It’s all about how you feel, not how you look.
Battling chronic migraines, anxiety, hives, even depression? These all are telltale signs that you may be dealing with some form of chronic inflammation.
According to Maggie Berghoff, FNP-C, a functional medicine nurse practitioner and author of Eat to Treat, there are six main types of inflammation—ranging from allergy to stress to digestive-related causes—that indicate there may be an underlying issue at play. Although not all types of inflammation are inherently “bad,” the issue is when it becomes chronic, which can have adverse effects for overall health in the long run. The goal? Keeping inflammation under control; and what you’re eating can certainly help do just that.
The best foods to relieve the different kinds of inflammation
Research has shown that overconsumption of certain kinds of foods (like processed meats and added sugars) can increase your risk of inflammation. But according to Berghoff, certain foods can lend a helping hand in keeping inflammation at bay (along with other things like regular exercise, sleeping well, and stress reduction). “It’s critical to the success of your healing goals to focus not just on what to remove and avoid in your diet, but what to add to your daily meals,” Berghoff says.
Berghoff says identifying the type of inflammation you’re experiencing is key (there are six of ‘em), which helps to determine the necessary lifestyle and dietary changes needed. She recommends speaking with a health professional and undergoing testing to make the most effective treatment plan best suited for you.
But once you have that info, the functional medicine expert has honed in on several nutrient-dense foods that optimize daily function and target the main types of inflammation to keep them at bay.
1. Muscle and joint inflammation
First and foremost, if you’re experiencing muscle and joint inflammation (which might include swelling, stiffness, and pain), Berghoff recommends consuming foods high in omega-3s. This special fat can help decrease inflammation and alleviate pain, she says. “Fish high in omega-3s, like salmon, are great for this inflammation type. Omega-3 can also be found in olive oil and nuts, so adding pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds, and pine nuts can help mitigate inflammation,” she says.
Additionally, foods high in the mineral zinc (think pumpkin seeds and legumes) can help with muscle growth and repair, as well as with nutrient absorption to help heal muscles and joints, Berghoff says. Lastly, she says rounding out your diet with foods high in copper (stock up on mushrooms, whole grains, and dark leafy greens) can help play a role in collagen production, the building block of bones and tissues.
2. Thyroid inflammation
According to Berghoff, filling your plate with unsaturated fats, protein, and veggies are the name of the game when it comes to thyroid inflammation (such as Hashimoto’s disease). “Healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, and proteins high in omega-3, like salmon, are important for this inflammation type because they can help…regulate hormones,” she says. (And an inflamed thyroid might over- or under-produce key hormones for your health, causing health issues.) Berghoff also recommends staying on top of your daily protein intake, with foods like chicken, salmon, turkey, or eggs. (Remember: 30 grams of protein per meal is the dietitian gold standard.)
Although Berghoff says a diet rich in a variety of vegetables is a key marker for achieving overall health across the board, it’s particularly beneficial to hone in leafy greens (spinach) and root vegetables high in iron (carrots, beets, radishes, sweet potatoes) when tackling this type of inflammation, since being deficient in iron impacts thyroid function.
3. Inflammation from sugar
Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that added sugar causes inflammation. (Excessive sugar intake is associate with inflammatory conditions like high blood pressure, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, and other issues.) To that end, Berghoff says it’s important to make the appropriate modifications to limit its effects. “To help balance your blood sugar and heal from this inflammation type, start your day with a glass of filtered, high-quality water, followed by a nutrient-dense smoothie or meal that includes healthy fats, protein, greens, and fiber,” Berghoff says.
Then, she recommends swapping white flour pasta, rice, bread, and pastries that may influence blood sugar levels for options like red lentil pasta or almond flour tortillas. Even small changes—like making your own DIY salad dressing sans sugar versus buying store-bought options—can have a lasting effect.
4. Psychological stress
Chronic stress has long been associated with inflammation. Berghoff says eating plenty of fruits and veggies can help thanks to their high levels of vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and carotenoids that all contribute to mental well-being. “Healthy fats, like avocados, nut butters, and salmon also supercharge your mind, and leafy greens support brain function—all fantastic ways to help with psychological stress and reduce inflammation.”
5. Digestive inflammation
Digestion feeling out of sorts? Berghoff says noshing on ginger is a great option thanks to a compound called gingerol that has been scientifically shown to help reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain. Additionally, the functional medicine expert recommends adding foods high in probiotics (kimchi, sauerkraut, and Bubbies fermented pickles), as well as foods high in fiber (chia seeds, apples, fennel), to help restore the microbiota. If high-fiber foods tend to upset your stomach, Berghoff says cooking them down can help ease digestion.
However, if you’re having an active flare-up of stomach issues, it’s important to switch gears and focus on hydration and easy-to-digest foods (bananas, applesauce, oatmeal, toast, etc.).
6. Allergies, asthma, and skin inflammation
“To support your respiratory system and your skin, eat foods high in vitamin D, such as fatty fishes and whole eggs,” says Berghoff, since vitamin D is important for maintaining skin health and also reduces inflammation in the lungs. (Among many other benefits for overall health.) She also suggests loading up on nuts and seeds high in vitamin E, which has “been shown to help with coughing and asthma.” Of course, veggies should also be in the mix—think leafy greens and carrots rich in vitamin A that support skin health. Lastly, Berghoff says avoiding dairy can potentially help with this type of inflammation. “Most who suffer with any skin or allergy-type symptoms feel much better and more clear without dairy in their diet. Try it for a period of time and see how it goes,” she says.
Discover a dietitian’s guide to eating for inflammation: