“Chronic inflammation” is a buzzy term these days—and if you feel like you’re seeing more and more talk about it, well, you probably are. That’s because many aspects of modern life can contribute to this less than desirable state of being.
“Poor eating habits, toxins in food and products we use, and lack of water, movement, and sleep can all contribute to chronic inflammation,” says functional dietitian Paulina Lee, M.S.H.S., R.D., L.D., founder of Savvy Stummy.
It’s worth noting, inflammation itself isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a process needed for healing and repair. “Inflammation is the body’s way of addressing infections and many other perceived threats,” explains Jacob Hascalovici M.D., Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer of Clearing. “During the inflammatory process, the body pumps more blood to the affected area and may also release defense chemicals and white blood cells as it tries to control the damage. This is helpful during initial healing, which often occurs within three months.”
When inflammation becomes chronic, though, it becomes a problem. “Inflammation that persists past [initial healing] may become chronic inflammation, and may not be so helpful,” Hascalovici says. “Instead, it could be a sign of the body ‘getting stuck’ in defense mode, attacking the wrong cells or tissues, and maintaining an overly reactive immune system at the cost of your overall health.” Over time, excessive inflammation can lead to chronic issues like heart disease, stroke, and more, notes Lee.
The good news: There are many proactive things you can do to fight chronic inflammation (think eating the rainbow and minimizing alcohol consumption). However, there are a few sneaky contributors to chronic inflammation that you’ll want to be wary of in order to safeguard your health. Here are six inflammation up-regulators to look out for.
1. Excess Consumption of certain oils
Polyunsaturated fatty acids found in canola oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, and soybean oil are getting more attention recently for their potential negative impacts on our health. These oils are found in all sorts of different foods (particularly processed, packaged ones)—and many people are unaware that they contribute to inflammation.
“Polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, are very chemically fragile, causing them to break down easily and become rancid, especially when exposed to light, heat, and oxygen,” says Lee. “When this occurs, these fats are like an injury to the body, causing chronic, long-term inflammation.”
PUFAs are not problematic in small amounts, but consumption of the highly-processed oils that contain them is simply too high. As a result, these oils have become an item of debate, with many experts advising against common vegetable oils and seed oils. “Consuming too many PUFAs may prime the body for an inflammatory response,” Hascalovici says. “This calls for understanding which oils are best and how to use them.”
The fix? Emphasize healthy omega-3s in your diet. “We should include more omega-3 fatty acids from fish, fish oil, and pastured eggs because they tend to balance out the inflammation,” says Lee. (Here are more simple ways to load up on omega-3s.)
And when it comes to those cooking oils, Lee recommends swapping in avocado and/or olive oil for PUFA-containing options.
It’s also important to look for minimally processed varieties. “Cold-pressed, organic oils, for example, aren’t subject to the heat and higher processing many other oils undergo, and may be less likely to be involved with inflammation,” says Hascalovici. (Of course, it’s still important to keep oils from burning and releasing smoke during cooking.)
2. Spending too much time indoors
If you’re sitting indoors for extended periods of time, you’re not doing your health any favors. “Most individuals are indoors during the daytime,” Lee says. “And if you live in a part of the world where sunlight exposure decreases in the winter months, you miss out on crucial vitamin D exposure.”
In addition to supporting bone health and mineral balance, and regulating cell growth, vitamin D also works to promote inflammatory balance in the body. “Vitamin D acts as an immune modulator. This means it helps boost immune function when needed and protects against unnecessary inflammatory responses,” says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakey, R.D.N.
Since most foods don’t contain enough vitamin D to cover your bases, going out in the sun during the day really is your best bet, Lee says. You may also want to talk to your healthcare provider about adding a vitamin D supplement to your routine.
3. Chronic stress
Feeling like you’re always burning the candle at both ends isn’t good for inflammation. “Chronic stress can increase metabolic changes that result in inflammation and oxidative stress,” Lee says. “Ongoing exposure to psychological and/or physical stressors results in chronic engagement of our ‘fight or flight’ response, which includes releasing norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol.” Churn out these stress hormones all the time and your body literally thinks it’s in danger 24/7, which means more inflammation.
Chronic stress also disrupts the gut microbiome, contributing to imbalances that may lead to chronic inflammation and symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, gas, abdominal pain, and/or bloating, Hascalovici adds.
To help reduce stress levels, Lee recommends folding stress management and mindfulness techniques into your day. This can be as simple as meditating for a few minutes, taking a walk outside, or writing in a journal. (These nine acts of self-care take five minutes or less.)
4. Being obese
Obesity is another lesser-known factor that contributes to chronic inflammation. “Weight gain, when the body adds more adipose (fatty) cells, can trigger inflammatory sequences,” Hascalovici says. “After a while, you start to feel very tired or fatigued, even if you’re still able to sleep normally. This kind of persistent tiredness is an indication your body isn’t able to devote enough resources toward normal processes like healing, digestion, and more.”
Reducing body fat is one way you can combat continued inflammation, he notes. Check out these five signs of a sustainable weight-loss plan to help formulate a strategy to drop pounds safely.
5. Regular air pollution exposure
Disturbing yet unsurprising, air pollution and inflammation seem to be linked. “Air pollution exposure can spur inflammation throughout the body and contribute to additional oxidative stress,” says Hascalovici. “Though controlling the air quality as an individual isn’t always possible, people can still limit their exposures to problematic pollutants by checking air quality reports daily.” (Most phone weather apps include this info.)
On high pollution days, Hascalovici recommends staying farther away from highways and city centers, since heavy traffic makes for greater air pollution. Whenever possible, opt to take less crowded roads or work out either inside at home or in a park, away from the hustle and bustle (and resulting pollution).
6. Taking Certain medications
While prescription medications can certainly be important in certain circumstances, excessive or consistent intake of antibiotics or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can increase inflammation and gut dysbiosis, according to Lee. They also contribute to the release of lipopolysaccharides (LPS), also called endotoxins, which can weaken the intestinal barrier, allowing bacteria, undigested food, or inflammatory factors to leak back into the bloodstream.
Step one: Be mindful of your interaction with these drugs. From there, “when these medications are medically required, it’s important to support your gut microbiome before, during, and after use,” Lee says. Including supplemental probiotics, probiotic foods, and a variety of fiber-rich foods in your diet “can help protect the gut microbiome and help to balance things out,” she explains.