What is Inflammation?
The word inflammation comes from the Latin “inflammo“, meaning “I set alight, I ignite”.
It has been a buzzword in health trends recently, and for good reason.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to protect itself from harm.
Without the inflammatory response, further damage may continue to occur throughout the body and infected area. However, sometimes inflammation can become harmful.
There are two different types of inflammation. They are…
The first state of inflammation is called irritation and it occurs when an infected area on or inside of the body becomes inflamed.
This is the immediate healing process.
Acute inflammation is beneficial in situations where a knee injury is sustained (from falling, for example) and the tissues are damaged and need to be cared for.
Acute inflammation starts rapidly and can become severe quite quickly. It is usually localized to a specific site of injury.
It typically only lasts from a few days to weeks.
Examples of situations, diseases and conditions that result in acute inflammation include but are not limited to:
- Acute sinusitis (3)
- Infected ingrown toenail
- Acute tonsillitis
- Acute bronchitis
- Intense exercise (4)
- Flu or cold
The Five Cardinal Signs of Acute Inflammation
Acute inflammation can be characterized by the following five cardinal signs (5):
- Redness: Increased blood flow to the inflamed area
- Increased heat: Increased blood flow to the inflamed area
- Swelling: Accumulation of fluid
- Pain: Release of chemicals that stimulate the nerve endings
- Loss of function: Combination of factors
These signs occur when acute inflammation happens on the surface of the body.
If acute inflammation occurs internally of the organs, not all of the signs will be apparent. For instance, there can only be pain when there are enough sensory nerve endings in the inflamed site, therefore inflammation of the lung would not cause pain.
Sometimes inflammation can become self-perpetuating. Meaning inflammation will be created in response to the inflammation that is already occurring in the body (6). This is chronic inflammation and it is long lasting.
It can also result from failure of the body to eliminate what was causing the acute inflammation or a chronic irritant that persists. However, it is not always known what causes the body to become inflamed in the first place.
A chronic inflammatory response often occurs in conditions like autoimmune diseases, such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (7)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (8)
- Chronic peptic ulcer
- Chronic sinusitis (9)
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Inflammation begins when pro-inflammatory hormones in the body call out for white blood cells that fix damaged tissue or clear out an infection. These are matched by as equally powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that move in once the threat is neutralized.
When this healthy mechanism goes wrong, it doesn’t shut off (chronic inflammation).
Chronic inflammation is a major factor in many of the leading causes of death in the United States (10).
There are several factors that can cause inflammation, such as:
- Advanced glycation end products due to elevated blood sugar levels
- Oxidized lipoproteins (such as low-density lipoprotein)
- Mitochondrial dysfunction
- Uric acid crystals
Chronic inflammation can be triggered by cellular dysfunction and stress. This can be caused by oxidative stress, excessive calorie consumption and elevated blood sugar levels.
Stress induced inflammation can remain undetected for years once triggered, propagating cell death in the body
The silent state of chronic inflammation has been coined “inflammaging” (11).
Signs of Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can reveal itself in a variety of ways.
The symptoms listed below alone are not the grounds for self-diagnosis. It’s always important to address any health problems that you may have with a health practitioner.
However, being aware of them is invaluable. The signs of chronic inflammation are:
- Depression: Inflammation is believed to be the cause of depression. This claim has been backed by the scientist Andrew Miller, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory School of Medicine (12).
- Digestive issues: Diarrhea, pains, cramps and bloating are thought to be symptoms of ongoing inflammation inside your body.
- Fatigue: If you’re exhausted on days when you’ve gotten enough sleep, inflammation could be the culprit. Inflamed cells are sick cells and they can’t produce the energy that you need to keep going throughout the day (13).
- Skin problems: Itching and redness on the skin are classic signs of internal inflammation. They can be caused by autoimmune diseases, allergies or liver issues. Psoriasis, a chronic skin disease, is also a sign of inflammation (14).
