When you get a cut, inflammation around it is usually obvious. The surrounding skin turns red and might even feel warm. But inflammation also occurs inside the body—in ways you can’t so easily see. Chronic, low-grade inflammation—which can be triggered by smoking, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, or excess adipose (fat) tissue—happens below the skin’s surface in the tissues involved in the body’s energy balance.
At times, inflammation is a normal part of the healing process—the necessary disruption that happens as your body’s white blood cells fight off illness or work to repair an injury. But when inflammation lasts too long, spanning several months or more, it can start to damage healthy tissues. Having continuously activated macrophages (a type of white blood cell that fights harmful microorganisms) can spur metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions that puts you at risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes and is associated with obesity and cardiovascular disease.
You may wonder—if you can’t see this type of inflammation, how do you know you have it? And what can you do about it?
Chronic low-grade inflammation in your body can show up in different ways: aches and pains, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, and even anxiety. If you see your doctor for such symptoms and they suspect inflammation, they may order a test to check your blood for C-reactive protein (CRP).
In short, it’s a protein primarily produced by the liver in response to inflammation. It’s one of the best-known indicators of inflammation, often rising in its presence and falling in its absence. Both chronic inflammation (slow onset, lasting greater than six weeks) and acute inflammation (rapid onset, temporary) can trigger the release of CRP and boost its level in the blood.
Researchers aren’t sure exactly why, but there’s a strong correlation between having a higher body mass index (BMI) and elevated inflammatory markers. Even metabolically healthy people with obesity can have higher levels of CRP. While the exact cause is unknown, the relationship between the two appears to be bidirectional—meaning obesity may lead to inflammation, and inflammation may lead to obesity, creating a vicious inflammatory cycle.
A C-reactive protein test is a blood test that helps determine if inflammation is present as a result of sickness, disease, or injury. To be clear: It’s different from a high-sensitivity CRP (hs-CRP) test, which measures very tiny increases in CRP to help estimate the risk of heart disease.
Although a basic CRP test can’t show exactly where the inflammation occurs, it can provide some insight into what is causing inflammation and whether it’s acute or chronic. It can also help you and your doctor decide on next steps.
Despite their convenience, at-home inflammation test kits delivered to your doorstep may not give the clearest picture: Certain medications and diseases can alter CRP levels, which may skew results in ways that aren’t clinically relevant. And different labs measure CRP levels in different ways, so the definition of “normal” may vary. A better bet: Ask your local healthcare provider if a CRP test might be meaningful for you—and, if so, to order it and help you interpret the results.
Here are some research-backed approaches you can take to help lower CRP levels and keep inflammation at bay.
1. Reduce your weight
Weight loss, or more specifically fat loss, is associated with a decline in CRP levels. In fact, a review of several studies exploring the effect of weight loss on CRP levels found that a 1-kilogram (roughly 2-pound) weight loss led to a reduction of 0.13 mg/L in CRP. The research found an even greater CRP reduction (5 to 10 mg/L) among those who lost 66 to 99 pounds.
2. Adopt a healthier diet
Research shows a diet high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains), lean protein (chicken, pork, turkey, and some cuts of beef), and healthy oils (nuts, avocados, fish) is associated with improvements in CRP levels.
3. Keep moving
The science isn’t exactly clear on how, but regular exercise has been shown to reduce CRP levels and other inflammatory markers in certain people. It could be related to exercise’s impacts on insulin sensitivity and overall fat mass. Mind-body exercises like yoga can also relieve stress, which research also suggests may help lower CRP levels.
4. Check your vitamin D
Those with obesity are more likely to be vitamin D deficient in part due to a higher blood volume. And weight loss in combination with vitamin D supplementation has been shown to reduce the inflammation associated with metabolic dysfunction.
A word of caution: Too much vitamin D isn’t a good thing either—an excess can cause a buildup of calcium in your blood, putting you at risk for things like nausea and vomiting, muscle weakness, kidney stones, and even an irregular heartbeat. So it’s smart to get your vitamin D levels checked to see whether you need a supplement and, if so, just how much.
5. Get some sleep
Besides stalling your energy, coming up short on shut-eye can activate inflammatory pathways and elevate CRP levels. Try aiming for seven or more hours each night, as recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and the Sleep Research Society (SRS).
6. Consider medication
If you and your provider decide they’re right for you, some of the medications used for weight loss, such as GLP-1 receptor agonists, have been linked to reduced inflammation and CRP concentrations. Certain GLP-1s have also been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in those with type 2 diabetes and known heart disease.
About the writer, Morgan Pavon
Morgan Pavon, RD, is a registered dietitian and former Found Coach who writes about health and medicine.
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