Surprising Things That Can Cause Inflammation

Inflammation has become a pretty well-known concept, especially among those immersed in holistic medicine practices. An oft-discussed topic, many conversations about inflammation revolve around how it should be avoided to the best of our abilities. However, preventing and avoiding inflammation is not always as straightforward as it seems. While numerous underlying medical conditions can cause inflammation, our daily diet and activities can contribute to it as well.

Inflammation generally exists in two different ways. It can either be acute, meaning it dissipates after a relatively short period of time, or chronic, in which case it can be much longer-lasting. In many chronic cases, the symptoms and repercussions outlast the initial trigger of the inflammation. Chronic inflammation in particular can set the stage for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease to proliferate (via WebMD).

In our attempt to discover the best ways to avoid or prevent inflammation within our bodies, we found some surprising factors that actually contribute to it.


Stress is incredibly insidious when it comes to creating unhealthy conditions within the body. In fact, stress can negatively influence nearly every pathway in the body. According to a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, chronic stress presents a threat to the body's capacity to maintain homeostasis. Over time, this can result in widespread inflammation and life-threatening illnesses. The researchers also state that 75% to 90% of human diseases are related to the activation of the stress-response system in some capacity.

For instance, the body releases neurotransmitters called catecholamines to ignite its fundamental fight-or-flight response. When necessary, they help to increase heart rate and blood pressure. However, an excess of catecholamines can also lead to health complications and diseases. Though triggering stress-related events may vary, research suggests that the side effects converge in inflammation, both centrally and peripherally within the body (per Frontiers in Human Neuroscience).

Finding ways to healthfully manage your stress levels is one way to decrease the amount of stress-induced inflammation within your body. In other words, take a chill pill, bro.

Processed meats

We hate to say it, but it turns out that your preference for prosciutto might contribute to higher-than-desired levels of inflammation within your body. Consuming high levels of red meat and processed meats can lead to a type of inflammation that has been directly linked to the development of certain cancers, per the Journal of the American College of Nutrition

According to Healthline, processed meats have higher amounts of a compound called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) compared to other meats. AGEs form via a process called glycation, in which the sugar in one's bloodstream combines with either fat or protein (via Healthline). This compound becomes harmful when your body begins to lose the ability to fully process it through your system. In other words, the more processed red meat you eat, the more AGEs you'll have in your system, which in turn increases the chances of oxidative stress and inflammation. 

Oxidative stress is one of the main markers of inflammatory conditions in your body. This occurs when the balance between free radicals and antioxidants within your body gets thrown out of whack. An overgrowth of free radicals can begin to degrade your healthy tissues, create inflammatory conditions, and ultimately lead to life-altering illnesses, per Healthline. Free radical-fighting antioxidants can be consumed to aid in counteracting these effects. When in doubt, reach for the blueberries and the dark chocolate instead of the salami (via Healthline). Your body will thank you.

Trans fats

Trans fats are a notoriously unhealthy group of fats. Their reputation precedes them, and their harmful effects support their #badreputation. While small amounts of trans fats are present in some dairy products, naturally occurring trans fats do not necessarily cause health-related concerns, per Healthline. However, artificially manufactured trans fats can have hugely detrimental effects on your body, and — you guessed it — consuming them can result in inflammation. Trans fats come from vegetable oils. Specifically, they are created when vegetable oils are processed to stay solid at room temperature to extend their shelf life.

Consuming trans fats can increase your levels of "bad" cholesterol (LDL) while also decreasing your levels of "good" cholesterol (HDL). Consuming them can also cause inflammatory conditions, insulin resistance, and obesity, which in turn increase your body's risk of various diseases. When it comes to avoiding harmful, artificial trans fat, your best bet is to avoid eating foods that are deep-fried (sorry!) or contain partially hydrogenated oils and vegetable shortening (via Healthline).

Too much exercise

While a reasonable amount of exercise has been proven to aid in overall health, overdoing it could have the opposite effect on your body. Engaging in moderate exercise has been shown to drastically improve your immune response. But on the flip side, going too hard in pursuit of those #gains might decrease your immune function as a result of inflammation.

In a study published by Frontiers in Physiology, researchers set out to examine and potentially confirm the link between overexercising and chronic inflammation. While this particular study didn't fully prove this, it did find something fascinating. Inflammation is marked by physiological changes that result in an increase in body temperature, capillary dilatation, and the production of blood-borne soluble compounds. The study found that vigorous and incredibly prolonged exercise led to higher levels of these inflammatory markers. Because of these findings, researchers speculate that too much exercise can lead to chronic inflammatory conditions within the body.

