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By Sarah Colman Carlson, RDN, CDCES

Early in my career as a dietitian I attended a nutrition seminar where the presenting professor stated that eventually we will discover that inflammation is linked to all chronic diseases. Since that time we have seen a plethora of research linking chronic inflammation to cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders. Risk factors that promote chronic inflammation include poor diets high in ultra-processed foods, unhealthy fats, sugar, salt and alcohol (often referred to as a Western diet); lack of physical activity, chronic infections, stress and environmental toxins.

What is the Inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s activation of immune and other cells in response to pathogens like bacteria, viruses, toxins and infections. In acute inflammation, the immune response eliminates the threat and then promotes repair and recovery. Symptoms include redness, swelling, warmth and pain.

Chronic inflammation is different. It is like a a slow, long-lasting flame. It is an immune response that involves continuous production of immune cells like white blood cells along with chemical messengers and pro-inflammatory substances. Healthy tissues and organs may be attacked leading to chronic diseases. There may be no symptoms of chronic inflammation, so you may be unaware if you have it. However a blood test for C-reactive protein (CRP) can help detect it. Researchers look at other pro-inflammatory markers when studying chronic inflammation. Among these are tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin (IL)-1β.

Reducing Chronic Inflammation

Diet, exercise and sleep all play a role in preventing and treating chronic inflammation. A pro-inflammatory diet is high in processed and fast foods, refined grain products like white bread and pasta, unhealthy fats, sugary drinks, snacks and desserts, salty foods and excess alcohol. Many of the food sources for this way of eating are low in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

You can reduce chronic inflammation by changing to an anti-inflammatory diet. Include whole grains, nuts, fatty fish like salmon and sardines, and fresh fruits and vegetables high in polyphenols. Try eating berries, cherries, red grapes, and oranges, green leafy vegetables like collard greens, spinach and kale. Drink an anti-inflammatory tea such as green tea, ginger tea, turmeric tea or chamomile tea. Add some fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and tempeh. Use extra virgin olive oil for salads and in recipes.

You don’t have to be an athlete to reduce chronic inflammation through exercise. One study showed that walking on a treadmill for 20 minutes a day made a difference. Find an activity you like and do it regularly—at least 3 to 4 times a week. Walk, swim, and go to the gym— anything that gets you moving will help.

One benefit of eating healthier and exercising is a reduction in body fat, which will also help treat chronic inflammation.

Healthy sleep habits also help treat chronic inflammation. Try to develop a consistent bedtime, and find ways to relax before going to bed. Try reading, journaling or meditation to still your mind.

As you can see, the treatment for chronic inflammation points to healthy lifestyle changes. Balanced Habits can help you transition to this way of living.

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