Inflammation is the body's natural response to infection and injury. But when it's a chronic problem, inflammation can cause permanent damage to the body, possibly leading to cancer, heart disease, arthritis, or even Alzheimer's.
And in case you didn't know, your diet can play a big role in how inflammation affects your body. According to Amanda MacMillan of Health.com foods high in sugar and saturated fat can spur inflammation. "They cause overactivity in the immune system, which can lead to joint pain, fatigue, and damage to the blood vessels," says Scott Zashin, MD, clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
So how do you quell inflammation? You'll want to add these five foods to your diet:
All fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help reduce inflammation; but oily fish like salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies are chock full of them. "To get the benefits, however, you need to eat fish several times a week, and it should be cooked in healthy ways," warns MacMillan. Go lightly with the heat; overcooking can destroy more than half of the omega-3s. So instead of frying up your fish, try baking or grilling it to preserve healthful fat.
Not a fan of fish? Consider fish-oil supplements. A 2011 study backed by the Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science found that consuming more fish oil, omega-3 reduced inflammation, as well as anxiety, among a group of young healthy individuals.
All fruits and vegetables, due to their rich nutrient and fiber content, help to combat chronic inflammation; but some types of fresh produce are even more potent than others. Enter peppers. Colorful peppers have higher quantities of antioxidant vitamins and lower levels of starch. According to MacMillan, "Hot peppers (like chili and cayenne) are rich in capsaicin, a chemical that's used in topical creams that reduce pain and inflammation."
Garlic is a super spice in the fight against inflammation. Health.com finds that in test-tube and animal studies, allicin (one of the compounds in garlic that cause its pungent smell) has been shown to work similarly to NSAID pain medications by shutting off the pathways that lead to inflammation.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition and led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that among health men and women, 28 days of cherry supplementation resulted in a 25% decrease in C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. And tart cherries pack an even greater punch to inflammation. In a 2012 presentation, Oregon Health & Science University researchers suggested that tart cherries have the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food, reducing muscle pain and inflammation in athletes. "Experts recommend eating 1.5 cups of tart cherries, or drinking 1 cup of tart cherry juice, a day to see similar benefits," writes MacMillan. We know tart cherries aren't quite as easy to pop in your mouth like sweet ones, but if your taste buds can suck it up, your body will thank you!
Eating a single walnut half per day appeared to cut the risk of dying from inflammatory disease in about half the people participating in a 2012 study. That's because nuts — particularly almonds and walnuts — are rich in fiber and have high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 healthy fat known to reduce inflammation.
For the full list, check out Health.com.