By Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Although inflammation plays a vital role in the body’s defense and repair systems, chronic inflammation can do more harm than good. This might make you wonder: what can I do?
In fact, you can do a lot. You may already be doing this. That’s because some of the most important ways to fight inflammation are the things you should do routinely.
Let’s look at the key elements of fighting chronic inflammation: prevention, detection, and treatment.
Six Ways to Prevent Unhealthy Inflammation
- The six most effective ways to prevent inflammation are:
- Choose a healthy diet. Individual foods have little effect on systemic inflammation, so no, eating more kale is not likely to help much. But making sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and pulses – sometimes called an anti-inflammatory diet – can reduce inflammation and reduce your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Not only can these diets help reduce inflammation, but replacing foods that increase inflammation, such as sugary drinks and highly processed foods, is also good for your body.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help fight certain types of inflammation by regulating the immune system. For example, exercise has anti-inflammatory effects on white blood cells and chemical messengers called cytokines.
- maintain a healthy weight. Because excess fat in cells triggers inflammation throughout the body, avoiding excess weight is an important way to prevent fat-related inflammation. Weight management can also reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which itself causes chronic inflammation.
- Stress management. Repeated stimulation of stress hormones can lead to chronic inflammation. Yoga, deep breathing, mindfulness practices, and other forms of relaxation can all help calm your nervous system.
- don’t smoke. Inhaling toxins in cigarette smoke can trigger airway inflammation, damage lung tissue, and increase the risk of lung cancer and other health problems.
- try to prevent inflammation, such as
- Infections: Take steps to avoid infections that can lead to chronic infections
inflammation. HIV, Hepatitis C and COVID-19 are examples.
Practicing safe sex, not sharing needles, and having regular vaccinations are examples of effective preventative measures.
- Cancer: Follow the schedule recommended by your doctor for cancer screening. For example, colonoscopy can detect and remove polyps that may later become cancerous.
- Allergies: By avoiding triggering asthma, eczema, or allergic reactions, you can reduce the burden of inflammation in your body.
Do you need to test for inflammation?
Although inflammation tests are not generally recommended, it can be useful in some cases. For example, inflammation tests can help diagnose some conditions, such as topical arteritis, or monitor how well treatment manages inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis.
However, there is no perfect inflammation test. The best way to know if inflammation is present is with normal medical care. Seeing your primary care doctor, reviewing your medical history and any symptoms you have, having a physical exam, and doing some basic medical tests are all reasonable places to start. This routine care does not usually include inflammation tests.
How is inflammation treated?
At first glance, treating unhealthy chronic inflammation may seem simple: you’re taking anti-inflammatory drugs, right? In fact, it means much more than that.
Anti-inflammatory drugs help to treat inflammation. And we have many FDA-approved options widely available – many are cheap generic versions. What’s more, these drugs have been around for decades.
Corticosteroids, like prednisone, are the gold standard. These powerful anti-inflammatory drugs can save lives in conditions ranging from asthma to allergic reactions.
Other anti-inflammatory drugs are also very effective against inflammation. Ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin – which may already be in your medicine cabinet – are among about 20 non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) available in tablets, tablets, oral fluids, skin products, injections and even doses.
However, relying solely on anti-inflammatory drugs to treat chronic inflammation is often not the best option. This is because these drugs can be taken for a long time and often cause unacceptable side effects. Detecting and treating the cause of inflammation is much better. Many types of chronic inflammation can be ameliorated or improved with this approach. It can also eliminate the need for other anti-inflammatory treatments.
For example, chronic liver inflammation from hepatitis C infection can lead to scarring of the liver, cirrhosis, and ultimately liver failure. Medicines that reduce inflammation do not solve the problem, are not particularly effective, and can cause intolerable side effects. However, currently available treatments can cure most cases of chronic hepatitis C. Once done, no anti-inflammatory treatment is needed.
Similarly, in people with rheumatoid arthritis, anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or steroids may be a short-term way of helping to relieve symptoms, but joint damage can remain unabated. Managing the underlying disease with drugs such as methotrexate or etanercept can protect the joints and eliminate the need for other anti-inflammatory drugs.