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1. Eat Well

“Food is foundational when it comes to managing inflammation,” says functional-medicine practitioner Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, ­author of The Inflammation Spectrum. A diet that emphasizes whole foods and includes plenty of plants and fiber supports a healthy microbiome, helps prevent leaky gut, and minimizes inflammatory inputs to your digestive system.

Consuming a diverse array of plants provides gut microbes with many unique fibers on which to feast. “The most critical factors in designing an anti-inflammatory microbiome are the quantity and diversity of plants in the diet,” Ravella notes. “Each plant contains unique fibers, and each fiber may feed one or more kinds of germs, creating beneficial metabolites yet uncharted.”

(Learn more. Explore these “5 Rules for Anti-Inflammatory Eating“.)

2. Fermented Foods

Fermented foods play a starring role in an anti-inflammatory diet, too. A Stanford University study published in 2021 found that consuming foods and drinks such as yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kimchi, vegetable-brine drinks, and kombucha for 10 weeks led to an ­increase in overall microbial diversity, with stronger effects from larger servings.

Participants who ate fermented foods also experienced less activation of immune cells and decreased levels of 19 inflammatory proteins compared with those eating a high-fiber diet.

Anyone suffering from joint pain, fatigue, headaches, digestive issues, or other symptoms of inflammation may benefit from embarking on an elimination diet as well, Cole notes. This can reduce inflammatory inputs, giving the gut lining a chance to heal.

After the elimination period, a careful reintroduction process can help identify foods that may trigger inflammation. (For a sample elimination protocol, see “The Institute for Functional Medicine’s Elimination Diet Comprehensive Guide and Food Plan“.)

3. Sleep

Prioritize sleep hygiene and getting deep, high-quality sleep,” advises naturopathic doctor Cassie Wilder, NMD, founder of the Minneapolis Integrative Medicine Center. Sleep deprivation is associated with higher levels of inflammatory molecules, including cytokines, IL-6, and CRP. This may be one reason people who sleep poorly are at higher risk of inflammation-based conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Sleep deficits also interfere with the brain’s ability to flush out accumulated beta-amyloid protein, which has been linked to brain-cell damage and, potentially, Alzheimer’s disease. An overabundance of these proteins can cause inflammation to simmer in the brain.

Prioritizing sleep allows your natural housecleaning system to get to work throughout the brain and body. (For ideas to improve your sleep patterns, visit “Reclaim Your Sleep Rhythm“.)

4. Move

People in Blue Zones — regions around the world where individuals tend to live longer and enjoy lower levels of chronic disease — almost universally incorporate movement into their daily routines. “You don’t have to run marathons,” Ravella says. “But in places where people live the longest, they tend to seamlessly incorporate movement into their daily lives, even with activities like walking, routine housework, and gardening.”

Research shows that regular, moderate exercise (walking the dog, biking to work, doing yard work) helps prevent chronic inflammatory diseases, whereas inactivity feeds them. “Dozens of human clinical trials across age groups show that regular exercise tones down chronic, low-level inflammation,” reports Shilpa Ravella, MD, assistant professor at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and author of A Silent Fire: The Story of Inflammation, Diet, and Disease.

It helps reduce inflammatory visceral fat and mitigate neuroinflammation in the brain. It increases gut microbial diversity and decreases inflammatory fat around blood vessels, helping to ward off heart disease.

Exercise also achieves some of its salutary effects by causing inflammation. Strength training, for instance, breaks down muscle tissue and elicits an inflammatory response that leads to building muscle.

“Remember, not all inflammation is bad,” Cole says. “That’s why it’s important to monitor your exercise patterns to give yourself plenty of rest between workouts and work your way up to longer or more intense periods of exercise.” Giving your body time to recover between workouts ensures that inflammation can settle back down rather than hover at a low level.

Wilder notes that an anti-inflammatory exercise routine emphasizes low-impact activities, such as walking and yoga, over high-intensity workouts. “People think that unless you can barely breathe or walk afterward, it’s not exercise. But moving and contracting muscles in a low-impact way supports circulation, moves the lymphatic system, and gets [a few] toxins out through sweating,” she says.

Those who do enjoy high-intensity workouts can benefit from mixing them up with low-impact and restorative activities that produce less inflammation. “It’s important to find that sweet spot, because regular exercise is invaluable for calming inflammation,” Ravella says.

5. Relax

Resolvins are molecules derived from omega-3 fatty acids that help resolve inflammation. Animal studies suggest that stimulating the vagus nerve (the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the relaxation response) induces the release of resolvins and boosts anti-inflammatory effects. Research has shown that higher heart-rate variability, a key measure of vagus-nerve function, is associated with lower inflammation levels.

Practices that stimulate the vagus nerve and help promote relaxation include yoga, tai chi, meditation, breath work, laughter, humming, forest bathing, massage, singing, chanting, and cold water exposure.

(Learn more about the vagus nerve at “Why the Vagus Nerve Matters to Your Health“.)

6. Connect

Loneliness is an intense stressor for a species adapted to tribal tendencies for survival,” Ravella notes. Not only is taking the time to forge and maintain strong social connections good for our mental and emotional well-being; it also has a direct impact on our risk for chronic disease.

Researchers have explored whether the increased risk associated with loneliness is due to higher levels of inflammation. A recent study of 222 socioeconomically and racially diverse older adults in the Bronx found that those in the cohort who reported being lonelier exhibited higher levels of the inflammation marker CRP. Other research has shown that lonely people are more likely to have an enhanced inflammatory response to stress.

(For more on the health effects of loneliness, see “Why Social Bonds Are So Important for Our Health“.)

This was excerpted from “How Chronic Inflammation Affects Your Health” which was published in the March 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Mo Perry

Mo Perry is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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