The word “inflammation” carries all sorts of negative connotations. For example, you don’t want to hear or see that a gash or rolled ankle is inflamed. You’ve probably also heard that inflammation is at the root of so many diseases and plays a key role in aging. In fact, inflammation is so much a part of conversations around aging these days, that a new term has been coined to note the connection: Inflammaging.
But, before getting to how inflammation contributes to and speeds aging, it’s important to know that some degree of inflammation is not only normal, it’s necessary and healthy. If you have an injury or illness, your body’s immune response includes sending off messages that trigger inflammation that helps fight off germs and facilitate healing.
Your body also constantly needs to eradicate old, worn-out cells and clean up the debris from the breakdown of those cells to rebuild, repair, and make way for new cells. White blood cells are primarily the demo and cleanup crew; free radicals and the resulting inflammation are their tools.
But, like in many situations, inflammation can quickly and easily can go from helpful to harmful. When it becomes excessive or when low-grade inflammation burns on and on unchecked, major problems can occur. That’s what people really mean when they talk about inflammation.
That excessive or ongoing inflammation contributes to the breakdown of healthy cells and normal tissue; there’s a higher concentration of white blood cells and free radicals damaging normal tissue, not only the old, worn-out cells. Your body also has to then clean up all the extra debris that’s now being created, which drives the inflammation response even harder, so things just get worse and worse.
One major side effect: Accelerated aging, and the increased risk of symptoms and illnesses that can come along for the ride.
The Connection Between Chronic Inflammation and Aging
Inflammation inside cells is a natural byproduct of mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are little organelles in cells that generate energy and power for cells to function, and as they do, free radical damage occurs inside the cells and to the mitochondria themselves.
If you’re generally healthy, inflammation is a normal process that naturally and slowly ages your cells and mitochondria over time. It helps explain why the healthiest among us live to be centenarians, but why activity levels and mobility naturally slow down as we all get on in years.
But if your body is constantly living in a state of abnormal inflammation, mitochondria have to push harder to generate the cellular energy needed to deal with it. And, like an engine that runs on its highest gear for too long or simply runs endlessly, mitochondrial burnout will happen at a much faster rate.
The other, potentially more significant way inflammation contributes to premature aging is through direct, external damage to cells and tissue. Free radicals damage cell membranes and other components of cells. When cells then don’t function well, they’re much more vulnerable to problems and die off more readily.
Excessive inflammation also triggers a sustained attack on collagen, specifically, weakening and breaking down this protein fiber found in the body’s connective tissue. That’s dangerous considering how important a role collagen plays.
Collagen is your body’s support structure — it basically holds everything together. Indeed, it’s a vital part of skin, cartilage, joints, bones, tendons, and more. So when free radical damage breaks down collagen, it’s going to break down the very structure of the body.
All this inflammation and its effect on aging creates a vicious cycle. The more cellular debris and broken-down tissue there is from the inflammation, the more free radicals are generated in order to deal with and dispose of it. So in that way, inflammation not only contributes to aging, but accelerated aging contributes to more inflammation.
The Warning Signs of Inflammation
Chronic, low-grade inflammation isn’t something you necessarily “feel” or that causes severe, acute symptoms. Still, it can affect pretty much everything in the body, leaving you with low energy and a body that just isn’t operating optimally.
Ongoing inflammation causes everything in the body to break down, and cells are not coordinated so the body doesn’t work as well. So, along with fatigue and low energy, you might have digestive problems, feel moodier than usual, get sick more easily, and not sleep well. And, because of the attack on collagen, you might feel more aches and pains in your joints and muscles.
Over the long term, inflammation can trigger or exacerbate significant health problems associated with aging. For example, inflammation is a well-known risk factor for heart disease, in part because it often affects endothelial cells that line the insides of blood vessels, contributing to plaque buildup and blockages.
Inflammation in the brain also plays a role in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which are characterized by a malfunction and loss of neurons in the central nervous system, reports a paper in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design. And, of course, inflammation can worsen arthritis, leaving joints achy, stiff, and swollen, limiting mobility.
