Inflammation is an essential part of your immune response and helps your body defend itself against harmful things, like infections. But sometimes inflammation might happen for reasons we're not sure of. And over time it can put you at risk of developing a chronic disease, like heart disease and cancer. A healthy lifestyle can help protect you against inflammation.
- What is inflammation?
- Chronic inflammation and disease
- How to fight inflammation
- How to test for inflammation
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is an essential part of your body’s immune response — how your body defends itself against things that are harmful.
For example, if you have an infection, the cells in your body damaged by the infection release chemicals. This causes swelling and attracts white blood cells to wherever has been damaged, which gets rid of the infection. This is called an inflammatory response.
Chronic inflammation and disease
Sometimes inflammation might hang around once your body has gotten rid of the thing that was causing harm. Or inflammation might even happen for reasons we're not sure of. This type of long-term, low-grade (chronic) inflammation can damage healthy parts of your body.
The damage from chronic inflammation is thought to play a big role in the development of many diseases, like:
How to fight inflammation
Inflammation is complicated and it’s hard to pinpoint the causes. But there are lots of things you can do to try to prevent or lower the inflammation in your body — lowering your risk of developing a chronic disease.
Eat more anti-inflammatory foods
The type of foods you eat has a big effect on inflammation. Some foods increase inflammation, while others reduce it. In fact, a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods is thought to be one of the best ways to fight inflammation.
- Fruits and vegetables — aim to eat lots of different types (leafy greens, berries, and tomatoes are particularly good)
- Whole grains — like oats, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, buckwheat, and barley
- Fish — oily fish, like salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel, is particularly anti-inflammatory (because it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids)
- Nuts — like almonds and walnuts
- Olive oil
- Herbs and spices — like ginger and turmeric
Probiotics, coffee, green tea, extra dark chocolate and red wine might also help lower the inflammation in your body.
Avoid these inflammatory foods:
- Trans fats — found in things like margarine, vegetable oils, and deep-fried foods
- Vegetable oils — like corn, canola, sunflower, sesame, soybean, peanut and safflower oil
- Refined carbohydrates — like white bread, pasta, pastry, white rice and sugars like agave and high fructose corn syrup
- Red and processed meat — like beef, lamb, pork, sausages, bacon, ham, smoked meat and beef jerky
- Alcohol — moderate amounts of alcohol are fine but too much increases inflammation
When you exercise your muscles produce proteins that can help to reduce inflammation. Exercising regularly also protects you against belly fat, which is thought to increase inflammation. Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong are types of moderate physical activity that also combine behavioural therapies, like deep breathing, which lower inflammation.
If you’re overweight or obese, losing fat helps lower inflammation.
There’s a direct link between smoking and increased inflammation. Even exposure to second-hand smoke increases inflammation. After just a few weeks of no smoking, your inflammation levels are lower and your body is already well on its way to healing itself.
Lower your stress levels
Things like mindfulness, breathing exercises, and yoga are all great ways to fight chronic stress.
Increase sexual activity
Sexual activity with a partner at least once a month can help lower inflammation, particularly in men.
How to test for inflammation
The problem with chronic inflammation is that it can go undetected until something serious happens, like a heart attack. But there are some blood tests to check if you’re suffering from chronic inflammation:
- C-reactive protein (CRP) — this is a protein in your blood that’s produced when there’s inflammation in your body. This is becoming an increasingly popular way to see if you’re at risk of heart disease, especially since ~50% of people who have a heart attack have normal LDL cholesterol levels.
- IL-6 — this is what tells your liver to produce CRP and is also used to check for inflammation.
- Omega-6:3 ratio — this check to see if you’re getting the right balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Too much omega-6s and too little omega-3s causes inflammation.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) — this looks at how quickly red blood cells fall to the bottom of a test tube. The quicker they fall, the more likely you have chronic inflammation.
- Ferritin — this is used to check your iron stores but can also be used to check for inflammation.
- Tumour necrosis factor alpha (TFNα) — this helps control inflammation in your body. If there’s inflammation in your body your TFNα will be raised.
Recommended listening for you
Calder, P. C. (2006). n− 3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids, inflammation, and inflammatory diseases–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 83(6), 1505S-1519S.
Libby, P., Ridker, P. M., & Maseri, A. (2002). Inflammation and atherosclerosis. Circulation, 105(9), 1135-1143.
Ridker, P. M., Rifai, N., Rose, L., Buring, J. E., & Cook, N. R. (2002). Comparison of C-reactive protein and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels in the prediction of first cardiovascular events. New England journal of medicine, 347(20), 1557-1565.
Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy, 56(8), 365-379.
Wall, R., Ross, R. P., Fitzgerald, G. F., & Stanton, C. (2010). Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutrition reviews, 68(5), 280-289.
Woods, J. A., Wilund, K. R., Martin, S. A., & Kistler, B. M. (2012). Exercise, inflammation and aging. Aging and disease, 3(1), 130.