6 "Healthy" Habits That Can Actually Cause Inflammation
Inflammation isn't something you can readily see in your body, but it may be there simmering under the surface, just waiting to bubble over into a problem. And then it does, says Jaclyn Tolentino, D.O., a board-certified family physician and functional medicine practitioner at Parsley Health in Los Angeles. Inflammation can take the form of digestion woes like bloating or stomach aches and pains, painful joints and sore muscles, she says. (Here are some other sneaky signs you could have inflammation in the body.)
Chronic stress, which can come from physical or mental strain, is a major culprit in inflammation. Not all inflammation is bad—it's what comes to your rescue when your body needs to heal a cut on your hand, for instance—but it should recede once the threat goes away. Problems happen when this inflammation becomes chronically elevated, explains Tolentino. What's more, inflammation may be responsible for one-quarter of your mortality risk, notes UK research.
While it's important to eat an anti-inflammatory diet and avoid known inflammation triggers like processed foods, some other "healthy" habits may actually be sabotaging your health goals and fueling inflammation.
6 "Healthy" Habits That Can Cause Inflammation
Catching Up on Sleep on the Weekend
It might feel really good to sleep in late on a Saturday morning, but ultimately, the need to sleep in is a sign that you're shortchanging your snooze time during the week. "I think sleep loss is one of the biggest factors responsible for low-grade inflammation," says Tolentino.
"Sleep is like gold to the body, as it's restorative to every process in your body, including neurotransmitters, hormone production, digestive health and immunity," she says. The goal is to get on a consistent sleep schedule that allows you to get the slumber your body needs to function, which is seven to nine hours per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Taking Vitamins When You Can't Get in a Nutritious Meal
You can't get all of the nutrition you need from vitamins. "They're called supplements for a reason," says Tolentino. While popping a multivitamin is designed to help you fill in nutrient gaps, they can't make up for skipping meals or choosing convenience foods over dishes made with fresh, whole foods, she says.
Focusing on Burning a Lot of Calories Through Exercise
If you fall into the section of people who've found themselves with extra time during the pandemic, you might be filling that time with exercise. Exercise is stress on the body—but it's a good stress, as long as you provide your body with the fuel it needs and give yourself ample time for rest and recovery, says Tolentino.
Overexercising (for example: performing high-intensity workouts daily), as well as under-fueling (for example: not eating or drinking enough or anything leading into exercise) can contribute to inflammation in your body. On the other hand, just 20 minutes of moderate exercise can decrease overall inflammation, according to a study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, proving that you don't need to go all-out or very long for the good-body benefits.
Skipping Sweet Treats
There's no reason to deprive yourself of something sweet if you're a "dessert person." According to a small pilot study in 2018, consuming dark chocolate (with 70% cocoa content) may have beneficial effects on stress levels and immunity. Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidant flavanols that have anti-inflammatory properties. One ounce of 70% dark chocolate has 170 calories and 7 grams of sugar. (The higher cocoa content you go, the less sugar is in the chocolate.)
Waking Up Extra Early to Exercise
For busy schedules, it may feel like the only time you can get exercise in is if you wake up extra early and cut into your sleep to get it done. "Because of sleep's so many restorative benefits, getting the amount you need on a given night is more important than waking up early for exercise," says Tolentino.
That doesn't mean you have to be sedentary, but think about the opportunities you may have throughout the day for informal movement. Take your dog on a walk around the block, do 20 jumping jacks to shake off an afternoon slump, jump on a mini trampoline (Tolentino's favorite), or wake up at your normal time and do 10 pushups. If you do have to wake up early to fit exercise into your routine, try and go to bed early to get plenty of zzz's.
Forcing "Relaxation" Self-Care Habits
Having calm-down strategies at the ready is necessary to calm your stress response. (Chronic stress feeds low-grade inflammation.) However, that does not mean you have to do breathing exercises or spend ample time in meditation if you don't like it. Those are all amazing calming activities but, says Tolentino, "You should not force yourself to engage in wellness practices you don't enjoy."
Ultimately, if you don't like them, you're not going to do them and you may still be left with out-of-control stress. Identify things that bring you joy in a meaningful and relaxing way, she advises. A bath? A massage from your partner? Listening to music? Those all count in the fight against inflammation.