Inflammation is the hidden culprit behind dozens of health problems. Here’s how to keep it at bay.

By Kelsey Ogletree
Updated April 03, 2020
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Phrases like “anti-inflammatory lifestyle” are buzzy these days, but they’re not completely accurate. The truth is, trying to rid your body of all inflammation is actually impossible—you have to start by differentiating between “good” inflammation and “bad” inflammation.

Acute Inflammation ("The Good")

Your body has an inflammatory system that can respond to trauma and infection, says Maria Borelius, a biologist and author of Health Revolution: Finding Happiness and Health Through an Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle. The first type, called acute inflammation, is a response where an area of your body hurts and becomes red and swollen because it’s circulating more blood there to repair damaged tissue.

Say you accidentally slice into your thumb while chopping an onion—it will likely throb and stay red and swollen for a few days as your body heals. That’s the “good” kind of inflammation, marked by a beginning, a peak, and an end, Borelius says. The body's response to a cold virus is another perfect example of beneficial inflammation. Cold symptoms (sneezing, high temperature, stuffy nose, swollen glands), though extremely unpleasant, are the byproduct of your body fighting and purging foreign infection.

Low-Grade Systemic Inflammation ("The Bad")

“Bad” inflammation, on the other hand, is called low-grade systemic inflammation. It’s the same kind of biologic response as acute inflammation, but doesn’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Essentially, it never stops, just lingers in your system—and that’s where things become dangerous.

Low-grade systemic inflammation is practically a “gateway to disease,” Borelius says. While there isn’t always a direct correlation, chronic inflammation is linked to increased risk of diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, depression, bipolar disorder, and more.

Borelius explains that one reason for this is that constantly fighting inflammation eventually wears down your immune system. “It’s like if you have a village with a fire brigade and there are constant small fires they’re constantly trying to put out; they won’t have any power when something big comes along,” she says.

It’s no surprise, then, that lowering this systemic inflammation can be one of the best things you do for your health, because it impacts your entire body. Here are some natural, everyday good habits that can help you reduce inflammation and feel better.

How to Reduce Inflammation

1. Prioritize sleep.

Your body repairs itself while you’re sleeping, including regulating and reducing low-grade inflammation. For example, think of a time when your stomach felt swollen and bloated, perhaps from eating a large dinner close to bedtime—but when you woke up, it was back to feeling normal. What you were experiencing was an inflammatory response to food that your body was able to reduce overnight. “When our sleep becomes restricted through daily sleep deprivation, genes that are associated with chronic inflammation are upregulated [or increased],” says Rachel Swanson, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist based out of Beverly Hills and Manhattan. She advises aiming for at least seven hours a night for optimal rejuvenation.

2. Work out regularly.

There are endless reasons to move your body throughout the day, but engaging in exercise is one of the most significant lifestyle choices you can make for reducing inflammation. That’s because consistent exercise has been shown to reduce something called C-reactive protein (or CRP), a biomarker involved in our body’s inflammatory cascade, says Swanson.

Follow the recommended guidelines for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week—but don’t over-train, or it can have the opposite effect. “It’s possible to have too much of a good thing; those who exercise excessively impose significant stress on their bodies [and can cause more inflammation],” Swanson notes.

3. Sweat it out.

A considerable amount of research suggests regular sauna sessions can help prevent both acute and chronic diseases through a variety of biological mechanisms, one of which is reducing inflammation, says Swanson. Regular sweat sessions have been associated with a reduction in circulating levels of inflammatory markers, including fibrinogen and leukocyctes (white blood cells), she adds. Many gym facilities offer access to a dry sauna, making it a convenient way to squeeze in a session post-workout (you can even use your time inside to stretch sore muscles or meditate).

4. Pay attention to your food choices.

It goes without saying that the foods you put into your body will have a major impact on its inflammatory response. A poor (read: inflammatory) diet often contributes to low-grade inflammation, which can lead to chronic inflammation, and then eventually to disease, says Amanda Baker Lemein, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Chicago. Here are a few tips for eating to reduce inflammation (keeping in mind that certain foods may cause inflammation in some people more than others, due to individual genetic makeup).

Incorporate more meat-free meals. Focus on plant-based proteins, such as beans, nuts, legumes, seeds and tofu—each are inherently lean and rich in micronutrients, which may aid in decreasing the effects of inflammatory foods (such as red meat), says Baker Lemein.

Watch out for added sugars and heavily processed foods. Excess sugar in the diet—mostly from added or artificial sugars, versus natural sugars found organically in foods—is connected with several inflammatory responses in the body. Avoid overly sugary packaged foods and sweets, and focus instead on beneficial foods such as cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower. These contain glucosinate-derived bioactive compounds, such as sulforaphane, which activate detoxification processes and anti-inflammatory responses, says Swanson.

Balance your fats. Don’t necessarily run from high-fat foods, as the type of fat is much more important than the amount of fat. For example, healthy foods, packed with omega-3s—like fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, or hemp seeds—are high in fat, but they’re also rich in anti-inflammatory fatty acids, Baker Lemein says.

Up your fiber intake. “Not only does fiber help keep everyone regular, but it also aids in trapping other pro-inflammatory factors, including excess fat, cholesterol, and sugar, and works to usher them out of the body,” Baker Lemein explains.

5. Don't forget your mental fitness.

Speaking of meditation—taking time to center yourself and practice simple forms of self-care can go a long way toward reducing bad inflammation, too. “Stress isn’t purely psychological,” Swanson says. It can also have a physiological impact. Acute stressors (like being stuck in a traffic jam or getting into an argument with your spouse) can increase the level of inflammation in your body, and even more so if you’re already suffering from low self-esteem, low self-compassion, or depression. Swanson recommends practicing meditation regularly (even for just a few minutes at a time) to reduce your stress levels and lower inflammation.