- Allergies: The symptoms of allergies (redness, itching and pain) is your immune response to usually harmless substances. Watery eyes and a running nose are signs that you are chronically inflamed.
Read on to find out how you can reduce chronic inflammation and the risk of future health problems occurring.
Top 15 Ways to Reduce Inflammation Naturally
Making changes to your diet can be a powerful way to spur off inflammation (15).
Since emerging research is focusing on the link between inflammation and the list of chronic diseases we previously mentioned, it’s important that you influence your health in positive ways.
Below is a list of 20 ways that can help you take control of inflammation.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids and they are necessary for optimal human health. The body cannot make them and therefore they must come from the food we eat or through supplementation (16).
Most people are aware that omega-3 fatty acids come from fish and that they have remarkable health-protecting benefits.
They are reported to have anti-inflammatory effects in humans and also thought to be useful in the management of autoimmune diseases (17).
2. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil can boost metabolism and reduce helping you lose weight over a long period of time.
It contains medium chain fats, which lead to the weight loss and reduced waist circumference (18). Visceral fat, also known as abdominal fat is the fat that tends to lodge around your organs and can cause inflammation (19).
Therefore consuming coconut oil will reduce your belly fat and in return lower the levels of inflammation in your body.
3. Eat a Diet Low in Omega-6 Rich Foods
Omega-6 Fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fats. An imbalance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the diet causes chronic inflammation (20).
They can be found in vegetable oils such as sunflower, soybean and safflower. Unfortunately these oils are found in almost every food we eat, prolific in the modern Western diet.
An easy way to cut omega-6 out of your diet is by reducing store bought fries or restaurant cooked meals you eat.
4. Identify and Address Food Sensitivities
In this lifetime food allergies and sensitive and increased dramatically, with as many as 15 million Americans suffering from food allergies (21).
An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system and this releases antibodies and triggers inflammation. The symptoms can be both dramatic and acute, ranging from:
Removing the food that you are allergic to or have a sensitivity towards will help you in identifying the cause of your inflammation. Once the food is removed, your symptoms should subside and then you will know how you should change your eating habits in order to remain healthy.
The key is to know your body well enough so that you are able to tell the signs and then respond appropriately.
7-9 hours of sleep a night is considered the normal sleep duration for adults (24). This varies based on age, activity level and overall health.
A loss of sleep causes physical changes in our bodies and brains, with the levels of inflammatory markers in the blood like C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) increasing.
Getting this amount of sleep per night is crucial in avoiding long term inflammation (25).
Tomatoes are a nightshade vegetable and they contain a lot of nutrients. They are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K, copper, folate biotin and much more (26).
Turmeric is delicious yellow spice. It is common in Indian cuisine and you can find it in almost every grocery store.
It has received a lot of attention for containing the powerful anti-inflammatory nutrient, curcumin. Since it is able to reduce inflammation, it has anti-diabetic activity (29).
Eating it with black pepper enhances its effects. Black pepper boosts the absorption of curcumin by 2000%, as it contains piperine (30).
Peppers, including chili peppers and bell peppers, are low in calories and fat.
Peppers are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C, which has anti-inflammatory effects (31). Chilli peppers also contain capsaicin. Capsaicin reduces a Substance P. Capsaicin, which is a specific pain transmitter in your nerves. This may relieve arthritis.
Cayenne pepper is derived from peppers and can be made at home in a few steps (32).
There are over a dozen of varieties of berries, some of these include:
Berries contain anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory effects and activity. They also have the potential to protect against disease (35).
Garlic is used in many cuisines around the world to add flavor. It has also been used as a natural remedy for colds and other illness for years.
For the most benefits, consume garlic raw. You can simply eat it on its own, but it’s best not to chew it while doing so.
A study showed that if an avocado is eaten with a hamburger, the inflammatory response was limited in comparison to eating the hamburger without the avocado (38).
