As part of the body’s natural defense system, inflammation is vital for our survival. But too much inflammation for too long can lead to disease. Learn how your diet can keep inflammation at bay.

Inflammation makes up part of the body’s natural defense system against injury or infection and can keep us protected and healthy when in balance. The problem arises when inflammation sticks around, potentially leading to major chronic health conditions. In fact, it is estimated that more than 50% of all deaths in the world today may be attributed to chronic inflammatory-related diseases.

Several factors can lead to chronic inflammation, but a poor diet may be recognized as one of the leading causes. Fortunately, it is possible to reduce inflammation by improving dietary habits.

What is inflammation?

If you ever jammed your toe, got a splinter in your finger, or scraped your knee, you likely know what comes next: the wound turns red, swells up, feels hot, and starts to hurt. These are the telltale signs of inflammation and signals that your body is doing its best to protect and heal from the injury.

In each case above, the immune system kicks in to heal from an external injury. But other factors can trigger the immune system as well. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and environmental irritants can also elicit inflammation. For example, viral bronchitis causes inflammation of the bronchi, and irritating perfume or poison ivy may cause inflamed skin, called dermatitis.

How does inflammation occur in the body? Inflammation involves cellular and vascular changes through an organized chain of responses from different immune system cells. Each inflammatory response depends on the type of injury and where it is located in the body, but the process generally includes detecting and recognizing harmful stimuli or invaders, activating the channels of communication between different immune cells and blood vessels, and recruiting inflammatory cells to release substances called inflammatory mediators like prostaglandins and cytokines CRP, IL-1β, TNF-α, IL-6, and IL-15.

Inflammatory mediators play several critical roles in the healing process. For starters, inflammatory mediators cause the small blood vessels in the tissue to widen to allow more blood to reach the site of injury. This increase in blood flow enables more immune system cells to be transported to the injury to assist with healing. More fluid enters the inflamed tissue, causing swelling. The inflammatory mediators also send pain signals to the brain from the nerves around the injury, making you more likely to protect it.

Ideally, an inflammatory response in the body is temporary. That is, inflammation occurs while the threat of injury or pathogen exists and resolves once the threat is no longer present. When this happens, the short-lived inflammation that occurs is called acute inflammation. But in some cases, inflammation becomes chronic and persists long after a threat is gone.

The risks of chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation can cause harmful effects on the body. Untreated, low-level, and persistent inflammation progresses silently and can hamper the way cells normally function, impair the immune system, and cause damage to the surrounding tissues and organs like the heart, pancreas, joints, liver, kidney, lung, brain, and intestinal tract. People who live with chronic inflammation are at increased risk of health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, depression, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

What causes inflammation to become chronic?

Lingering inflammation can be brought on by several factors. Chronic infections, autoimmune disorders, obesity, stress, exposure to environmental pollutants and irritants, and a sedentary lifestyle can all promote chronic inflammation. Aging, smoking habit, and sleep disorders are also correlated with elevated biomarkers of inflammation. Biomarkers are characteristics of the body that you can measure, and CRP and IL-6 are two such biomarkers that reflect the amount of inflammation in the body. Elevated CRP and IL-6 levels can indicate higher levels of inflammation.  CRP and IL-6 can be determined by a blood test. A CRP value of 0.55 or more in men or 1.0 mg/L in women indicates inflammation, whereas an IL-6 value above 43.5 pg/ml suggests that inflammation is present.  

The role of diet in inflammation

The typical way of eating in America is high in ultra-processed, calorie-dense foods filled with saturated fats, trans fats, refined grains, added sugars, and sodium, and low in antioxidants and micronutrients from fruits, vegetables, and other high-fiber foods. Following a poor diet is shown to activate chronic inflammation in the body. Chronic fatigue can feel like muscle pain, fatigue, depression and anxiety, constipation and diarrhea, and frequent infections. The link between chronic inflammation and a poor diet may be explained because of a diet’s effect on the gut microbiome.

