Inflammation. It’s one of the buzziest words in the health world right now, yet it’s still a subject many people don’t fully understand.
That’s because inflammation, your immune system’s defense process, can be a good guy and a bad guy in our bodies. At the right times and in the right amounts, it’s a much-needed, natural part of your body’s day-to-day processes. “You need inflammation to stay alive in a hostile world,” says Barry Sears, Ph.D., author of the Zone Diet book series and president of the Inflammation Research Foundation. Without [it], you could not fight off microbial invasions, nor would physical injuries be able to heal.”
Things go south when your body can’t turn that inflammation off after it’s done its job, says Sears. Excess inflammation can cause weight gain, speed up the aging process, and even spur the development of chronic disease—and thanks to lifestyle factors like a processed Western diet and lack of exercise, it’s an issue for many Americans.
The good news: Small everyday changes can help fend off excess inflammation. Here are five the experts recommend.
1. Get Chummy with Cherries
Next time you visit the supermarket, grab some tart cherries or added-sugar-free tart cherry juice, says Chrissy Carroll, M.P.H., R.D. and USAT level-I triathlon coach. “Tart cherries are packed with polyphenols, like anthocyanins,” she says. Research suggests that these antioxidants help fight cellular damage and oxidative stress caused by free radicals, which are major factors in inflammation and have been linked to chronic inflammatory diseases.
One small study found that women with inflammatory joint issues drank about 10 ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day for three weeks had lower levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a common marker of inflammation.
Exactly how many cherries you need to consume to benefit still isn’t clear, since study doses have ranged from 45 to 270 cherries-worth of juice a day. For now, Carroll recommends either a cup of tart cherry juice or about 45 whole tart cherries a day.
2. Adopt An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
If you’re ready to commit to the anti-inflammatory game, your diet is a great place to start, says Rebecca Kerkenbush, M.S., R.D.
One major reason for this: An anti-inflammatory diet promotes a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In general, Americans consume too many omega-6 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in the seed and vegetable oils used in packaged snacks and fast food. These fats encourage the body to synthesize hormones that promote inflammation, so step one is to reduce your consumption of processed foods, says Kerkenbush.
Next, amp up your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods like fatty fish (hello, salmon), walnuts, avocados, flax, and hemp. Unlike omega-6s, these fats have a protective effect on our immune system. “Omega-3s, in doses of three grams or more per day, have been found to be effective for reducing morning stiffness and joint discomfort,” she says.
Once you’ve got your omegas right, make sure your diet is also rich in antioxidants (vegetables and berries) and fiber (whole grains and legumes), both of which also have immune-boosting properties. “Many studies are showing that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is good for decreasing inflammation,” says Kerkenbush. The more servings the better, so aim for eight to 10 servings of produce per day.
Of course, there are a few foods to avoid, too, including anything high in trans fat, saturated fat, simple carbs, and added sugar, says Kerkenbush. Limit these as much as possible.
3. Get More Sleep
“One often-overlooked cause of inflammation is sleep deprivation,” says Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach and founder of online sleep resource SleepZoo. People who don’t get enough shut-eye (one in three adults) experience higher levels of inflammation than those that do.
Sleep durations outside of the usual seven to eight hours seem to increase our levels of different types of cytokines, like that inflammation marker CRP we talked about earlier.
“It seems that too little sleep throws the body’s inflammatory response processes out of whack,” says Brantner. “It’s almost as if your body treats inadequate sleep as it would an illness, which might also help explain why your body is more susceptible to viruses when you haven’t been sleeping enough.”
It’s not just people with chronic sleep issues who experience this, either. Research indicates even just one night of too-short sleep—about six hours or less—is enough to trigger an inflammatory response.
If you’re struggling to squeeze in enough shut-eye, reevaluate your day-to-day habits. Bringing your phone into bed with you, consuming caffeine after two o’clock, and not sticking to a set bedtime and wakeup time can all throw off your sleep patterns—and increase inflammation.
4. Show Low-Intensity Exercise Some Love
Everyone’s all about high-intensity interval training these days, but if you go as hard as you can every single workout, you put your body in a continuous state of stress that experts say could trigger chronic inflammation.
“Plain and simple, exercise is stress, and when we exercise we create a state of inflammation,” says Aaron Drogoszewski, L.M.T., C.P.T., co-founder of ReCOVER in New York City, the first boutique studio dedicated solely to recovery. While we need some inflammation to adapt and grow stronger, too much is still too much—and doing high-intensity exercise too often can do more harm than good.
We’re not saying to swear off HIIT completely. (We wouldn’t want you to miss out on the benefits, like burning more calories long after your workout is over.) You should limit high-intensity sessions to a few times a week, though, and opt for lower-intensity exercise like walking or jogging the other days.
Related: Are You Doing Too Much HIIT?
While higher-intensity exercise spurs inflammation, low-intensity exercise can actually help fight it off. One small study found that even short, 20-minute sessions of treadmill walking had an anti-inflammatory effect by decreasing levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body.
In other words, if you don’t feel like going all out in the gym, that’s okay! It could be your body’s way of saying a more relaxed session is just what you need.
5. Finally Start Meditating
If you’ve been convinced that meditation is too woo-woo for you, it’s time for an attitude adjustment. Science has shown over and over again that meditation offers a myriad of benefits—including lower markers of inflammation.
In one study, researchers used the Trier Social Stress Test (which has participants give a presentation and perform a math test) and capsaicin cream to produce psychological stress and physical inflammation in participants. Some participants then followed a mindfulness meditation, while others used an unrelated stress-management practice. After measuring immune and hormonal markers of inflammation, the researchers found the meditation to be more effective for reducing stress-induced inflammation.