As more people get the memo that chronic inflammation can dramatically shorten your healthspan, they’re designing their diets and habits to ward off this threat. A growing body of evidence suggests that in lockstep with these efforts, taking certain supplements also help keep inflammation in check—and with it, help you prevent or delay a wide range of age-related diseases.
Here’s what you need to know about inflammation, plus eight of the best anti-inflammatory supplements with the strongest research support behind them.
What is Inflammation?
People often talk about inflammation as if it’s an evil serial killer of cells, tissues, and organs. But there are two types of inflammation, and only one of them can be bad for you.
- Acute inflammation is usually beneficial. When you twist an ankle or catch a cold, your body sends in an army of white blood cells to help heal the injury or trap harmful bacteria. As they work you may notice redness, heat, tenderness, or swelling.
- Chronic inflammation is what happens when your body continues sending out those white blood cells your body produces to fight infection and injury even when there is no danger. They may start attacking healthy cells and tissue and this can cause chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation increases your risk for cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and some degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, among other problems.
“As you age, your body’s ability to balance pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cells can change. This can lead to dysfunction on a variety of levels, including chronic inflammation,” explains James Giordano, Ph.D. Pellegrino Center professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
“One example: Chronic inflammation can increase susceptibility to oxidative stress while simultaneously reducing a cell’s ability to keep it in check,” he says.
“These free radical species can punch holes in cell membranes,” says Giordano. “This can set off a chain of harmful events that result in an elevated risk for many different conditions and diseases.”
Giordano says that, along with anti-inflammatory diets, anti-inflammatory supplements can help counteract chronic inflammation and the cellular damage that results from it.
The Best Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. DHA and EPA, two of the three main omega-3s, are found primarily in seafood such as sardines, salmon, tuna, and krill, along with algae. The best sources of the third main omega-3, ALA, are some nuts, seeds and plant oils, such as flaxseed, soybean and canola oils (1).
Omega-3s are part of cell membranes where they help keep inflammation in check, says Giordano. They reduce cytokine levels, which are produced and released from cells and can contribute to low grade inflammation (2).
According to a randomized placebo-controlled trial involving 46 men with heart disease, 4 daily grams of an omega-3s EPA/DHA blend showed decreased levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) and reduced levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” one), which resulted in increased concentrations of the “good” HDL cholesterol. And as well, those participants had increased concentrations of apelin, a peptide that may play a protective role in the incidence and progression of heart disease (3).
When it comes to omega-3 supplements, opt for krill oil, which gets omega fatty acids into your cells more effectively than other fish oil supplements, says Giordano. In addition to omega 3s, the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans also house three key antioxidants: carotenoids, and vitamins A and E.
A natural anti-inflammatory agent, curcumin also has a very strong antioxidant potential, says Giordano.
When it comes to dialing down the inflammation from osteoarthritis, curcumin may even work as well as OTC pain relief meds: An analysis of 15 studies determined that curcumin reduced pain and improved function in subjects with knee osteoarthritis. The researchers wrote, “Its effects were comparable to standard pharmacological agents, such as NSAIDs and glucosamine.” (5)
Curcumin’s bioavailability is low, so choose a sustained release product and/or one that contains piperine (see below) to boost absorption.
While the ancient root has a rep as a panacea for nausea, ginger also naturally contains antioxidants, and may have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that support your immune system.
Studies of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects have produced some promising results suggesting that bioactive compounds in ginger may play a role in reducing the severity of inflammation-driven problems including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic pain (6, 7, 8).
A component of black pepper, piperine, may help boost absorption of other important nutrients ranging from iron to beta-carotene to curcumin (9).
In Ayurvedic medicine, a combination of long pepper, black pepper, and ginger, called Trikatu, is thought to work synergistically to reduce inflammation (10).
5. Vitamin D
You’re most likely familiar with this vitamin’s role in strengthening bones, but a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found a direct link between low levels of vitamin D and high levels of inflammation (11).
When researchers looked at health data from nearly 300,000 people, they found a link between low levels of D and high levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
This means low D levels may help identify people at higher risk of chronic illnesses that have an inflammatory component. The findings also suggest that boosting vitamin D in people with a deficiency may help reduce chronic inflammation.
Why consider a supp? Your body makes vitamin D from sunlight, but it’s estimated that as many as three quarters of US adults get less than the optimal amount, especially during the dark, winter months (12).
This plant pigment found in onions is a flavonoid—a group of compounds that can act as antioxidants that help protect cells from damage.
In addition to its antioxidant potential, some research suggests quercetin may also act indirectly as a cellular brake, hindering inflammatory cells and enzymes from proliferating.
In one review of seven randomized controlled studies with quercetin, findings showed a significant reduction in levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, especially at doses greater than 500 daily milligrams (13).
In one study, when adults took a synbiotic supplement for 30 days, blood markers of inflammation decreased (17).
“Apigenin is a flavonoid,” explains Jim Staheli, D.O., medical director of Broad Health. “Flavonoids are a class of phytochemicals in plant tissues that come to the aid of plants during pathogen attacks and sunlight radiation while attracting pollinators and regulating plant metabolism.”
Apigenin is found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
When taken as a supplement, it offers anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidant properties, says Staheli.
1. Gammone, M. A., et al. (2018). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Benefits and Endpoints in Sport.
2. DiNicolantonio, J. et al (2020). The Importance of Maintaining a Low Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio for Reducing the Risk of Inflammatory Cytokine Storms.
3. Mortazavi A, et al. (2018) The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Serum Apelin Levels in Cardiovascular Disease: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial.
4. Hewlings, S. J., & Kalman, D. S. (2017). Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health.
5. Chin, K.-Y. (2016). The spice for joint inflammation: anti-inflammatory role of curcumin in treating osteoarthritis.
6. Ballester, P., et al (2022). Effect of Ginger on Inflammatory Diseases.
7. Kunnumakkara, A. B., et al. (2018). Chronic diseases, inflammation, and spices: how are they linked?
8. Rondanelli, M., et al. (2020). Clinical trials on pain lowering effect of ginger: A narrative review.
9. Fernández-Lázaro, D.,et al.(2020). Iron and Physical Activity: Bioavailability Enhancers, Properties of Black Pepper (Bioperine®) and Potential Applications.
10. Imran, M.,et al. (2022). A critical review on the extraction and pharmacotherapeutic activity of piperine.
11. Zhou A, Hyppönen E. (2023): Vitamin D deficiency and C-reactive protein: a bidirectional Mendelian randomization study.
12. Binkley, N., Ramamurthy, R., & Krueger, D. (2010). Low vitamin D status: definition, prevalence, consequences, and correction.
13. Mohammadi-Sartang M, et al. (2017): Effects of supplementation with quercetin on plasma C-reactive protein concentrations: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.
14. Paul, P., et al. (2022). The effect of microbiome-modulating probiotics, prebiotics and synbiotics on glucose homeostasis in type 2 diabetes: A systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-regression of clinical trials.
15. Hofmeister, M., at al (2021). The effect of interventions targeting gut microbiota on depressive symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
16. Tsai, T., at al (2019). Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Amelioration of Diseases.
17. Neyrinck, A. et al (2021). Improvement of Gastrointestinal Discomfort and Inflammatory Status by Synbiotic in Middle-Aged Adults: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial.