When you think of inflammation, you probably picture the rash you get from poison ivy or a bump that swells up when you hit your head. There’s another silent form of inflammation that occurs within your body, and it does not usually come with any painful symptoms — but it can seriously impact your health.
Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and diabetes are all linked to this type of constant, low-level inflammation. The good news? You can influence your body’s background levels of inflammation by eating specific foods.
An anti-inflammatory diet can help if you live with a chronic autoimmune illness, are trying to ward them off, or you just feel sluggish and want to improve your health.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation can be friend or foe. Inflammation is your immune system’s reaction to an injury, allergen, bacteria, or anything else it identifies as a problem.
First, your body will fight these problem attackers, and then it will help that region to heal. Inflammation is good when the injury is short-term, like an insect bite or cut, but when it lingers in the body, it can lower your overall immunity.
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation dies down once the issue is resolved. Chronic inflammation occurs when your immune system remains on alert, keeping a “low flame” going all the time. That much “heat” can do serious damage.
How an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Can Help
Inflammation has a direct connection to the digestive tract. The microbiome — bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your gut — help to regulate your immune system.
Everything you eat, the supplements you take, and your environment all affect the health of your gut. What you put in your stomach can either kindle or douse the flame of your body’s immune response.
For example, a poor diet — too high in calories or unhealthy fats — can activate your body’s inflammatory process. However, a diet with the right balance of dietary omega-3 fatty acids (which control inflammation) and omega-6 fatty acids (which stimulate inflammation) along with exercise, sleep, water, and stress reduction can normalize inflammation and help your body thrive.[2
Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods
What you don’t eat on an anti-inflammatory diet is just as important as what you do eat. Instead of eating foods that trigger inflammation, you will provide your system with dietary choices that soothe it.
The basics of an anti-inflammatory diet are very similar to the eating plan I recommend for optimum health.
Centered on fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, herbs, and spices, it shares many of the features of a plant-based Mediterranean diet — which has been shown to extend length and quality of life.[3 Research also suggests that vegetarians and vegans have reduced inflammation and a lower risk of heart disease.
Be sure not to go overboard on carbohydrates, especially sugar, which can upset the balance of hormones in your body that affect inflammation.
Try to eat a rainbow of non-starchy vegetables and fresh fruits at every meal. Colorful produce typically contains a lot of antioxidants, which support the immune system by fighting disease-causing free radicals and preventing inflammation.
Fruits and vegetables also contain phytochemicals, compounds found in plants that help protect cells.
You can’t go wrong with most vegetables, but make sure to include the following:
- Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collards
- Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage
- Root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and rutabaga
- Onions, garlic, scallions, and other edible bulbs
Some people are sensitive to produce in the nightshade family (including eggplant, tomatoes, and bell peppers), but for most people, these are also great choices.