Your body’s response to infections and wounds typically includes inflammation.
This complex process involves recruitment of immune system cells to areas of infection or injury.
Certain immune cells emit the unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals, as part of our defense against unfriendly microbes.
Chronic, body-wide inflammation is a very different, insidiously damaging process — one created and worsened by poor diets, lack of exercise, obesity, stress, and environmental toxins.
You can’t feel this “silent” inflammation, which promotes heart disease, depression, diabetes, dementia, arthritis, and autoimmune disorders, and accelerates aging.
When inflammation becomes chronic, our internal antioxidant network can’t fully protect the body from damage caused by excessive release of free radicals.
In addition, poorly controlled inflammation causes genetic switches in our cells to initiate a damaging, self-reinforcing cycle of continued inflammation.
What can we do about this hidden threat to health?
Let’s review five ways to help prevent and control chronic inflammation.
#1 — Just 20 minutes of exercise can dampen inflammation
Last year, researchers at the University of California San Diego tested the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise.
The UCSD scientists recruited 47 people, evaluated their fitness levels, and then asked them to walk on a treadmill at a pace designed to require moderately intensive effort from each person.
Blood samples were collected before and after the 20-minute workout.
The team discovered that just one 20-minute session of moderate exercise stimulated an anti-inflammatory response from the participants’ immune systems.
As senior author Suzi Hong, Ph.D., said, “Each time we exercise, we are truly doing something good for our body on many levels, including at the immune cell level.”
Exercise prompts your brain and nervous system to release hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which target “adrenergic” receptors on the surfaces of key immune cells.
In turn, that hormonal process tells your immune system to moderate inessential, body-wide inflammation.
According to Dr. Hong, “Our study shows a workout session doesn’t actually have to be intense to have anti-inflammatory effects. Twenty minutes to half-an-hour of moderate exercise, including fast walking, appears to be sufficient.”
Note: On the other end of the activity spectrum, as we reported last year, Meditation May Cut Inflammation.
You can also help prevent and control chronic inflammation with smart food choices, and the following four food groups top the list.
#2 Extra-virgin olive oil
Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) exerts anti-inflammatory effects like those produced by aspirin and ibuprofen — without the adverse side effects associated with their long-term use.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, “… a compound in the oil, called oleocanthal, prevents the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes — the same way ibuprofen [Advil] works.”
A 2014 study in rheumatoid arthritis patients found that oleocanthal from EVOO significantly reduced chronic and acute inflammation.
Only extra-virgin grade olive oil contains substantial amounts of the virtually unique, highly potent antioxidants found in olives.
So-called “virgin” grade — a blend of refined and extra-virgin oils — contains far fewer, and refined or “pure” olive oil contains none.
#2 Green leafy vegetables and onions
Dark, leafy green vegetables and onions deliver a diverse set of antioxidants that dampen inflammation.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, “Green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale, Swiss chard and bok choy are packed with antioxidants … which protect cells from [inflammation-inducing] free-radical damage.”
Members of the crucifer family — broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, and cress — also provide sulforaphane, which appears to inhibit undue inflammation.
And onions are a prime source of quercetin, one of the strongest antioxidant/anti-inflammatory compounds in the vegetable world.
A 2014 evidence review from Penn State affirmed the idea that these foods are potent inflammation-fighters.
As its author, Dr. Auburn Weisensale, said, “Fruits that contain high amounts of flavonoids and other antioxidants have been associated with lower markers of inflammation ...”.
Overlooked fruits: cocoa and coffee
We don't usually think of them that way, but coffee and cocoa both come from fruits.
Cocoa — the powdered nut of the cacao fruit — is one of the strongest antioxidant/anti-inflammatory foods. Seek cocoa powder that hasn't been treated with alkali ("Dutched"), which drastically reduces its antioxidant content.
Dark chocolates are typically made with cocoa that has not been treated with alkali, but you usually can't tell from the package.
For more about the uncommon, highly potent antioxidants in cocoa, and their apparent benefits, see Cocoa’s Brain Anti-Aging Benefits Affirmed, Cocoa Health Claim Approved in Europe, Cocoa Antioxidants Aid Arteries in Clinical Trial, Dark Chocolate Deters Sun-Driven Skin Damage, and related articles in the Cocoa, Tea, & Coffee section of our news archive.
Although tea is a leaf, not a fruit, it shares an important characteristic with cocoa — namely the presence of high levels of a potent antioxidant/anti-inflammatory compound called epicatechin (among other less-rare antoxidants). In large part, this explains why tea — whether green, black, or white — is linked to a variety of health benefits.
Finally, coffee beans — which are dried kernels of the coffee bush berry — yield the beverage that's an often-overlooked source of antioxidants and the richest source in the average American's diet.
Coffee is an unusually abundant source of chlorogenic acids — a particularly potent group of antioxidants — plus a variety of other beneficial antioxidant/anti-inflammatory compounds, including trigonelline, which may help regulate blood sugar.
These omega-3s are essential to life, and occur in virtually every cell in the body.
All seafood provides omega-3s, but the richest sources are fatty fish such as such as salmon, tuna, sablefish, and sardines.
Our bodies need omega-3 DHA and EPA to make inflammation-damping molecules, including resolvins, protectins, and maresins.
For related reasons, it looks as though the body can use omega-3s to make pain-relieving chemicals: see Omega-3 DHA Derivative May Replace Opiates and Pain May be Relieved by Omega-3 Byproducts.
Conversely, excess intake of omega-6 fats from cheap vegetable oils — a pattern that typifies the standard American diet — promotes inflammation, and constrains the body’s ability to absorb omega-3s from plant foods.
This “omega imbalance” is strongly associated with heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes, dementia, bowel disorders, and other conditions.
The body can’t use the only plant-source omega-3 — called ALA — to moderate or end inflammation; we must first convert ALA into the omega-3 DHA and EPA found in seafood and our cells.
To learn more, see Fish Oil Linked to Lower Inflammation, Brains on Fire: How Fish Fats Help Deter Depression, Fighting Internal Fires with Fish Fats, and Omega-3s’ Genetic Effects Bolster Health Benefits.
Supplemental inflammation fighters
In addition to foods, certain supplements exert salutary effects on genes that control inflammation.
These include vitamins E and C, co-Q10, and supplements derived from foods and herbs with proven antioxidant/anti-inflammatory effects, such as curcumin — the antioxidant pigment in turmeric root — astaxanthin, tea extracts, carotenoids, berry extracts, grape seed extracts (resveratrol, pycnogenol/OPCs), cocoa extracts, and more.
Sugars and starches: Key inflammation-igniters and fuels
Sugar — and the sugar-like starches in white flour foods — promote and sustain chronic inflammation.
In part, this explains why diets high in sugar and sugary starches are linked to heart disease, depression, diabetes, dementia, arthritis, and autoimmune disorders ... see Does Sugar Raise Alzheimer’s Risk?, Big Sugar Paid Scientists to Pin Heart Disease on Saturated Fats, and Sugar, not Fat, Affirmed as Top Heart-Attacker.
Worse yet, diets high in sugars and starches promote a process called glycation in your body, which occurs when a glucose (sugar) molecule binds to a protein molecule.
The damaging protein-sugar compounds that result from glycation are known as glycotoxins.
One threatening group of glycotoxins — called advanced glycation end products or AGEs — generate damaging swarms of free radicals.
As we age, glycotoxins form in many tissues — including skin, arteries, eye lenses, cartilage, and more.
The destructive glycation reactions promoted by sugary diets cause proteins in our connective and structural tissues to become “cross-linked”, and barely functional.
Accordingly, many age-related problems — such as atherosclerosis (plaque-lined arteries), cataracts, and dementia — are at least partially attributable to glycation.
AGEs emit damaging free radicals at about 50 times the rate seen in normal proteins — as well as signals that trigger production of pro-inflammatory messenger chemicals.
In addition to preventing the formation of AGEs and other glycotoxins, diets low in sugars and sugary starches prevent the insulin surges that also promote chronic inflammation.
Finally, over-cooked foods that are high in sugars and starches promote release of pro-inflammatory messenger chemicals.
So, it makes sense to avoid French fries, potato chips, and breaded, deep-fried foods.
In contrast, diets rich in fish cooked via other methods reduce the risk, as described in Fish May Reduce Rates of “Silent” Stroke.