7 Ways to Prevent and Reduce Inflammation
There are so many different potential factors that can trigger or increase excessive inflammation, but what’s important isn’t focusing only on stopping or reducing inflammation — which is essentially just a symptom — but rather looking at the bigger picture.
Unfortunately, the solution in modern medicine to inflammation has been, “Let’s just prescribe a drug that knocks out inflammation.” But you’re way better off asking, “Why is there damage and excessive inflammation, and what can we do about it?”
The following strategies address both: What’s stoking chronic inflammation in the first place, as well as how to put out or control the fire that’s burning — and ultimately slow down the aging process.
1. Address the Stress in Your Life
One of the biggest drivers of inflammation is stress. There are a few ways stress triggers inflammation, but one of the most significant is by interfering with and disrupting the body’s hormones and complex messaging system, essentially “turning on” the immune system to produce inflammation.
If the body is stressed, it produces more inflammatory messengers. Cells send out a message that says, “Hey, we need help here, we’re under attack!” Which brings on more white blood cells and more pro-inflammatory prostaglandins.
Research has shown a link between both acute and chronic psychological stress and markers of inflammation as well as inflammatory diseases. For example, sustained stress and subsequent long-term activation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) triggers changes in the body and immune system that increase the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals while inhibiting anti-inflammatory substances, reports a paper in The Scientific World Journal.
While there are many ways to reduce stress, mindfulness practices — whether with meditation or gentle activities such as tai chi and qigong — have proven exceptionally effective, according to research. What’s more, a recent review in the Frontiers in Immunology suggest that they could have a direct impact on inflammation, not only stress; it showed mindfulness techniques seem to reduce the activity of genes associated with a key protein that may turn on inflammation.
2. Swap Processed, Sugary Foods for a Rainbow of Produce
Refined carbohydrates and sweetened foods and drinks are especially dangerous. They cause insulin levels to spike, potentially leading to insulin resistance, and they contribute to weight gain and “bad” LDL cholesterol, all of which can fuel inflammation.
A diet high in sugar and refined carbs also leads to an inflammatory process called glycation, which hardens and weakens collagen. Processed and fried foods also tend to be loaded with volatile omega-6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory by nature; they increase expression of the COX-2 enzyme, which triggers the production of pro-inflammatory compounds. In other words, a packaged pastry or pile of French fries is essentially inflammation on a plate.
On the other hand, healthier eating patterns, which include consuming lots of fresh fruits and vegetables along with fiber-rich whole grains and other plant foods, was shown to cause fewer spikes in blood glucose and was associated with reduced concentrations of markers of inflammation, according to a study in the British Journal of Nutrition.
But fruit and veggies have a lot more to offer than what they don’t feed you: They’re loaded with antioxidants. Inflammation is an electron-deficient state, and antioxidants are electron-rich molecules, so they donate electrons to free radicals to neutralize them, protecting collagen and cells from inflammation.
Aim to make at least 50% of your diet produce, and opt for a range of richly-colored varieties — the more colorful, the richer they tend to be in antioxidants. For example, red bell peppers, spinach, kale, carrots, and blueberries are all antioxidant all-stars.
Part of the inflammatory process is governed by endorphins — they help control the repair process, keeping inflammation from becoming excessive. But if you’re not moving, you’re not producing endorphins.
That doesn’t mean you have to become an elite athlete or even work out intensely. Instead, walk more, do some yoga, and take up hobbies that keep you moving, like gardening, golfing, hiking, or biking. When we move a moderate amount, it’s enough to stimulate endorphin production.
One recent review in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience examined 11 studies and data from 1,250 middle-aged and older adults. The pooled results revealed that moderate aerobic exercise reduced levels of major inflammatory markers called C-reactive protein, TNF-a, and IL-6 by up to 50%.
