This article was excerpted from a Prevention article written by Markham Heid on March 30, 2018.

Inflammation is the body’s natural protective response to infection or injury. If you cut your finger, for example, your immune system responds by sending white blood cells to repair the open wound. These cells then trigger an acute, or temporary, inflammatory response to aid the healing process. This type of inflammation is not a big deal and is actually good for you; it’s when inflammation sticks around too long that it becomes potentially dangerous.

Long-term inflammation has been linked to almost every major chronic disease, notably, high blood pressure and stroke; and spinal disorders like ruptured disc and spondylolisthesis. In fact, it’s each person’s unique inflammatory response that may partially explain why one smoker or heavy drinker develops blocked arteries, or other symptoms, while another does not, explains Michael Miller, MD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine and director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Preventive Cardiology.

While experts are still sorting out exactly how inflammation affects our health, we know that taking steps to reduce inflammation levels is an excellent way to safeguard your heart—and the rest of your body, too. Here are a few ways to get started.

1. Quit smoking

Smoking triggers an inflammatory response, Dr. Miller says, and it also increases the rate that fatty deposits, or plaque, build up in the arteries, an additional source of chronic inflammation. And like a snowball, as the area of plaque accumulation grows, so does the inflammation surrounding it. This increases the odds that the plaque will rupture, which can lead to the kind of blockage that causes a heart attack, he says.

If kicking your cigarette habit cold turkey seems daunting, talk to your doctor about other strategies, like joining a local support group or taking a nicotine replacement product.

2. Move more

“Staying active—not running 20 miles, but getting up and moving around—is really important,” Dr. Miller says. Research has shown 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week can reduce your inflammation levels by 12%.

3. Eat anti-inflammatory foods

Studies have also repeatedly linked a Mediterranean diet—which is rich in fatty fish, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes—to lower levels of inflammation. Meanwhile, diets lacking veggies that are high in sugar, refined grains, and trans fats tend to promote inflammation, some studies show.

Dr. Miller says antioxidant-rich foods like grapes, berries, and 70% dark chocolate can also be helpful. (Pro tip: Stick to a 1-ounce serving of chocolate to keep calories in check.)

4. Take time to unwind

Taking part in activities that lower anxiety—and avoiding stuff that stresses you out—is a great way to reduce inflammation. “More and more we’re seeing that emotional health and stress play a role in inflammation,” Dr. Miller says.

He mentions yoga—a proven stress-beater—and also recommends spending time with friends who make you laugh. “We know laughing can reduce the stiffness and aging of blood vessels,” he explains. Taking regular breaks from your smartphone (a common and constant source of stress) is also a good idea.

If you’re already suffering with pain associated with a spinal condition, you likely already know inflammation can greatly contribute to your pain levels. Being more aware of what you’re putting in your body and how you treat your body will help with pain flares and overall quality of life. If you’ve tried these tips and are still experiencing pain in your neck, back, arm, hands, legs or feet, the Bonati Spine Institute is here to help. Allow our highly-skilled surgeons to review your case and verify if you are a candidate for the Bonati Spine Procedures. Getting started is easy. Simply call 855-267-0482 or complete our contact form.

To read the full Prevention article, click here: