There’s a lot of buzz about anti-inflammatory diets—food you can eat to reduce inflammation—but do they actually work?
To fully understand how foods can affect inflammation, it helps to understand what inflammation is in the first place.
Inflammation is simply your immune system’s response to an irritant, whether an infection such as a cold virus or an injury such as a sprained ankle, and just about everything in between.
“Inflammation is your body’s response to something,” says Robert Hutchins, MD, MPH, UNC Health internal medicine physician. “And sometimes that response is good, such as your immune system responding to fight off an infection or response to an injury.”
When Inflammation Is Good—and Bad
If you’re playing tag outside with your kids and roll your ankle, it may swell immediately or hours later. When you have the flu, you often develop a fever as your body tries to kill the virus.
These are both examples of acute inflammation at work in your body—your inflammatory cells jumping in to fight against a potentially harmful injury or invader. The immune system releases white blood cells to defend and repair the part of the body at risk.
“The inflammatory cells responding to something are generally what cause the symptoms people have, whether it’s a fever or redness of the skin, a headache or elevated heart rate,” Dr. Hutchins says.
Sometimes, though, too much inflammation is present in the body when there’s no infection to fight or injury to heal. A poor diet, smoking, stress, and inadequate sleep and exercise are common causes of inflammation.
Research shows chronic inflammation has been linked to cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The good news is that there are lifestyle changes you can make to prevent and reduce chronic inflammation. These include exercising regularly, which includes cardiovascular exercise and strength training, and eating healthy foods, Dr. Hutchins says.
In fact, some adjustments to your diet could be more effective for lowering inflammation levels than relying on over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine such as Advil, says UNC Health registered dietitian Elizabeth Watt.
Foods That Fight Inflammation
Ignore marketing trying to sell prescribed meal plans of anti-inflammatory foods. There’s no set diet to follow; once you know which foods help fight inflammation, you can introduce them into your diet as you wish.
Foods that fight inflammation contain antioxidants. Antioxidants are synthetic or natural substances that protect your body’s tissues from damage against free radicals, the unstable atoms that damage cells and cause illness and aging. Because antioxidants protect tissues from damage, they prevent unwanted inflammatory responses from occurring in the first place.
Foods to include in your diet:
- Fruits, particularly berries, oranges and cherries, are very high in vitamin C, which is great for the immune system. They have antioxidants and other properties that help rid your body of free radicals that cause inflammation.
- Tart cherry juice is a favorite of athletes for its anti-inflammatory effects. For example, after a long run, you will have a lot of muscle breakdown and inflammation because of the stress you have just put on your body. Tart cherry juice has been found to keep that inflammation down in athletes who drink it after a long run, Watt says.
- Nuts are an excellent choice for controlling inflammation because they are high in antioxidants and omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3s) are powerful antioxidants that inhibit an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX), which produces the prostaglandin hormones that spark inflammation. Walnuts have the most omega-3s, but any kind of nut has anti-inflammatory benefits, Watt says.
- Olive oil is another excellent source of antioxidants, Watt says.
- Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel contain the EPA and DHA types of omega-3s that are found to be very helpful in reducing inflammation.
- Leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collards have high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K. These are all potent antioxidants.
“If you look at a lot of the foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet, those are naturally anti-inflammatory,” Watt says.
Other tips for reducing inflammation include:
- Avoid processed foods and sugar. Limiting or eliminating candy, soda, chips and desserts can substantially reduce inflammation.
- Skip the drive-thru. Trans fats, which are common in fast food and fried foods, have been linked to higher inflammation in research studies.
- Practice moderation when it comes to alcohol. Studies have linked alcohol to higher inflammation. Women should not exceed more than one drink per day, and men should not exceed more than two drinks per day.
- Don’t smoke. Tobacco use spikes inflammation.
- Get enough sleep—but not too much. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Too little sleep triggers inflammation, but so does too much.
- Reduce stress. Research shows prolonged stress leads to chronic inflammation, so try to find ways to manage your stress levels. Consider mindfulness-based interventions to help your body cope with stress.
Concerned about inflammation? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.