Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response to an irritant, injury, or infection. It is an effective mechanism for signaling the immune system that something needs to be repaired, or that there is an intruder that should be kicked out.

Inflammatory responses are not entirely good or bad. On the one hand, acute inflammation is crucial for defending ourselves against harmful pathogens and healing from injuries. On the other hand, research has shown that chronic or sustained inflammation can contribute to a wide range of health problems, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and metabolic conditions.

Chronic or severe inflammation triggers profound changes in the body, like the increase of immune cells in the bloodstream. Very generally speaking, this surplus of immune cells, together with other factors, can make the immune system attack the body’s own cells by mistake, potentially causing a number of conditions collectively referred to as “chronic inflammatory diseases.” Some examples of chronic inflammatory diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, and more.

Several things can trigger inflammation besides infection and injury. Long-term exposure to irritants, such as cigarette smoke or industrial chemicals, alcohol overuse, obesity, and chronic stress, also contribute to chronic inflammation. An unhealthy diet has also been linked to persistent low-grade inflammation.

Treating inflammation will often depend on the cause, severity, and frequency of the symptoms. Sometimes, making a few lifestyle changes may be all you need. Other times, however, it’s important to get it under control with medical treatments or dietary supplements to avoid long-term damage.

Doctors are learning that one of the best ways to reduce inflammation lies not in the medicine cabinet, but in the refrigerator. You can fight off inflammation by following an anti-inflammatory diet, avoiding foods known to cause inflammation and eating more functional foods.

What are ‘Functional Foods’?

Although there is no universal definition of functional food, a typical and simple definition is “foods having disease-preventing and/or health-promoting benefits in addition to their nutritive value.”

Functional foods health benefits include:

Providing antioxidants (like carotenoids, flavonoids, lycopene, anthocyanin and polyphenols) that fight free radical damage.
Reducing inflammation.
Aiding in disease prevention, such as reducing the risk for cardiovascular diseases, neurological conditions, depression or cancer.
Supporting gut health and therefore enhancing the immune system.
Providing live microbial cultures, also called probiotic bacteria.
Providing “prebiotics” that help feed probiotics.
Reducing pathogenic bacteria and microbes.

How can functional foods help fight disease?

Each functional food works a bit differently, depending on the specific compounds it contains. Some of the ways that functional foods offer protection against illnesses include:

Counteracting the negative effects of stress, such as by offering B vitamins, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Supporting detoxification and digestive health.
Protecting the brain from free radical damage and supporting cognitive/mental health.
Aiding in nutrient absorption.
Balancing cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as regulating heartbeats.
Helping build and maintain bone mass, such as by lowering acidity and helping alkalize the body.
Managing blood sugar levels, such as by providing fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Helping with weight management and obesity prevention.

Foods to Fight Inflammation

Here are five foods that can help ease and improve the symptoms of inflammation naturally:

Berries

Most berries are packed with fiber, vitamins, and a type of plant-based compounds called polyphenols. Polyphenols are naturally occurring micronutrients present in many red, blue, purple, and dark plant foods. Generally speaking, the polyphenols in berries act as antioxidants and are capable of reducing inflammation, neutralizing free radicals, and fighting cell damage.

There are dozens of varieties of berries, but some of the healthiest include:

  • Blueberries
  • Goji berries
  • Raspberries
  • Açai berries
  • Cranberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries

Avocado

One of the first foods to be endowed with the name “superfood,” avocados are packed with potassium, fiber, magnesium, and healthy fats capable of reducing inflammation, helping you lose belly fat, and protecting against heart disease.

Avocados may also help lessen the inflammatory effects of fatty foods such as hamburgers, a study published by the Royal Society of Chemistry of the United Kingdom found. For the study, 11 healthy participants were asked to eat a hamburger patty alone or a hamburger patty with 68 grams of avocado for two meals.

Vascular and nervous system responses were measured two hours later to look for specific inflammatory markers. The study results showed that, whereas participants who only ate meat experienced a significant increase in IL-6 (a pro-inflammatory protein), no such changes were observed when the hamburger patty was consumed with avocado.

Whole Grains

In a review of 9 studies published by the journal Medicine, investigators found that eating a diet rich in whole grains, such as oatmeal, barley, brown rice, and whole wheat, can help reduce systemic inflammation.

Part of the reason why whole grains can effectively reduce inflammatory markers is thanks to their fiber content. In contrast to more popular refined grains, whole grains are left intact during the manufacturing process. This ensures that the bran, germ, and endosperm – all of which are packed with beneficial nutrients such as fiber – remain inside the grain when we eat it.

Incorporating more whole grains into your diet doesn’t have to be hard! Try these simple tips to add more whole grains to your meals:

  • Swap white bread for whole-grain bread or rolls.
  • Blitz rolled oats or quinoa to use in recipes as a substitute for breadcrumbs.
  • Replace or mix white rice with brown or wild rice.
  • Enjoy them as a snack! Popcorn is considered a whole grain, but avoid using microwave-ready bags. Bagged popcorn has been linked with myriad health problems, from lung damage to increased risk for certain kinds of cancer.