This is a fairly easy inflammation factor to avoid. If your body feels tired after a workout, rest instead of pushing through another set.


We hate to spoil your fun (again), but sugar is another major player in creating inflammation in the body. Unfortunately, this means that our gummy bear fandom is about to go the same way as our prosciutto obsession — out the window. 

Research has shown that people who consume a lot of sugar, particularly from sugary drinks, have more inflammatory markers within their bodies compared to those who don't. Interestingly, the levels of inflammation may increase or decrease depending on the type of sugar consumed (via Medical News Today). However, more research is needed to confirm this, as current findings have been more or less inconclusive (via Nutrients).

When sugar is consumed, it stimulates the liver to produce free fatty acids. Inflammatory conditions may arise as a result of the body metabolizing these free fatty acids. As with many other food-related inflammatory conditions, decreasing your intake is the best way to prevent the inflammation from spiraling into much larger health complications. A lifestyle change such as decreasing sugar could extend your life and lead to fewer health problems in the long run.


To decrease inflammation, we've learned that we should decrease our consumption of delicious processed meats, sugar, and now — dairy. Does it seem like inflammation is sucking the fun right out of life, or is that just our opinion?

The Arthritis Foundation states that the research surrounding dairy causing inflammation is "murky." However, the research proving that saturated fat increases inflammation is incredibly clear. Generally viewed as unhealthy, saturated fats are abundant in dairy products, red meats, and other animal-based products. However, findings also link some fatty acids found in dairy products to certain health benefits. 

For example, studies have shown that people with arthritis who consume dairy have higher levels of low-grade inflammation and are more likely to need a hip replacement. Meanwhile, there's also evidence that consuming yogurt or drinking a glass of milk can decrease your risk of developing gout (via The Arthritis Foundation). Ultimately, the research to determine whether or not dairy products are inflammatory is still up for debate.

Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune diseases are classified by the way they wreak havoc on the body. Autoimmune diseases essentially cause the immune system to react mistakenly, targeting your body's otherwise healthy cells (via Medline Plus). Predictably, this results in varying kinds of inflammation in the healthy tissues. There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases, many of them varying in intensity. Different types can attack different parts of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, can hit your joints, your eyes, and even your lungs. Many autoimmune disorders result in pain, redness, swelling, and heat, all of which happen to be symptoms of inflammation as well.

When the immune system flares up in defense of a perceived threat, it can result in painful inflammatory conditions. In treating autoimmune diseases, the goal is often centered around slowing down the immune response, decreasing swelling, and of course, decreasing inflammation. Unfortunately, researchers still aren't completely sure about what causes autoimmune diseases in the body. If you have an autoimmune disease, it is best to check in with your doctor regarding inflammation management.

Air pollutants

Air pollutants are yet another possible source of inflammation that you don't have total control over. The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine published a study that found that significant air pollution increased the oxidative stress on the body, resulting in inflammation. The study was conducted in Taipei — a polluted city, but far from being the most polluted city in the world (per IQ Air). Nevertheless, there's enough evidence to link urban air pollution to inflammation, blood coagulation, and autonomic dysfunction, even in young, healthy individuals.

In an attempt to mitigate the damage done by air pollution, the CDC recommends checking the air quality index (AQI) when planning your daily activities. If you choose to do outdoor activities in polluted areas, they advise sticking to less strenuous activities outside (e.g. walking instead of running, so you don't end up breathing too hard and inhaling more particles). They also recommend avoiding highways and roads with heavy traffic, because pollutant particles tend to be more abundant in those areas (via the CDC).

Sitting too much

At this point, we're all pretty aware of the detrimental effects of too much sitting. But it may come as a surprise to many that sitting too much can actually increase the inflammation within your body. 

Not only does sitting too much cause your metabolism to slow down, but it can also set the stage for diseases that can lead to early deaths. When we sit too much, our muscles are forced into positions that are not "ergonomically optimized" (via Well and Good). Spending all day every day in these positions can lead to fatigue, muscles aches, and soreness due to the inflammation.

The experts at Well and Good recommend getting up and moving for one to two minutes every half hour or for five minutes every hour to compensate for the time you spent sitting. Simply getting up and walking or dancing for a minute can help prevent the detrimental effects that inflammation caused by sitting can have on your body. Though you might feel silly, making it a priority to get up and move during your work or school day will greatly help your health.


Certain dietary and lifestyle choices can lead to chronic inflammation. This condition has been linked to numerous potentially life-threatening illnesses. In fact, chronic inflammation may be the one thing that nearly every one of these ailments has in common. 

