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by Dr. Kellyann Petrucci

Kellyann Petrucci, ND, a leading naturopathic physician and nutritionist, is a weight-loss and natural anti-aging expert. This week, we’re sharing Dr. Petrucci’s expertise in a series on fighting inflammation for optimal health. To learn more, check out her new mindbodygreen course, Beat Inflammation: A 21-Day Plan For Glowing Skin, Long Term Weight Loss, and Vibrant Health.

There’s a key culprit that scientists are now studying for its role in everything from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and depression: chronic inflammation. And if you’re serious about staying healthy, slim, and vibrant, it’s important to take action to calm it.

Unlike acute inflammation, which is temporary and beneficial in protecting us from infection and injury, chronic inflammation occurs when your immune system’s switch gets stuck in the “on” position. As a result, it wages a continuous war on your own cells—a war that could pack pounds on you (especially around your waistline) and damage organs in your body.

As a nutritionist, I believe that the best way to prevent or heal chronic inflammation is to eat anti-inflammatory foods like bone broth and fermented foods and to avoid pro-inflammatory foods including sugar, artificial chemicals, and gluten. (I recommend cutting out all grains because they’re pro-inflammatory.)

But to truly win your battle against inflammation, you’ll need to change other aspects of your lifestyle as well. Here are seven powerful steps you can take:

1. Avoid antibiotics, antacids, and NSAIDS as much as possible.

All of these medications could alter your gut in ways that harm your microbiome, the trillions of gut bugs that do everything from digesting your food to regulating your immune system. Damage to these microbes can cause inflammation that weakens your intestinal wall and leads to a “leaky gut.” A leaky gut, in turn, releases toxins that trigger an immune response, leading to chronic, body-wide inflammation.

2. Respect the mind-body connection.

Science shows that a simple meditation practice—along with other mind-body approaches such as yoga and tai chi—can markedly improve your health. A recent review of 34 separate studies concluded, “Mind-body therapies reduce markers of inflammation.” And you don’t need to meditate for hours; even just five or ten minutes a day can be beneficial.

3. Exercise regularly.

A few years ago, researchers followed more than 4,000 middle-aged people for more than 10 years. They found that regardless of their weight or body mass index, people who did at least two and a half hours of moderate exercise each week lowered their markers of inflammation by at least 12 percent.

4. Reduce your exposure to toxins.

When your immune system encounters foreign substances—including environmental toxins—it can react by creating inflammation. I recommend detoxifying your life by switching to safe, natural cleansers and personal care products. Also, stop using herbicides and pesticides, or at least switch to organic brands.

5. Sleep longer.

Research shows that shorting yourself on even a few hours of sleep each night can trigger pro-inflammatory changes. Aim for at least seven hours of snooze time nightly. To improve your sleep, turn off electronic devices well before bedtime and use blackout curtains to block outside light.

6. Get some sunshine.

While too much exposure to sunlight is harmful to your skin, “sun phobia” can also be dangerous. The natural vitamin D you get from sunlight is a crucial immune system modulator, and a deficiency is associated with inflammation. Shoot for 10 to 15 minutes in the sun each day.

7. Enjoy a massage.

Seriously! Research suggests that a 45-minute massage can lower your levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. So don’t think of a massage as a guilty pleasure—think of it as therapy.