Avocados are a great source of phytosterols, alpha-linolenic acid, healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber. A compound found in the avocado has also been shown to reduce inflammation in young cells (39).
Avocados can be consumed in supplement form – avocado/soybean unsaponifiables (ASU) are natural vegetable extracts made from avocado and soybean oils. ASUs may prove to be an effective treatment option for symptomatic Osteoarthritis (40).
Onions have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (41). They are also loaded with healthy compounds that help fight inflammation in arthritis.
Onions are a source of flavonoids, in particular the flavonol Quercetin, which exerts anti-inflammatory effects (42).
Onions exhibit antimicrobial activity against a range of fungi and bacteria.
13. Green Tea
While white and black tea also contains polyphenols, Green tea has the highest polyphenol content (45).
Improvements in diseases such as colitis and arthritis in Asia have been contributed to the consumption of green tea.
14. Dark Chocolate
So many of us love chocolate. The good news is, a certain type of chocolate is anti-inflammatory – dark chocolate. It contains flavanols, which are responsible for its anti-inflammatory effects (46).
The amount of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties in dark chocolate depends on the processing. Always choose unprocessed cacao, which is unsweetened and natural.
Healthy dieting alone may not be enough to avoid inflammation. Regular exercise reduces markers of generalized, systemic inflammation such as C-reactive protein (47). C-reactive protein is a blood test marker for inflammation in the body.
However you do not need to take part in intense exercise to feel the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise. Studies have shown that individuals who walk more present a low inflammatory status (48).
The 7 Most Effective Anti-Inflammatory Spices
Spice up your meals and bring down your inflammation with these proven anti-inflammatory spices. Not only will they enhance the flavor of your food, but they also contain potent plant-based compounds for a thriving life.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a type of ginger grown in Southeast Asia. While you can enjoy this root fresh, most people use it in powder form. It adds a deep orange hue to meals and has a warm, pepper-like flavor that makes it popular in curries and similar dishes.
Approximately 3% of turmeric is made up of a medicinal compound known as curcumin. (49) Curcumin is incredibly anti-inflammatory.
In fact, studies have found that it can be just as effective as anti-inflammatory drugs. Just as importantly, researchers say curcumin has none of the side effects of common anti-inflammatory medications. (50)
An additional benefit of the curcumin in turmeric is its ability to neutralize free radicals as a powerful antioxidant. (51) This may help your body to heal the damage caused by chronic inflammation.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) adds zest to any meal, and is commonly used in Asian-inspired dishes. This root has been used for more than 2,000 years in Chinese medicine to treat everything from nausea to upset stomachs to arthritis. (52) The latter, which is a common inflammation-related disease, highlights ginger’s anti-inflammatory benefits.
Without getting into the nitty gritty details, ginger suppresses the various compounds in your body that trigger inflammation. (53) Scientists report that people often find the soothing effects of ginger to be just as effective as medications from their doctor.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.) adds festive excitement to both sweet and savoury dishes. From baked goods to smoothies and coffee, it’s a spice that’s easy to incorporate into your daily life.
Cinnamon is high in polyphenols, a powerful type of antioxidant. Researchers reviewed 26 healthy spices and found that cinnamon’s antioxidant activity outperformed all other spices in the report. (54)
This high level of polyphenol content may help reduce the causes and symptoms of inflammation. (55)
For the best results, use Ceylon cinnamon (so-called “true” cinnamon) instead of Cassia cinnamon. (56) The Cassia variety is cheaper but carries potential side effects if you eat too much.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is related to onions and chives, and was used in traditional medicine as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians. Archaeologists have found evidence of garlic buried deep within the pyramids, and today it’s used to treat everything from heart disease to the common cold. (57)
Garlic is rich in a compound known as thiacremonone. According to researchers, this compound is effective at reducing inflammation, and can even help with inflammation-related diseases like arthritis. (58)
Heat up your tastebuds with cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum), a Brazilian chili pepper with a spiciness of 30,000-50,000 Scoville units.