Drinking alcohol contributes to inflammation in the intestines and decreases the body's natural ability to regulate other inflammation. Regularly consuming alcohol can ignite a vicious cycle of inflammatory responses with your body (via Alcohol Research Current Reviews). Over time, intestinal inflammation can lead to inflammation within the liver and brain, then spiral into worse health problems.

While much of the research on alcohol-related inflammation has centered around excessive drinking, new studies are emerging that prove that even imbibing in moderation can have these effects. Alcohol disrupts the homeostatic balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, affecting the immune system. Alcohol promotes the proliferation of "bad" bacteria and increases the production of endotoxins, which promote inflammation by activating immune cells and proteins. Excessive alcohol consumption can degrade the intestinal wall, allowing endotoxins to infiltrate your bloodstream, spread to the rest of your system, and cause bigger complications (via Ria Health). The best way to reduce your risk of developing alcohol-related inflammation is to reduce your intake.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).


Obesity can be defined as the accumulation of a considerable amount of fat, which can impair your health and quality of life (via Archives of Medical Science). The excessive amount of macronutrients in the adipose or fat tissues can stimulate the release of measurable inflammatory markers in the body. As these inflammatory markers rise, so too does the oxidative stress that the body experiences.

Obesity and its associated inflammation can be a huge risk factor in developing both cardiovascular diseases and non-cardiovascular diseases. In addition to the added stress that obesity-induced inflammation has on the cardiovascular mechanisms, it can also lead to diseases such as psoriasis, diabetes mellitus, renal diseases, depression, and cancer. Additionally, obesity actually decreases the amount of adiponectin, a protein hormone that aids in extreme anti-inflammatory work in the body.

To summarize, obesity increases the number of inflammatory markers while inhibiting the production of substances that can help quell the inflammation. Researchers and experts recommend weight management as a way to decrease the inflammation caused by excessive body weight.

Vegetable oils

There's a good chance you grew up believing vegetable oils to be a healthier alternative to butter and other high-in-fat oils. Your family may have even gone ham with the Crisco and said, "It's from vegetables, duh." Unfortunately, it turns out that these vegetable oils, also called refined cooking oils, can create a huge amount of inflammation within our bodies (via Prevention). 

Most vegetable oils are deceptively labeled, and may contain corn, soybean, sunflower, or safflower oils (or a combination of any of them). These oils have significant amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which are necessary but significantly overconsumed in this day and age. Meanwhile, experts agree that people typically don't consume omega-3 fatty acids, which can have anti-inflammatory effects. The body uses omega fatty acids to create hormones. Omega-3s create hormones that fight against inflammation, while omega-6s create hormones that promote it. 

Ultimately, enjoying foods prepared with vegetable oils can trigger a systemic inflammatory response, leading to further health complications down the road. When it comes to enjoying vegetable oils, your best bet is to consume them in moderation to mitigate their inflammatory effects.

Refined carbohydrates

The term "refined carbohydrates" broadly encompasses most foods that either contain refined sugar or are white flour-based (via Healthline). The milling of the flour in its original form removes the beneficial attributes throughout the processing; bran and germ are removed from the grain. This strips the grain of much of its fiber, vitamins, and minerals, leaving us with delicious yet empty calories.

Much like consuming processed meats, eating refined carbohydrates can lead to greater quantities of advanced glycation end products or AGEs in the body (via Foods). AGEs have been directly and aggressively linked to diseases such as diabetes, degenerative diseases, renal diseases, and metabolic disorders.

While some AGEs are endogenous or biologically manufactured within our bodies, we risk overexposing ourselves through our diets. This is especially true for diets high in sugary baked goods (yes, we're looking at you, donuts). Interestingly, AGEs have been shown to have a cumulative effect, according to research published in Foods. In other words, avoiding refined carbs early in life can help decrease the inflammatory responses our bodies experience as we age.

Untreated infections

When the body is functioning as it is supposed to, detecting a foreign body or some kind of intruder ignites its immune response (via Medical News Today). These invaders might be bacteria, viruses, or other infection-causing organisms or pathogens. Once detected, the cascade of immune response events creates inflammation to heal the body. Ideally, the body would initiate this reaction, vanquish the invader, and then settle back into its uninflamed, homeostatic state. However, if left untreated, even a mild infection could lead to inflammation that lasts longer than it should.

Generally speaking, infections only cause acute inflammation that dissipates after the body recovers. While acute inflammation is not as damaging as chronic inflammation, the effects of repeated acute inflammation can accumulate over time. Moreover, acute inflammation can come on rapidly and cause short-term health effects that need immediate attention before they become life-threatening. These effects include conditions like appendicitis and bronchitis. If you suspect that you have an infection of any degree, it is best to see your doctor. Even low-grade, acute inflammation can have health consequences.