You may wonder what to do beyond anti-inflammatory eating to reduce chronic inflammation.
However, this article will focus primarily on lifestyle factors associated with inflammation and the best ways to reduce inflammation.
What is Chronic Inflammation?
Acute or short-term Inflammation is a normal and beneficial response to illness, injury, or disease. Inflammation helps your body to repair and return to baseline.
Inflammation can become chronic (or long-term), with the whole body inflamed for months or years. Chronic conditions, lifestyle factors, aging, stress, and food can cause chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation doesn’t allow your body to rest. It makes you prone to developing (or worsening existing) heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, weaker immune system, and auto-immune conditions, to name a few.
Chronic inflammation is measured in the body with c-reactive protein (CRP) scores. Your liver makes more CRP in response to inflammation.
Research on the Impact of Diet and Lifestyle on Chronic Inflammation
I created a free, detailed, printable anti-inflammatory food list to help you prioritize foods beneficial to lowering inflammation.
This printable anti-inflammatory food list was based on large cross-sectional data that included over 14,000 adults. The authors selected 19 food groups and four lifestyle characteristics among a diverse population group.
They then calculated the weight (or to what extent) that food group or lifestyle was associated with inflammation markers like CRP.
The authors categorized dietary (DIS) and lifestyle inflammation (LIS ) scores to help guide impactful changes.
Four Lifestyle Factors that Increase Inflammation
1. Alcohol Intake Causes Inflammation
The authors of the DIS/LIS study compared heavy alcohol intake to non-drinkers.
Heavy drinking is defined as more than one drink per day for women and more than two drinks per day for men. Examples of one drink = 14 grams of alcohol (12 oz beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz shot of distilled spirits).
Heavy drinking was pro-inflammatory for men and women. Digesting alcohol causes oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress creates excess unstable molecules and decreases beneficial antioxidant levels. This environment causes damage to cells in the body.
Research shows that excess alcohol can inflame the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and promote inflammation in the whole body. Alcohol alters good bacteria negatively and causes bacteria overgrowth.
Heavy drinking leads to more permeable intestinal walls, allowing harmful substances to leak out where they shouldn’t.
Thankfully, studies are showing that the adverse effects of heavy drinking can be prevented or reversed with diet changes and vitamin or mineral supplements.
2. Physical Inactivity Increases Inflammation
Moderate and heavy physically active participants were compared to non-exercisers. Exercise was defined as “working up a sweat” one to three times per week (for moderate), whereas heavy exercise was at least four times per week.
Physical activity was anti-inflammatory. Heavy exercisers gained even more benefits related to system-wide inflammation reduction.
Exercise upregulates antioxidant enzymes, lowers blood vessel inflammation, and allows the body to have the capacity for more antioxidants, which reduce inflammation.
3. Smoking Causes Inflammation and Depletes Antioxidants
Participants shared if they smoked tobacco or did not currently smoke. Smoking is inflammatory.
Toxins from tobacco smoking injure tissues and increase pro-inflammatory enzymes.
The recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C (anti-inflammatory vitamin) is increased by 35 mg daily for people who smoke.
Research shows that vitamin C supplementation while smoking can prevent vitamin E depletion. Vitamin E helps protect the lungs, so it is a critical anti-inflammatory nutrient to preserve.
4. Excess Weight Releases Inflammatory Compounds
Individuals with a BMI classified as overweight had elevated levels of CRP (inflammation).
Individuals with a BMI classified as obese had a weighted inflammatory effect almost two times that of those in the overweight category.
Researchers have investigated why this increased inflammation occurs. Fat tissues release inflammatory markers in all people, but more inflammatory markers are released in individuals with more fat mass.
Additionally, after a high processed food and fat meal, the body releases inflammatory compounds. Even more inflammatory compounds are released in individuals with type 2 diabetes and obesity after such a meal.
Anti-inflammatory foods containing vitamin C, E, and carotenoids (vitamin E) can blunt the inflammatory release if eaten along with the inflammatory foods.
