescribe” certain lifestyle changes that have been shown to help lower inflammation. We’ll cover these in more detail in some of the following questions, but key changes doctors often recommend include:
- Increase your physical activity. Aim for 150 minutes each week.
- Follow a heart-healthy eating plan. The Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet are two eating plans that are easy to adopt.
- Take steps to manage stress. Daily exercise is one good stress reliever, but you can also consider trying different mindfulness techniques, like breathing exercises or meditation. And don’t forget the healing power of staying connected with friends and loved ones.
Can exercise help with chronic inflammation?
Yes! Regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise, either cardiovascular or strength training, can help strengthen the immune system and lower inflammation levels. This is according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science.
“Exercise is a low-grade stressor that your body can handle, so your body adapts to it,” says Angelone. Regular exercise can also lower blood sugar levels and help keep people at a healthy weight. Both of these things can ease inflammation in the body.
To reap the anti-inflammatory benefits, your workouts don’t have to be super long, says Angelone. The study highlighted the power of workouts that are 60-minutes or less.
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Can diet help with chronic inflammation?
Absolutely. About 70% of your immune system is found in your gut microbiome. So it makes sense that what you eat can help ease or trigger your inflammation levels, Angelone says.
Some foods can increase inflammation in the body. These include ultra-processed foods and foods that contain a lot of sugar and saturated fats. Research from 2022 found a link between a high-inflammatory diet and a higher risk of dying from heart disease and cancer.
Which foods help reduce my risk for inflammation?
Simply put, healthy ones. There’s no specific diet plan, but the Mediterranean diet comes close. It’s low in processed foods and high in fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish, says Angelone. And research has shown that people who follow a Mediterranean diet live longer and have better heart health.
This is not a complete list, but here are foods to eat regularly to lower your chances for developing chronic inflammation:
- Cruciferous foods like brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. These are all high in flavonoids, which are plant compounds that help fight inflammation, according to a 2016 review.
- Colorful fruits like blueberries and blackberries. These contain antioxidants that can help keep chronic inflammation in check.
- Fiber-filled foods like whole grains, beans and other pulses. Eating more fiber, both the soluble and insoluble kinds, can help lower inflammation.
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel. Vegetarians can get their fatty acids in flaxseeds or chia seeds.
- Foods that contain high levels of magnesium and vitamin D. Magnesium can be found in pumpkin seeds, peanuts, almonds, spinach and soy milk, vitamin D is found in salmon and fortified milk and cereals.
Recommended reading: 7 Ways to Eat Your Way to Less Inflammation
What other lifestyle habits can help prevent chronic inflammation?
There are more ways besides exercise and watching what you eat that can help lower inflammation levels:
Limit your alcohol intake. Drinking alcohol interferes with healthy bacteria in your digestive system. This can lead to chronic inflammation. Men should have no more than two drinks a day and women should drink just one.
Manage your stress. Just like inflammation, a little bit of stress is good for you. But too much stress puts you at risk for chronic inflammation. Stress-related inflammation may play a role in heart disease, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer, according to research.
Try to ease your stress levels. It’s easier said than done, we know. One easy way to get started? Deep breathing. Press play on the video below to try a simple mindful deep breathing exercise:
Quit smoking. Smoking isn’t good for a single part of your body. Inflammation is no different. Cigarette smoke harms the immune system and also triggers an unhealthy inflammatory response in the lungs.
If you need help quitting, you might want to join a support group. You can also try nicotine-replacement therapy, like patches, gums or lozenges. The website smokefree.gov offers several free quit tools. You can also ask your doctor about prescription medications like varenicline and bupropion that can help you kick the habit.
Get enough sleep. Research shows that a lack of rest has been linked to higher levels of inflammation. Aim for seven to nine hours every night.
It’s not all about the hours, though. Sleep quality matters too. If you feel tired every morning or wake up regularly in the middle of the night, you may be sleeping poorly.
To get better sleep, try to put down any electronic devices at least an hour before bed. Also make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and not too warm. Getting more exercise during the day can also help you fall asleep more easily once you go to bed.
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