From our inflammatory responses to pathogens to our clever retorts to insults, humans have developed all sorts of novel ways of protecting ourselves against threats, both real and perceived. Give us a knock to the shin or a cut to the hand, and we’ll send in our white blood cells to bring on swelling, heat, and ultimately, healing. Tag us in a nasty tweet and perhaps we’ll mind our mental health, put the phone down, take a deep breath and move on—then again, we might decide to #clapback, instead.
That’s all to say, that yes—we have tools, and no, they don’t always work as we wish. Take inflammation for instance. In the case of acute injury or illness—a knocked shin or cut hand, a cold, flu or infection—inflammation is a response to a trigger, a cure for harm, as our bodies send in white blood cells to protect against foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. The process can be painful, but ideally it’s short-lived and effective (although sometimes the side effects, such as fever and pain, do need treatment.)¹
But when we speak of inflammation as a problem—which it very much can be—we generally don’t mean this sort of acute inflammation, but rather the chronic kind. Chronic inflammation is to the body what engaging online trolls is to life on social media: unnecessarily prolonged, painful—and often, completely pointless.
What causes inflammation?
Some causes of chronic inflammation simply can’t be helped.
“You cannot prevent a genetic predisposition to some autoimmune or inflammatory conditions, like degenerative arthritis, lupus, type one diabetes, and many more,” says Dr. Stefano Guandalini, MD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, and one of the world’s leading experts on celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation.
Other non-preventable causes of chronic inflammation include ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis.²
However, some chronic inflammation can be almost entirely attributed to lifestyle choices, says Dr. Guandalini. Smoking, excessive stress, becoming overweight, and high LDL cholesterol³ (the bad kind) from consuming too many pro-inflammatory foods can all spike inflammation.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that you’re suffering from chronic inflammation caused by lifestyle habits, a change in choices can make a world of difference.
How is chronic inflammation diagnosed?
“There is no specific diagnosis of inflammation,” says Dr. Guandalini, “as a number of diseases fall into this category, each one with their own diagnostic array.”
However he says that screening for high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) has recently become a widely-used test. It’s not perfect, though. “CRP levels tell us that inflammation is happening,” says Dr. Guandalini, “but don’t specify the cause, or which organs are affected”.
If an inflammatory condition is suspected, doctors may also test the blood’s erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) or serum protein electrophoresis (SPE) levels. On their own, these tests can’t diagnose specific conditions, but they can be used to rule out some conditions, or offer clues on which tests to run next.⁴⁵
The best natural cures for inflammation
“By far the two most recommended natural treatments for inflammation are diet and regular exercise,” says Dr. Stefano Guandalini.
Multiple studies confirm that Mediterranean diets—the plant, seafood and olive oil-rich cuisines traditional to the Mediterranean coast—are associated with lower markers of inflammation.⁶ But as healthy and delicious as they are, Mediterranean cuisines are not your only option. Dr. Guandalini says any diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables while limiting red meats and animal fats, processed and fried foods, as well as refined sugars and sweetened sodas, will reduce inflammation.
The best kind of exercise for reducing inflammation is the kind that you do. Seriously—although more can be better up to a certain point, any exercise is better than none!
One study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity asked participants to walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes a day at a pace suited to their current fitness levels. Researchers found that even this modest amount of exercise reduced the production of inflammatory cells by five percent.⁷
Both resistance training⁸ and aerobic exercise⁹ are associated with a reduction in inflammatory markers, so your best bet is to do both. But again—just doing something, anything to exercise your body can be a literal step in the right direction.
Supplements and herbs for inflammation
Although diet and exercise are the top tools for fighting inflammation, there are some natural herbs and supplements that may help as well.
The active ingredient in the spice turmeric, curcumin is a chemical compound with well-established anti-inflammatory properties¹⁰. “Several studies have shown curcumin to be effective in reducing inflammation symptoms in arthritis, as well as in improving psychological status and markers of inflammation in patients with adult-type diabetes,” says Dr. Guandalini. Adding turmeric to foods is one way to ingest more curcumin. Curcumin is also available in supplements, which are more potent than turmeric.¹¹
“Ginger has many bioactive phenolic compounds and is considered an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent,” says Dr. Guandalini. “It has been used to prevent and treat gingivitis, osteoarthritis, nausea, and muscle pain in athletes.” Studies around ginger’s use as an anti-inflammatory are overall positive.¹²¹³
A natural flavonoid found in peanuts, blueberries and red grape skin, resveratrol is the ingredient that makes red wine so famously heart-healthy.¹⁴ “Resveratrol has been shown to be beneficial in patients with adult-type diabetes and coronary heart disease,” says Dr. Guandalini. To determine your optimal dose, speak with a doctor or dietician, as the science on dosing is still evolving.¹⁵¹⁶
Omega-3 fatty acids
Like certain vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients we can’t produce in our bodies, but need to ingest—through food or supplements—for optimal health. They are found especially in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, as well as many nuts, seeds and plant oils.¹⁷
“Omega-3 fatty acids protect from bone loss, boost the immune system, may lower cardiovascular risk, and have a beneficial effect on colonic inflammation and colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Guandalini. Eating foods rich with omega-3 fatty acids is a safe and easy way to get them in your body. If you prefer to take supplements, speak with your doctor or dietician, as research on optimal dosing is ongoing.¹⁸
Green tea is a promising anti-inflammatory that has been shown to have beneficial effects against a variety of conditions, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.¹⁹ “However, the evidence comes so far mostly from studies in animal or cellular systems,” says Dr. Guandalini, and more human trials are needed to determine just how effective it may be at reducing inflammation.
Doctor’s orders for reducing inflammation
Supplements can support your efforts to reduce inflammation, but ultimately there’s no magic pill for unhealthy habits. “The idea that we can continue to eat excessive meat, processed foods, be sedentary and avoid inflammation by swallowing a pill of fish oil is devastatingly wrong,” warns Dr. Guandalini. “Once developed, overt diseases must be treated according to evidence-based medicine—however, prevention is key.”
Eat healthy food, exercise your body, quit smoking and limit alcohol, develop and maintain good relationships, and enjoy the health rewards, says the good doctor—including reduced inflammation.