Excess fat releases more inflammatory compounds and exacerbates the inflammatory response after eating inflammatory foods.
What’s More Important: Diet, Exercise, or Lifestyle Factors?
All Factors are Important
According to the DIS/LIS study, individual LIS or DIS categories contribute modestly to chronic system-wide inflammation. But when combined, the categories contribute substantially and interact with each other.
Lifestyle factors like alcohol, lack of exercise, smoking, and excess weight correlate to higher levels of CRP or inflammation in the body.
When comparing participants in the lowest (most inflammatory factor score) to the highest (most anti-inflammatory factor score), there was a 66% higher odds of having a high CRP level.
Lifestyle and eating are interconnected. What someone eats can blunt or reduce inflammation caused by lifestyle factors.
Do What Works For You
Each person can find the best way to reduce inflammation that works in their season of life. Diet, exercise, and lifestyle are all important.
Pick what you can do (imperfectly) now.
Here is an example from first-grade math. My oldest child is learning the pairs of numbers that add up to ten. There are nine ways to add up pairs of numbers that equal ten.
All factors are important for reducing inflammation but have a greater effect when added together.
Five Ways to Reduce Inflammation
1. Add More Movement
I do not like sitting in school pickup lines. My distaste for buckling kids in car seats, driving around other stressed-out and rushed people, and sitting idly in a vehicle outweighs the work of walking 0.7 miles pushing a double stroller.
Now that my health allows that movement, I have added walking school pick-ups to get more activity and enjoy the outside time. And it takes the same amount of time!
Think about ways you can add activity to your daily routine. If it becomes a routine, you are likelier to do it and will make a larger impact than sporadic gym attendance.
2. Reduce Drinking to Moderate or Minimal Levels
Reducing alcohol intake to one drink or less daily reduces oxidative stress and inflammation.
Some research finds this lower level of alcohol intake can help some people lower inflammation. The research is primarily associated with wine and heart disease. There are some health conditions where regular alcohol intake in any amount is inflammatory.
3. Quit Smoking
This is easy for me as a healthcare professional to say, but quitting smoking will be difficult for most.
I don’t know many people who think smoking is beneficial for them. The negative health effects of smoking are clear. Seek help from your primary care provider for assistance and possible medications to help you quit smoking.
4. Work on Reducing Excess Weight
Moving from the obese to overweight category improves how your body handles inflammation and the extent to which your body makes inflammatory compounds.
Research has shown that weight loss improves inflammatory markers (CRP). The greatest improvement in markers is achieving at least 10% weight loss.
A woman who is 5 foot 4 inches tall (average female height) is considered obese at 174 pounds or more. Ten percent weight loss of 180 pounds would equate to 18 pounds.
Small changes can lead to slow, sustainable weight loss and help you reduce inflammation.
5. Add Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Your Inflammatory Lifestyle Factors
Anti-inflammatory foods can blunt the effect inflammatory choices have on your body.
If you are not ready or able to stop some of your inflammatory choices, just add some healthful things to your diet. It is not all or nothing!
- Animal studies have shown that eating oats (anti-inflammatory) with heavy drinking reduces gut inflammation.
- Ensure you are eating vitamin C-rich foods daily if you smoke. These help preserve your vitamin E levels, which helps protect your lungs.
- Anti-inflammatory foods containing vitamin C, E, and carotenoids (vitamin E) can lessen the inflammatory release if eaten along with the inflammatory foods (highly processed and fatty foods). Eat a salad with your french fries and a fried chicken sandwich.
Lifestyle factors significantly contribute to inflammation. Four lifestyle factors that worsen inflammation are heavy alcohol intake, inactivity, smoking, and excess fat.
However, research shows it’s not all or nothing, nor is it one factor alone. Diet and lifestyle factors are interconnected.
And when your lifestyle continues to be inflammatory, diet can lessen the inflammatory response within your body.
Pick the things you feel ready to change and start. It will never be perfect, and small changes are impactful.
Let’s get UNstuck and stay UNstuck!