Fatty Fish

Contrary to popular belief, “fatty” doesn’t always mean “bad for you,” as demonstrated by salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and the rest of their omega-3-rich cousins. Fatty fishes are amongst the healthiest animal foods you can eat.

Packed with heart-healthy fats, protein, omega-3, EPA, and DHA, research suggests that consuming fish or EPA and DHA supplements can reduce inflammatory markers in the body. It may also protect against cardiovascular disease and lower the risk of developing chronic inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms have been eaten by humans – both as food and as medicine – for thousands of years. Albeit low in calories, mushrooms are abundant sources of essential vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and potent anti-inflammatory compounds like polysaccharides and polyphenols. However, studies show that cooking mushrooms can destroy a significant amount of anti-inflammatory compounds, so it’s best to eat them raw or lightly cooked, whenever possible.

Some of the healthiest edible mushroom varieties you can eat:

  • Shiitake
  • Oyster
  • Reishi
  • Portobello
  • Porcini
  • Chanterelle
  • Lion’s mane
  • Chaga mushrooms – often consumed as tea

Foods to Avoid

Preventing inflammation in your body can be simple when you follow an anti-inflammatory diet. There are many foods that cause inflammation, and cutting back on them will improve your overall health. Chronic inflammation can lead to worrisome health problems, such as heart disease, acne, and even cancer, so being aware of the foods that cause inflammation is crucial for a healthy lifestyle.

White sugar
White sugar, found in sweets like candy, cakes, and other deserts is one of the biggest culprits of inflammation. It elevates blood glucose levels and is also highly addictive, which means if you start eating sugary foods, you’ll crave them more and more. Everything in moderation is okay, but the less white sugar you have in your system, the better.

Sweeteners
Sweeteners like Agave and Splenda are really no better than sugar itself, and might even be worse. Not only do they cause inflammation but they are also linked to other health conditions and diseases since sugar slows your white blood cell activity.  The safest drink for quenching thirst is water, unsweetened coffee or tea.

Peanuts
Peanuts can cause major inflammation in the body. This applies to peanut butter and oil as well, so it’s probably in your best interest to switch to organic almond, cashew, or other nut butters.

Dairy
Frozen yogurt, cheese, ice cream, butter – all of these foods cause inflammation. Dairy is a common allergen, and unfortunately, many dairy products contain hormones and antibiotics that your body is better off without.

Alcohol
Alcohol causes inflammation due to its negative effect on your liver function. Excessive amounts of alcohol can disturb the way your organs interact leading to inflammation and other diseases. If you can’t eliminate it, then drink it in moderation –  too many alcoholic beverages can be harmful.

Gluten
Found in foods with wheat, rye, and barley, gluten products are known to result in inflammation. If you suffer from celiac disease, you have to cut gluten out completely, and even if you don’t it’s best to keep your gluten intake to a minimum to prevent inflammation. Quinoa and buckwheat are good alternatives.

Vegetable oil
Vegetable oil is high in omega 6 fats, which can throw off your body’s balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, causing inflammation. Coconut oil is one of the best alternatives to cook with.

Refined carbs
Foods like white bread, white rice, and white potatoes are refined carbs that are no good for your body. They are high-glycemic-index foods that lead to advanced glycation end (AGE) products. This leads to inflammation, not to mention these foods are a main cause of obesity and other health concerns.

GMO corn
Genetically modified corn is really harsh on your system and causes inflammation in your stomach. Avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup and corn oil for the best anti-inflammatory results.

Red meat
Hormones and preservatives often found in red meat products can be troublesome. Wild-caught fish or tofu are healthier alternatives that won’t cause inflammation.

Artificial chemicals
Preservatives, additives, and food coloring can all be found in processed foods, which are really bad for your system. Your body triggers an immune system response since it doesn’t recognize these things as food and you’re left with inflammation.

Trans fats
Trans fats can be found in fast and fried foods, cookies, donuts, and even crackers. Consumption of these no-good fatty acids can create excess inflammation in your body as well as numerous other health issues such as heart disease and diabetes.

MSG
MSG leads to liver inflammation, and since your liver is your most metabolic organ it creates systematic inflammation in the rest of your body. You should be eliminating MSG entirely. It can be found in many processed dinners, potatoes chips, restaurant foods, salty flavored snacks, and much more. Do your research and try your best to cut it out.

Deep-fried foods
Deep-fried foods are harder to digest than baked or pan-fried foods.  Eating deep-fried foods can increase your exposure to free radicals so if possible, avoid them altogether.

High sodium/salt
Your body needs sodium to function, but too much can wreak havoc on your system.  One of the big charges against dietary salt is that it supposedly contributes to inflammation, which adds to the problems of high blood pressure.  However; high-salt is often associated with salty-junk-food, which some researchers feel could be skewing the results.  The jury is still out on the pure salt supplementation and inflammation connection.

The bottom line — You don’t necessarily need to eliminate all these foods completely from your diet. Moderation is key to a healthy lifestyle.  Adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet and avoiding inflammatory foods when you can is key to good health, feeling better, and living longer.