7 things to start doing to reduce chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation can lead to serious disease but you can modify your risk by making healthier lifestyle choices.

The acute inflammation we experience as part of the healing process whenever we injure ourselves (think redness, heat and swelling) is one thing.

But there’s another type of inflammation you need to know about — chronic inflammation.

That’s where the immune system stays switched on so that low-grade inflammation hangs around for months, even years.

And healthwise it can be a big problem.

While symptoms of chronic inflammation include joint pain, stiffness, digestive problems and fatigue, over time the condition can increase the risk of a range of serious diseases, from cancer and heart disease to diabetes and dementia.

One in three people in Australia are living with a disease caused by chronic inflammation.

But while some causes are beyond your control — such as advancing age or if you live with an autoimmune disease — others are much more modifiable or avoidable.

Here are seven things to start doing to reduce your risk of chronic inflammation.

1. Maintaining a healthy weight

“Obesity is a big trigger of chronic inflammation,” says Dr Anna Coussens, laboratory head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, where infection, inflammation and immunity are a key research theme.

What’s the link between carrying too much weight and inflammation?

Research shows that body fat not only stimulates the release of inflammatory chemicals and substances, it reduces the production of something called adiponectin, an anti-inflammatory protein hormone.

2 Getting a good night’s sleep

A 2020 study shows that fragmented sleep is linked to chronic inflammation, helping to explain the association between lack of sleep and an increased risk of heart disease.

Research-backed ways to help improve your sleep quality include sticking to regular bed and wake-up times, even on weekends, being physically active every day, keeping your bedroom temperature about 18C and eliminating light sources overnight.

3. Treating stress seriously

“Continuously elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, is another trigger of chronic inflammation,” Dr Coussens says.

“So if you’re living in a state of permanent stress, you’re probably living with chronic inflammation, too.”

According to research, there are various ways you can reduce your stress levels, from practising mindfulness and meditation to spending a short amount of time in nature daily.

Even patting a furry, four-legged friend for 10 minutes can significantly reduce cortisol levels.

4. Getting enough exercise

According to another 2020 study, people who exercise regularly have significantly younger inflammation “profiles” than people who don’t, and in recent years, research has started to shine a light on why.

Exercise has been found to alter gut microbes, lowering levels of inflammatory proteins called cytokines and increasing levels of anti-inflammatory cannabis-like substances called endocannabinoids.

Exercise starts to suppress inflammation in as little as 20 minutes, but accumulating at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity each week is recommended.

5. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet

Research shows that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts, wholegrains, legumes, olive oil and oily fish can help reduce inflammation.

“A healthy diet provides your body with antioxidants as well as micronutrients that cells require to function properly, and fibre to maintain a healthy gut microbiome,” Dr Coussens says.

“It also provides omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and we need to keep these in balance, otherwise too much omega-6 will also promote inflammation.”

6. Try intermittent fasting

“Fasting can help to reduce inflammation through several mechanisms,” says nutritionist Gabrielle Newman from The Fast 800 weight-loss program, which is based around a lower-carb, Mediterranean-style diet.

“Fasting activates a process called autophagy, where cells break down and recycle damaged components. This can help improve cellular function and metabolism, reducing inflammation.”

A study published earlier this year found fasting also raises levels of a chemical in the blood called arachidonic acid, which helps to inhibit inflammation.

There are various ways to fast, including only eating within a certain time frame each day or restricting food intake for a couple of days a week while eating normally on other days, but Gabrielle advises to “approach fasting safely”.

“At The Fast 800, we recommend consulting a health care professional before making significant changes to your diet or fasting routine, especially if you have underlying health conditions.”

7. Avoiding ultra-processed foods

Recent research not only suggests that eating a pro-inflammatory diet increases the risk of 27 chronic diseases, but ultra-processed foods are typically at the heart of those diets.

Concerningly, close to 50 per cent of the kilojoules eaten by people in Australia every day come from ultra-processed foods.

“Ultra-processed foods are high in refined carbs, unhealthy fats and additives,” Gabrielle says.

“These are often lacking in any beneficial nutrients or antioxidants. We recommend avoiding things like white bread, white rice, pastries, packaged snacks, sugary cereals
and pre-packaged meals.”

More on inflammation and healthy lifestyle tips

Written by Karen Fittall