The active component in the pepper which gives it its burning flavor comes from capsaicinoids. It’s technically irritant, but it can also reduce inflammation. (59)
6. Black pepper
Need to tone down the heat from cayenne? Try black pepper (Piper nigrum) instead.
Pepper’s piperine compounds, which give it its bold flavor, have also been shown in studies to help reduce your body’s response to inflammation-provoking situations. (60) Consider pairing pepper with other anti-inflammatory spices. For example, eating pepper and turmeric together can increase the effectiveness of turmeric. (61)
Cloves come from the sweet-smelling flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. They’re commonly used in Indonesian cooking, which is where the trees commonly grow.
A growing body of research is pinpointing the benefits of cloves. For example, scientists say it may help reduce topical pain. (62) And another study, this one done on mice, found that cloves reduce inflammation. (63)
10 Most Common Foods That Spark Inflammation
You are what you eat, and research has highlighted how the common North American diet is rich in foods and ingredients that cause inflammation. If you want to minimize existing inflammation, or prevent inflammation in the first place, consider going on an inflammation detox diet that eliminates the following foods.
There are different sugar limits depending on who you ask, but one thing is for sure: Americans eat far too much sugar. For example, the American Heart Association recommends capping your sugar intake at 10 teaspoons a day, but the average adult eats more than twice that daily. (64)
That adds up to a whopping 130 pounds of sugar a year.
Sugar causes your body to release cytokines, which can increase the level of inflammation in your body. (65) Common sneaky sources of sugar include salad dressing, pasta sauce and soups.
2. Vegetable Oil
Ideally, your diet should consist of a ratio of 1 to 1 when it comes to omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, most people in North America have a ratio of 16 to 1, warns scientists. (66) This means most people are getting far too much omega-6 fats, and this fat imbalance can prompt inflammation.
One of the biggest sources of omega-6 fats is vegetable oil, whether it’s used in dressings or to fry food. Avoid corn, soy, sunflower, palm or safflower oil, and try using cold-pressed virgin olive oil instead.
3. Fried Foods
Fried foods carry a double risk. First, they’re often high in vegetable oil. Second, high heat can cause the creation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are very inflammatory. (67)
4. Refined Flour
Whole grains contain anti-inflammatory compounds, but the same can’t be said about refined flour. (68) Refined flour has been stripped of much of its health benefits, and are high in compounds such as lectins that provoke inflammation throughout your body.
A genetic mutation means most people can’t digest milk. (69) By some estimates, only 30-40% of humans are able to process the lactose in milk.
While the research is conflicting, numerous studies have found that dairy increases low-grade inflammation and might even increase your risks of needing arthritis-related hip replacement surgery. (70)
6. Artificial Additives and Sweeteners
From fake fruit flavors to non-sugar sweeteners to food dyes, a lot of processed foods carry sneaky additives. For some people, these additives can trigger an immune response. The body might sense their presence and send attack cells, which in turn provokes inflammation. (71)
Read the labels of any processed foods you buy, and always aim to eat food as close to the way nature intended it to be.
7. Saturated Fats
No more than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, and the risks of going overboard include heart disease and elevated risks of many other serious health conditions. (72)
Numerous studies have demonstrated how eating saturated fat triggers inflammation in your fat tissue, which is linked to increased arthritis inflammation. (73)
The Arthritis Foundation reports that some of the most common sources of saturated fats in the average person’s diet include cheese, pizza, pasta, dessert and red meat.
When is a steak not a steak? When the cows were raised differently.
What a cow ate throughout its life impacts the health and quality of its meat. Take beef as an example. A single 3.5-ounce serving of conventional grain-fed beef contains 38.5mg of inflammation-reducing omega-3 fatty acids.