Exercise works in other ways to prevent and reduce inflammation. It promotes the production of adenosine, a chemical in your brain that builds up throughout the day and promotes healthy sleep. Not only is sleep key for managing stress, which is a major driver of inflammation, but it also has a direct effect on inflammation, according to a review of 72 studies. Researchers found that sleep disturbances and sleeping fewer than 7 hours a night was linked to higher levels of C-reactive protein, a sign of systemic inflammation.
Finally, staying physically active also helps keep weight in check and reduces body fat. Fat cells are known to secrete a type of inflammatory molecule, especially the dangerous visceral fat that collects around your midsection.
4. Mind Your Gut Microbes
A healthy balance of bacteria in your body (a.k.a. your microbiome) works to prevent excessive inflammation in a few different ways. For starters, 70% of your immune system resides in your gut, and the microbes there help modulate your body’s immune response, which includes regulating inflammation.
Recent research suggests that overuse of antibiotics and changes in diet, among other factors, have led to a less diverse and resilient microbiome among modern populations. Some scientists believe this trend may be partly responsible for increases in inflammatory disorders, reports a study in the journal Cell.
Good-for-you microbes also help maintain a strong gut barrier. And a strong gut barrier ensures that potentially inflammatory substances can’t make their way through your GI tract and into your system. On the other hand, “leaky gut syndrome” occurs when an unhealthy barrier allows proteins and other substances from food plus toxins and bacteria to get into your system, which then trigger inflammation as your body attacks the foreign invaders. Research suggests this chain of events may contribute to chronic and other diseases.
All the strategies discussed above – a veggie-loaded diet, reducing stress, and getting exercise and enough sleep – can all help keep your gut bugs happy. Herbs also encourage a balanced microbiome and strong GI tract. Slippery elm bark, for example, enhances the gut’s protective barrier, while berberine and other antimicrobial, bitter herbs help with digestion and nourishing the good gut flora.
5. Get Your Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids — whether you consume them in fatty fish like salmon and sardines or take supplements such as krill oil — are one of the most effective ways to reduce inflammation, especially for those at risk for heart disease, according to a review in the British Journal of Nutrition. Not only are they potent antioxidants, omega-3s seem to exhibit direct anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting COX-2 enzymes, among other mechanisms, according to research.
Omega-3s also balance the effects of inflammation-stoking omega-6 fatty acids. The ideal is to keep a low ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s, which you can easily do by reducing your intake of processed and fried foods (which are cooked in oils that are loaded with omega-6s), and upping your intake of fish and taking omega-3-rich supplements.
6. Look to Turmeric and Other Anti-inflammatory Herbs
Most herbs have antioxidant properties that help control excessive inflammation. Among the best is turmeric. It’s a potent antioxidant that lends electrons to hungry free radicals, neutralizing their damaging potential. But turmeric has another useful function: It also works a little like a natural, more gentle ibuprofen.
When you take ibuprofen, you’re blocking an enzyme called COX-2, disconnecting the ability of cells to send out the signal that you need an influx of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins, cutting the inflammatory response. Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs do that, too, but they also block an enzyme, COX-1, which helps protect the stomach, which can leave it vulnerable to ulcers.
Turmeric, however, doesn’t affect COX-1, nor does it totally block COX-2. Instead, turmeric reduces the formation of COX-2, so it’s gentler, essentially telling cells, “Hey, calm down a little, you’re going too hard with the inflammation.”
One review in the journal Foods reports that turmeric and its main polyphenol, curcumin, helps manage inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and metabolic syndrome, and may reduce muscle soreness from inflammation after exercise. The findings also suggest turmeric may be beneficial for maintaining health in those with no documented conditions thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Other herbs and natural remedies I recommend: Reishi, andrographis, cat’s claw, and ashwagandha. All are antimicrobial and have anti-inflammatory properties, because the plant has to combat some of the same things as humans. They work as antioxidants, but also provide other chemicals that the plants use as messengers to help regulate the immune system. In humans, they similarly help calm our messaging systems that otherwise ramp up excessive inflammation.
For example, a study in the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that andrographis extract inhibited the unnecessary activation of a signaling pathway that induced the release of pro-inflammatory substances called cytokines.