The gut microbiome describes the collection of bacterial, viral, and fungal microbes, or tiny organisms, that naturally live in the gastrointestinal tract. These microbes can be helpful or potentially harmful. The microbiome is essential in maintaining health by supplying essential nutrients and assisting digestion. In a healthy microbiome, all of the microbes coexist harmoniously. But when the balance between the helpful or harmful microbes is disturbed due to diet, infectious illness, or the use of antibiotics, the microbes no longer work together as well and the body may become more susceptible to illness, chronic disease, and inflammation.

Researchers have found that diet can have a significant impact on the gut microbiome balance and what kinds of microbes exist there. For example, foods high in fiber are shown to feed beneficial bacteria and limit the growth of harmful bacteria. In contrast, consuming a poor diet may result in an imbalance of beneficial microbes which is linked with inflammation.

Eating for less inflammation

Reducing the amount of inflammation in your body is a two-pronged approach: reduce your intake of ultra-processed, inflammatory foods while upping your intake of nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods.

Here is a guideline for how to follow an anti-inflammatory diet:

Limit your intake of saturated fat and trans fat. Processed and packaged foods often contain harmful trans fats and processed vegetable and seed oils that promote inflammation. Red meat and some dairy products also contain saturated fat, which can be inflammatory.

Reduce your intake of added sugars and refined flour. Sugary foods and drinks are linked with obesity, microbiome changes, and low-grade inflammation. According to the American Heart Association, the average American adult consumes 17 grams of sugar per day - a much higher amount than is recommended, which is 9 teaspoons a day for men and 6 teaspoons a day for women. Refined flours - that is, anything made from white and not whole-wheat flour - are also associated with increased inflammation. Choose whole grain options, like whole wheat pasta and whole wheat bread, whenever possible.

Increase your intake of monounsaturated fatty acid foods. This healthy type of fat helps to reduce inflammation and is found in plant foods like nuts, nut butter, avocado, dark chocolate, seeds, and olive oil. One systematic review found that daily consumption of 1 mg to 50 mg of olive oil resulted in a reduction in CRP by an average 0.64 mg/L and a reduction in IL-6 by an average 0.29 pg/ml among 3,106 study participants.

Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acid foods. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that the body can only get from food and help to reduce inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in many foods, including fatty fish like salmon, sardines, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, and edamame, as well as leafy green vegetables like spinach and arugula.

Eat a generous amount of fruits and vegetables. Colorful fruits and vegetables - blueberries, arugula, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, mango, and cherries, just to name a few - are naturally high in anti-inflammatory nutrients that include antioxidants, phytochemicals, flavonoids, and vitamins that support a healthy gut microbiome.

Eat more fiber-rich foods. Consuming fiber is also linked to less inflammation. High-fiber foods include beans, nuts, whole grains, whole grain cereals, legumes, vegetables, avocados, apples, pears, and berries.

Drink coffee. Research shows that drinking coffee can also help to lessen inflammation. A 2019 study looked at the association between coffee consumption and the inflammatory biomarkers CRP IL-6. When researchers analyzed the coffee consumption and CRP and IL-6 biomarker data among 15,551 women and 7,397 men, they found that those who drank four or more cups of coffee per day had a reduction in CRP by 16.6% and a reduction in IL-6 by 8.1%. These results were seen when both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee was consumed.

Use more spices. Turmeric, black pepper, garlic, cinnamon, and ginger all have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, so use them to enhance the flavor of your dishes. If using turmeric, make sure to sprinkle in some black pepper along with it to increase your body’s chances of absorbing it.

The bottom line

As the body’s response to harmful injury or infection, inflammation plays a vital role in initiating the healing process and provides a valuable defense mechanism for health. When inflammation in the body becomes chronic, it can lead to various serious health conditions. Diet can play a significant role in either driving or reducing inflammation. To decrease inflammation, it is important to increase your intake of non-processed, nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory foods while at the same time limiting your intake of foods that promote inflammation.