If you regularly follow health news or read about wellness, you’ve likely been hearing a lot about inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s natural protective response to infection or injury. If you cut your finger, for example, your immune system responds by sending white blood cells to repair the open wound. These cells then trigger an acute, or temporary, inflammatory response to aid the healing process. This type of inflammation is no biggie, and is actually good for you; it’s when inflammation sticks around too long that it becomes potentially dangerous. (Causes of chronic, or long-term, inflammation include stress, smoking, as well as other things—but more on that soon.)
Long-term inflammation has been linked to almost every major chronic disease, most notably, high blood pressure and stroke. In fact, it’s each person's unique inflammatory response that may partially explain why one smoker or heavy drinker develops blocked arteries (a condition that can lead to a heart attack) while another does not, explains doctor Michael Miller, a professor of cardiovascular medicine.
While experts are still sorting out exactly how inflammation affects our health, we know that taking steps to reduce inflammation levels is an excellent way to safeguard your heart—and the rest of your body, too. Here are a few ways to get started.
Smoking triggers an inflammatory response, Dr. Miller says, and it also increases the rate that fatty deposits, or plaque, build up in the arteries, an additional source of chronic inflammation. And like a snowball, as the area of plaque accumulation grows, so does the inflammation surrounding it. This increases the odds that the plaque will rupture, which can lead to the kind of blockage that causes a heart attack, he says.
If kicking your cigarette habit cold turkey seems daunting, talk to your doctor about other strategies, like joining a local support group or taking a nicotine replacement product.
“Staying active—not running 20 miles, but getting up and moving around—is really important,” Dr. Miller says. Research has shown 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week can reduce your inflammation levels by 12%.
Eat anti-inflammatory foods
Studies have also repeatedly linked a Mediterranean diet—which is rich in fatty fish, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes—to lower levels of inflammation. Meanwhile, diets lacking veggies that are high in sugar, refined grains, and trans fats tend to promote inflammation, some studies show. (Pro tip: Just because a product says it has zero grams of trans fat, doesn't actually mean it's actually trans-fat free. If the ingredient list contains anything hydrogenated, there are trans fats present in the product, and you should find an alternative option.)
“A little bit of alcohol can also be helpful,” Dr. Miller says. While there are concerns that any amount of alcohol consumption may increase your risk for some cancers, research has found moderate consumption—up to a drink a day for women, or two for men—can knock down your levels of inflammation. If you’re a teetotaler, Dr. Miller says antioxidant-rich foods like grapes, berries, and 70% dark chocolate can also be helpful. (Pro tip: Stick to a 30 gram serving of chocolate to keep calories in check.)
Take time to unwind
Taking part in activities that lower anxiety—and avoiding stuff that stresses you out—is a great way to reduce inflammation. “More and more we’re seeing that emotional health and stress play a role in inflammation,” Dr. Miller says.
He mentions yoga—a proven stress-beater—and also recommends spending time with friends who make you laugh. “We know laughing can reduce the stiffness and aging of blood vessels,” he explains. Taking regular breaks from your smartphone (a common and constant source of stress) is also a good idea.
This article originally appeared on Prevention