7. Take In Electrons
The free radicals that cause inflammation are so damaging because they’re incomplete molecules missing an electron. As free radicals steal electrons from whatever cells and tissues they can, they wreak major havoc along the way. So if you can increase your system’s supply of electrons, it could help neutralize them and reduce the damage.
He says that there are a lot of ways to pick up extra electrons aside from eating antioxidant-rich plant foods. Alkaline water is electron-rich water, so it donates electrons that help neutralize free radicals. And breathing in negative ions from the air around pine forests and natural bodies of water also can donate electrons to your body, which may help reduce inflammation.
A trail walk or trip to the shore also gives your system a break from the pollution produced by cars and factories. Air pollution is loaded with positive ions, electron-deficient particles that rob electrons from other molecules and increase systemic inflammation.
Even short-term exposure to pollutants may be problematic: One study found that the more frequently someone encountered common air pollution in a major metropolitan city, the higher their levels of inflammation markers, including C-reactive protein, IL-6, and TNF. Consider it one more excuse to get outside and enjoy nature.
Clearly our modern world promotes inflammation at every turn, whether via polluted air and processed food, or by encouraging a stressful and sedentary lifestyle. But with the few simple changes detailed above, it’s easy to put out the fire of chronic, uncontrolled inflammation.
1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Fight Inflammation to Prevent Heart Disease.” Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/fight-inflammation-to-help-prevent-heart-disease
2. Sanada, Fumihiro et al. “Source of Chronic Inflammation in Aging.” Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. 2018; 5: 12.
3. Alam, Q. et al. “Inflammatory Process in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases: Central Role of Cytokines.” Curr Pharm Des. 2016;22(5):541-8.
4. Marsland, Anna L. et al. “The effects of acute psychological stress on circulating and stimulated inflammatory markers: A systematic review and meta-analysis.”Brain Behav Immun. 2017 Aug; 64: 208–219.
5. Tian, Rui et al. “A Possible Change Process of Inflammatory Cytokines in the Prolonged Chronic Stress and Its Ultimate Implications for Health.” ScientificWorldJournal. 2014; 2014: 780616.
6. Buric, Ivana et al. “What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.” Front. Immunol., 16 June 2017
7. DiNicolantonio JJ and O’Keefe JH. “Importance of maintaining a low omega–6/omega–3 ratio for reducing inflammation.” Open Heart 2018;5:e000946.
8. Minihane, Anne M. et al. “Low-grade inflammation, diet composition and health: current research evidence and its translation.” Br J Nutr. 2015 Oct 14; 114(7): 999–1012.
9. Zheng, Guohua et al. “Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Inflammatory Markers in Healthy Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Front. Aging Neurosci., 26 April 2019
10. Irwin, Michael R. et al. “Sleep Disturbance, Sleep Duration, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies and Experimental Sleep Deprivation.” Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 1; 80(1): 40–52.
11. Belkaid, Yasmine and Hand, Timothy. “Role of the Microbiota in Immunity and inflammation.” Cell. 2014 Mar 27; 157(1): 121–141.
12. Campos, Marcelo. “Leaky gut: What is it, and what does it mean for you?” 2017, September 22. Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/leaky-gut-what-is-it-and-what-does-it-mean-for-you-2017092212451
13. Rangel-Huerta, OD et al. “Omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids supplementation on inflammatory biomakers: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials.” Br J Nutr. 2012 Jun;107 Suppl 2:S159-70.
14. Hewlings, Susan J. and Kalman, Douglas S. “Curcumin: A Review of Its’ Effects on Human Health.” Foods. 2017 Oct; 6(10): 92.
15. Li, Yu et al. “Andrographolide Inhibits Inflammatory Cytokines Secretion in LPS-Stimulated RAW264.7 Cells through Suppression of NF-κB/MAPK Signaling Pathway.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017; 2017: 8248142.
16. Li, W. et al. “Short-Term Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution and Biomarkers of Systemic Inflammation: The Framingham Heart Study.” Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2017 Sep;37(9):1793-1800.