Managing Chronic Inflammation With Food and Lifestyle

January 22, 2020

Nowadays, people treat “inflammation” as a four-letter word. With countless anti-inflammatory diet plans, there seems to be a constant focus on “fighting” inflammation. This article is hardly an exception, as we’ll cover some various diet and lifestyle factors related to reducing inflammation. However, the issue is an incredibly complicated one. Far from being inherently damaging, inflammation is an essential physiological process, one which typically arises following cellular stressors like physical trauma or infection and participates in the body’s response to these stressors (1).

In other words: inflammation is not an accident–it exists to help us.

Inflammation is involved in various essential biological systems, including wound repair and the immune system’s response to infection. Chronic inflammation, however, is increasingly being recognized as playing a role in numerous diseases. Beyond well-known examples of inflammation-related ailments (e.g., arthritis, autoimmune diseases, headaches) some of the health conditions which evidence increasingly implicates as linked to chronic inflammation include:

  • Heart Disease (2)
  • Various Types of Cancer (3)
  • Type 2 Diabetes (4)
  • Depression (5)
  • Alzheimer’s Disease (6)

In a way, inflammation is a bit like a fire sprinkler system, existing with an important function: stopping fires. Chronic inflammation, meanwhile, is akin to a faulty fire sprinkler system, one that keeps spraying water long after any hint of fire is long gone. As the ongoing downpour soaks everything and water damage accumulates, it becomes in your best interest to halt the deluge.

So how do you shut off the sprinkler system of chronic inflammation?

There are, of course, numerous drugs and medications used to treat or prevent inflammatory conditions. However, in many cases, these drugs have adverse side effects, either from off-target effects or from indiscriminately blocking inflammation-related pathways, which, as previously mentioned, have significant biological effects.

The CANTOS trial is an example of the double-edged sword of inflammation (7). This study took people who had survived a heart attack and gave them a drug called Canakinumab, which blocks a naturally produced inflammatory molecule called IL-1b. The hope was this drug, by reducing inflammation, would lower the risk of further cardiovascular disease, preventing future heart attacks and strokes–and it was successful in that regard, along with some other possible benefits. However, there were also drawbacks, most notably that the risk of death from infection was higher (which is not exactly surprising given the role of inflammation in the immune system).

Common anti-inflammatory drugs called NSAIDs can also have downsides. Acetaminophen (commonly sold under the brand name Tylenol) is one such anti-inflammatory, regularly used for the management of headaches. While useful for this (and likely other) pain-related condition, Acetaminophen can, under some circumstances, be metabolized into a toxic chemical called NAPQI, thereby damaging the liver. In the United States, Acetaminophen is a common cause of liver failure, and about 1/5th of liver transplants involve cases of Acetaminophen precipitated liver damage (8). It is interesting to note that the essential mineral magnesium, does appear to benefit headaches (9). This effect could be a result of its apparent anti-inflammatory effects among those with heightened inflammation (10).

So what can we do to help naturally curb chronic inflammation?

Reduce Body Fat

Body fat, particularly the fat around the belly area, termed visceral fat, plays an important role in chronic inflammation. This fat tissue produces signaling molecules that induce inflammation, with more body fat tending to mean more of these inflammation producing molecules (18). The increase in these signaling molecules may partially explain the apparent connection between obesity and various health conditions linked to inflammation, e.g., heart disease (19). While it’s not clear exactly how or why having more body fat seems to result in more inflammation, what is clear is that most interventions that result in significantly lower levels of body fat tend to also result in lower levels of inflammatory markers. For example, studies have found that people with excess body fat who lose weight usually see a decrease in the inflammatory substances floating around their bloodstream (20). Be it on a low-fat diet, low carb diet, Mediterranean diet, paleo diet, or vegan diet, if a diet helps someone lose a significant amount of body fat, it tends to also help with inflammation.

Eat a Healthy Diet

While weight loss is a known factor in reducing inflammation, there are also specific dietary factors that may play a part in influencing chronic inflammation. While not an extensive list, studies have indicated possible anti-inflammatory effects of some of the following foods:

  • Extra virgin olive oil (21)
  • Garlic (22)
  • Apples (22)
  • Cocoa powder (22)

Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids are also known to have anti-inflammatory properties (23). This may be why fish oil sometimes seems to benefit conditions that involve inflammation, including rheumatoid arthritis (24), depression (25), and migraine headaches (26). However, the effects of fish oil on inflammatory markers are far from consistent, so it probably isn’t a magic bullet for inflammation. Still, incorporating fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring (to name a few) into your diet seems worthwhile. Including plant sources of omega-3 fats from walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and dark green vegetables is beneficial as well.

Including a variety of nourishing foods is also part of the equation. Too much of one thing is not always best. Larger fish such as tuna and mackerel for example may also come along with heavy metals and certain environmental toxins. Eating a variety of whole plant foods has been shown to positively influence the health of the gut which may also play a role in inflammation. Furthermore, whole fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients and antioxidants which can help keep inflammation at bay. Adding these to meals is a good rule of thumb.

Reduce Salt Intake

Salt is another potential factor in inflammation. Preliminary evidence suggests that very high salt diets can modify signaling molecules called interleukins, possibly increasing inflammation as a result (27,28,29). Of course, sodium is also an essential nutrient, and going too low when it comes to salt may also have downsides–one study, for example, found an increase in markers of inflammation from a diet deficient in salt intake (30).

In the end, we should remember that inflammation is a complicated subject. We still have a lot to learn about how diet and lifestyle can reduce inflammation and, in doing so, improve our health. Much of the well-established ways to manage chronic inflammation is probably the same general advice you’ve heard a million times.

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Exercise regularly
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Maintain a healthy body weight

Aside from these basics, we can also limit chronic and damaging inflammation by minimizing processed foods, limiting refined sugar, refined grains, and fried foods.  These basics can go a long way toward using a researched backed strategy for managing inflammation.


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About the Author

Lauren has been a registered dietitian for 6 years and helps others develop practical and enjoyable lifelong nutrition habits to improve health, well-being, energy levels, confidence, and digestion. She focuses largely on a whole food, plant-based nutrition approach to health.


Modern Minds with MUSC Health

Synchronicity is a subsidiary of Modern Minds, a non-profit organization dedicated to treating and empowering mental health and wellbeing. We often partner together to offer truly integrative care for Modern Minds clients, Synchronicity members and the greater Lowcountry community.