Medically reviewed by Dr. Stacy Hengisman MD and Felice Ramallo MSRD.
You may have seen certain foods referred to as ‘anti-inflammatory,’ which sounds like a good thing - but what does it actually mean for a food to be anti-inflammatory? And if anti-inflammatory foods are good for our health, then you might think it naturally follows that inflammation would be something we want to reduce (more on whether this is accurate or not, later!). In this article, we’ll be discussing what inflammation entails, the different kinds of inflammation - acute and chronic - as well as staples of an anti-inflammatory diet, and what foods have scientific evidence indicating they reduce inflammation in the body. Let’s dive in.
What is inflammation?
According to Cleveland Clinic, when your body encounters an agent that it thinks is dangerous or a threat (such as a virus, toxic chemicals, or bacteria), it “activates your immune system,” which sends out inflammatory cells and things called cytokines (which stimulate more inflammatory cells). The immune system recognizes and responds to substances called antigens on the surfaces of cells, viruses, fungi, or bacteria (substances like drugs, chemicals, and foreign particles - such as a splinter - also can be antigens), and the immune system works to destroy substances that contain antigens.
Note that your body’s own cells have proteins that are antigens; your immune system learns to see these antigens as normal and “usually does not react against them.” The exception here is in those that have conditions like an autoimmune disease, since an autoimmune disease manifests when your body can’t tell the difference between its own cells and foreign cells, which triggers your immune system to attack normal cells.
Now let’s talk about the two types of inflammation: chronic and acute.
Acute inflammation is a response to “sudden body damage, such as cutting your finger.” To heal the injury, your immune system will send inflammatory cells to the site of the damage, and your cells will begin the healing process.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation is used to describe the phenomenon of your body continually sending inflammatory cells “when there is no outside danger.” For instance, rheumatoid arthritis (also a common autoimmune disorder) is an example of inflammatory cells attacking joint tissues, which leads to inflammation, and can cause severe damage to joints, as well as extreme pain.
Symptoms of inflammation
The difference between chronic and acute inflammation shows up in symptoms, as well as how it impacts one’s health.
Symptoms of acute inflammation include:
- Flushed skin at the site of the injury
Symptoms of chronic inflammation include:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Skin rash
Causes of inflammation
Common causes of chronic inflammation include autoimmune disorders, exposure to toxins (such as pollution), and untreated chronic inflammation (likely stemming from an injury that your body hasn’t been able to repair itself and has gone untreated). Aside from these triggers, lifestyle factors can cause or worsen inflammation, such as smoking and drinking alcohol in excess.
Diseases linked to increased inflammation
According to the United States’ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, chronic inflammation “plays a key role in many diseases” and chronic inflammatory diseases themselves “contribute to more than half of deaths worldwide.” Unfortunately, scientists and researchers are only beginning to understand the extent of how inflammation may be linked to certain diseases (such as type 2 diabetes). With that being said, inflammation is associated with the following conditions:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
What does anti-inflammatory mean?
When something is described as “anti-inflammatory” it simply means that it is thought to, or known to, reduce inflammation in the body.
Building an anti-inflammatory diet
It’s important to note that Harvard Health reports that, as of right now, it is “not clear that a specific type of diet can prevent chronic inflammation.” With that being said, there is evidence that some foods can be associated with “either promoting or inhibiting the inflammatory response.”
The Mediterranean diet (which we have written about extensively) is a good example of a diet that naturally incorporates many foods that have been studied and show promise in having an anti-inflammatory effect. The Mediterranean diet, in a nutshell, is high in fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts, fish, and whole grains, while lower in processed foods, red meat, soda, and refined carbohydrates - in other words, it’s lower in foods that are linked to higher levels of inflammation.
According to Harvard Health, a good anti-inflammatory diet likely includes the following foods:
- Olive oil
- Leafy greens (think spinach, collard greens, and kale)
- Nuts (like walnuts and almonds)
- Fatty fish
- Fruits (like strawberries, blueberries, and cherries)
Fruits and vegetables that are high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols (protective compounds found in plants) are thought to reduce inflammation, and with it, the risk of chronic disease.
There is also evidence that coffee (which contains polyphenols as well), may be protective against inflammation, and scientists conjecture this is why it is “often linked to a lower risk of illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and possibly even certain types of cancer.”
Do you have inflammation?
It’s critically important that if you notice symptoms of inflammation, or you feel your body is ‘off’ for whatever reason, that you make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Once you make an appointment with your doctor, he or she can potentially:
- Ask about ongoing symptoms, as well as when they began
- Perform a physical exam
- Ask if there seems to be a trigger for these symptoms
- Run a test for inflammation
- One blood test designed to test for chronic inflammation measures a protein produced by the liver called C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is thought to rise in response to inflammation.
- Give a specialist referral if they need to
Ultimately, making an appointment with your primary care doctor should be your first port of call as you work to understand if you may have inflammation, and the best course of action forward.
Interested in learning more about the Mediterranean diet? Check out Allara’s article on the different diets and what they entail, or dig into this article to understand what the research says on whether organic food really is better for you.