Dinner plate with salmon and vegetables.

T he term “inflammation” gets thrown around a lot these days. But what does it really mean, and how does it affect your health?

“Inflammation is, very basically, the body’s reaction to something that’s not supposed to be there,” says Keenan Walker, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

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In short, inflammation is what your immune system sets in motion when it perceives a threat. It can be as simple as the swelling that occurs after an ankle sprain—as more blood flows to the area—or the fever that develops during an infection to create an unwelcoming environment for germs.

In those instances, inflammation is temporary and beneficial. But inflammation can also be chronic, affect a variety of systems and organs, and become a foe instead of a friend. Here’s what you need to know about how to reduce chronic inflammation.

How Inflammation Can Harm You

Scientists have long known that autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus—where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells­—cause chronic inflammation.

More recently, they’ve linked low-level chronic inflammation to heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and more.

The relationship between inflammation and disease, however, is complicated and not fully understood. For example, cholesterol buildup in the arteries can trigger an inflammatory response as the body’s protective immune cells try to sequester the cholesterol. But the activity of those cells also feeds the inflammatory response and causes plaque to grow.

The likelihood of chronic inflammation increases with age, but it can be difficult to tell when it’s present. With autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation can trigger redness, swelling, and pain. Often, though, you can’t feel its effects.

A doctor can measure your blood for certain markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP). He or she may suggest testing if you’re at risk of a heart attack or stroke. Your CRP levels can help determine which risk-lowering steps you should take.

Given the uncertainty, our experts say it’s wise to make the following healthy lifestyle changes. They can reduce inflammation and benefit you in other ways, too.

Eat to Reduce Inflammation

A lot of research has linked a healthy diet with lower levels of chronic inflammation. Consider these steps:

Go Mediterranean. A review of 17 studies published in 2014 in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases found that the Mediterranean diet—which focuses on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats such as olive oil—was associated with lower levels of CRP.

Limit food that can cause inflammation. “A pro-inflammatory diet is high in red meat, processed meat, organ meat, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages,” says Fred Tabung, Ph.D., a research associate in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. Don’t consume more than one alcoholic drink per day if you’re a woman (two for a man) because alcohol may also contribute to inflammation.

Strive for a healthy weight. “Obesity-associated chronic inflammation is well-recognized, which in part explains the high risk of chronic diseases in obese individuals,” says Dayong Wu, M.D., Ph.D., a scientist in the Nutritional Immunology Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. Get more info on weight control here. 

Get Frequent Physical Activity

Exercise can help lower inflammation, but it’s important to do it regularly, and, if you’ve been sedentary, give your body time to adapt to the physical stress of working out.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week, which can mean 30 minutes of brisk walking five days per week. Get more exercise advice here. 

Be Heart-Smart

Traditionally, it was thought that cardiovascular disease arose from the hardening and building up of plaque—made partly out of cholesterol—in arteries.

“But physicians really understand now that this is a disorder both of cholesterol and also of inflammation,” says Paul Ridker, M.D., a cardiologist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at the Harvard Medical School.

So keep your cholesterol within healthy levels, and do the same with blood pressure and blood glucose.

Diet, exercise, and weight loss are a good start. If you smoke, work to quit. Smoking puts “tremendous inflammatory pressure on the lungs,” Ridker says. You may want to ask whether you need a high-sensitivity CRP test, too, he suggests.

Get Your Vaccines, Sleep Well, and More

Avoiding injury and illness helps prevent inflammation levels from rising. Talk to your doctor about vaccinations, including those for pneumonia, shingles, and the flu.

Also, take good care of your teeth, because poor oral health can lead to infection and chronic inflammation, says Nancy Jenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

And try to aim for 7 or more hours of sleep each night. Too little sleep, which is linked to an increased risk of death from any cause­, is associated with higher levels of markers for chronic inflammation, according to a 2015 study in the journal Sleep.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.