In contrast, the amount in grass-fed beef jumps up to more than 93mg. The same is true for eggs, salmon and other farmed animal products. (76)
If possible, limit your intake of animal-based protein as much as possible. And when you do choose to eat meat, aim for grass-fed meat.
9. Trans Fat Foods
Companies are slowly phasing out trans fats, but you’ll still find it lurking in packaged baked goods, frozen pizza, non-dairy shakes and frostings, etc. Check the labels, and avoid any foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils.
10. Fast Foods
Eating fast foods is a fast way to experience inflammation. They tend to contain many of the above ingredients: fried foods, cooking oil, trans fats, saturated fats, and processed conventionally fed meat.
If there is one meal that manages to pack most of these proinflammatory foods together, it’s fast food. If you absolutely must have a meal at a fast food restaurant, try and check the calories and ingredients in advance so you know what your healthiest options are when you arrive.
13 Easy-to-Follow Food Rules To Avoid Inflammation
Not sure how to implement the wide array of research that’s out there? Break it down into small daily habits to make your new anti-inflammation diet easy to follow.
1. Eat More Fiber
The average male needs 30-38 grams of fiber a day, while the average female needs 21 grams.
Unfortunately, the typical American only eats 16 grams of daily fiber. (79) A high-fiber, whole foods diet naturally contains more inflammation-fighting phytonutrients due to your increased intake of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Fiber can also boost digestion and help your body eliminate unhealthy substances that may provoke inflammation.
2. Eat 9 Servings of Veggies and Fruits Daily
One cup of raw leafy greens, or 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables or fruits, constitutes a serving.
Increasing the amount of plant-based foods you eat raises your intake of fiber and antioxidants. It also means you’re likely eating less of inflammation-causing unhealthy foods.
3. Eat More Crucifers and Alliums
Alliums include herbs like garlic (which is a powerful anti-inflammatory), and crucifers include high-fiber veggies like kale and broccoli.
Try to eat at least four servings of these veggies/herbs a week. And if you’re cooking them, don’t forget to add a pinch of cayenne, pepper and the other anti-inflammatory herbs discussed in this article.
4. Limit Saturated Fat
To avoid inflammation, and reduce your risks of heart disease and other serious health maladies, limit your saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of your daily calories.
For a 2000 calorie diet, that is approximately 16 grams of saturated fats a day. (80) This adds up quickly. A piece of bacon gets you 9 grams of saturated fat. A tablespoon of butter has 7 grams. And a 12-ounce steak has 20 grams.
5. Eat More Fish
Fish is high in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. Aim to eat fish, such as salmon, three times a week.
And just like with your veggies, use this as an opportunity to incorporate anti-inflammatory herbs and spices into your diet.
6. Cook With Healthy Oils
Avoid vegetable oils, which throw your omega-6 fatty acid ratio out of balance. Instead, opt for oils like olive oil or coconut oil. Keep in mind that “healthy” oils still contain a lot of fat. Use sparingly.
7. Eat Healthy Snacks
Snacks can be a way for excess calories to sneak into your diet, but if you’re a snacker, shift towards healthier snacks.
Ideas include unsweetened fruit, nuts (they’re high in inflammation-reducing healthy fats) and veggie sticks.
8. Avoid Overly Processed or Sweetened Foods
When you eat whole foods that are as close to the way they appear in nature, you dramatically improve the levels of antioxidants, fiber and other beneficial compounds in your diet.
When you’re buying food, always pick the option that has the least amount of processing. Also, check the ingredients label for sugar, keeping in mind that it might be masquerading under another name (e.g. evaporated cane juice).
9. Eliminate Trans Fats
Trans fats are the worst type of fats. From margarine to cookies, you’ll find trans fats in anything that contains “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” oil. If you see this on a food or snack you like, switch it out for a healthier whole foods alternative.
10. Get Creative With Flavors
Think outside the box. Many of the foods discussed in this article bring with them anti-inflammation benefits and can be used in all of your meals to add texture, flavor or even sweetness.
For example, instead of sweetening your food with honey or sugar, try increasing the sweetness of your overall meal with fruit, yams or carrots.
Likewise, try to add at least one anti-inflammatory spice to each meal, whether it’s cinnamon on your morning oatmeal or ginger in your evening stir-fry.
The Links Between Your Immune System, Lifestyle and Inflammation
Inflammation never pops up as an isolated scenario. It’s a sign that something throughout your entire life is out of balance, and it’s your body’s invitation to respect and honor your body’s messages and take a look at your overall lifestyle.
The Science of Your Immune System
Your immune system is a complex two-part system that acts as a powerful messenger on behalf of your body and your health.
Your innate immunity covers physical aspects of your body designed to defend you from viruses, germs and other invaders. For example, your mucus lining in your nose helps screen out germs, and the stomach acid in your digestive tract helps neutralize dangers in your food.
The second part of your immune system is your adaptive immunity. This is how your body learns from past situations and strengthens its defenses.
For example, when you’re exposed to the flu, your body produces the proper antibodies and remembers this specific strain of the flu so that you’re better equipped the next time you encounter it.
This adaptive immunity is a very complex system of biological pathways, hormones, cells, and other compounds in your system. Inflammation is part of this.
It’s one way that your body responds to a danger, whether it’s physical danger (such as tissue damage) or biological danger (such as a bacteria infection).
Thus, inflammation isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it is part of your body healing itself.
But what is bad is when diet and lifestyle force your immune system to constant “heal” itself, and inflammation becomes chronic. If you’re experiencing chronic inflammation, take a look at your lifestyle and diet.
Is Your Lifestyle Causing Inflammation?
Daily habits build up to life-changing outcomes. Diet is obviously the most important lifestyle factor, but there’s more.
For example, sitting for extended periods of time is linked to increased levels of inflammation. (81,82). If you work in a sedentary job, consider getting up once every hour and going for a short walk.
Alcohol intake also creates inflammation. (83) Consider going on an alcohol break. If you’re worried about social appearances when you’re out with friends or coworkers, ask the bartender to mix you a no-sugar alternative, such as soda water with mint leaves and a wedge of lemon.
It’ll satisfy your drink cravings and no one around you will notice a difference.
Finally, chronic stress has been linked to chronic inflammation. (84) It’s your body’s way of coping with “danger,” even if that danger is simply in your head. Take a moment every morning and evening to relax and de-stress. Options to try include yoga, deep breathing exercises and meditation.
Sample Anti-Inflammatory Diet Menu
Following specific diet plans may reduce your inflammation. Some of the top anti-inflammation diets backed by studies include a low-carb diet, (85) a vegetarian diet (86) and a Mediterranean diet. (87)
A low-carb diet naturally cuts out the sugars and refined grains that are problematic for managing your body’s inflammatory responses.
A vegetarian diet eliminates dairy, processed meats and most saturated fats, which are major components of a pro-inflammatory diet. And a Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole foods, healthy fats and omega-3-rich fish, which reduce inflammation.
A quick way to get inspired and see how easy it is to follow an anti-inflammation diet is by seeing a sample menu.
– A 3-egg omelet cooked in coconut oil and seasoned with garlic and black pepper.
– A green smoothie made with leafy greens and an apple.
– Salad topped with grilled salmon and dressed with balsamic vinegar.
– A handful of nuts
– Green tea or black coffee (no dairy or sugar)
– Asian-inspired veggie stir fry with tofu and ginger
– Unsweetened dried fruit for dessert.
These are just a few of the many science-backed ways that can help you reduce inflammation naturally. It’s important that you try a variety of these, and see what works best for your body and health.
Remember, there is nothing wrong with a little inflammation as it’s your body fighting off things that don’t belong in it. However when it starts to affects you chronically, you know it’s time to take action and seek out medical help.