Inflammation is part of the body's defense mechanism. It is the means by which the immune system recognizes and eradicates harmful or foreign substances and begins the healing process. Technically, there are two different types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the type of reaction you experience directly after sustaining an injury or contracting a severe illness. For example, if you sprain your ankle while running and it becomes red, swollen, and tender to the touch, then you are experiencing acute inflammation. This type of reaction is favorable for the body because it initiates a cascade of different chemical reactions throughout the affected tissues that begins the healing process. While it likely won’t feel good, the natural inflammatory process that results from bodily trauma is beneficial and an essential part of the recovery and healing. In most cases, acute inflammation cannot be treated or prevented through dietary approaches.
However, chronic inflammation affects the body differently and is significantly impacted through our dietary choices... Chronic inflammation, (often referred to as persistent, low-grade inflammation) is associated with an extensive list of negative health outcomes. In the short term, individuals may regularly experience pain, ongoing fatigue, frequent infections, insomnia, weight fluctuations, gastrointestinal disturbances, and mood disorders. When left unchecked for long periods of time, chronic inflammation may increase your chances of developing more serious health complications like heart disease, diabetes, and even some types of cancer.
For athletes, inflammation can affect them in another way. Prolonged and persistent inflammation can lead to secondary complications that affect athletic performance. Athletes who regularly operate within a state of inflammation will likely experience a decline in speed, a decrease in strength, and a drop in mental sharpness. For these reasons (and all those listed above), I encourage may clients to be intentional with their diets and look for opportunities to include anti-inflammatory foods throughout the day. In this article, I will discuss three specific types of foods that have been clinically shown to improve biochemical markers of inflammation and limit the negative physical symptoms associated with it.
The first category of foods worth discussing is fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and veggies are beneficial to human health for several reasons. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water – all of which are essential for weight management, optimizing energy levels, and moderating disease risk. However, fruits and veggies are beneficial for another reason; they are excellent sources of antioxidants. Antioxidants are needed because one of their primary roles in the body is to neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are produced naturally as a byproduct of metabolism and in response to different environmental toxins. Surprisingly, free radicals are also produced during bouts of intense exercise, which over time can lead to negative outcomes for athletes.
Athletes who fall victim to exercise induced inflammation will be prone to issues like excessive fatigue, soreness, and even muscle damage. Thus, athletes may want to consider increasing fruit and vegetable consumption during periods of heavy training. Specifically, I like to recommend lots of dark leafy greens (like spinach), berries, cherries, and citrus fruits as these all contain high levels of antioxidants. Lastly, keep in mind that these whole food options are much more effective at decreasing inflammation than commercially prepared antioxidant supplements. Unfortunately, antioxidant supplements are poorly regulated and show little to no benefit on athletic performance and recovery when studied in clinical trials. Therefore, your best shot at increasing antioxidant intake and reducing inflammation is to incorporate more fruits and vegetables throughout the day..
A second nutrient that reduces inflammation are Omgega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3’s are a type of essential fat that can be found in foods like sardines, salmon, tuna, halibut, and other types of seafood. They are also found in some plant-based foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and some oils. The research suggests several benefits from regularly consuming foods rich in omega-3s. While there is still much to be explored, studies suggest that omega-3’s will improve cardiovascular health, enhance brain function, and decrease your risk of developing some types cancers. Additionally, it is believed that omega-3’s can also have a positive impact on athletic performance and training. Specifically, the antioxidant activity of omega-3’s may provide performance improvements, especially in those who training regularly and intensely. Therefore, my advice is simple. Aim to include 2-3 servings of fatty fish (like salmon or tuna) weekly or invest in a high-quality fish oil supplement. If choosing a supplement, look for a product that provides 2-4 grams of fish oil and features omega-3’s in the triglyceride form. Omega-3’s in their natural triglyceride or re-esterified triglyceride forms have higher bioavailability than the other forms commercially available. My go-to recommendation is SFH Super Omega, and can be found on the company’s website: SFH Omega-3 Fish Oil + Vitamin D3 | Highest Concentrated EPA DHA
A final type of food that is proven to help reduce inflammation and benefit athletic performance is probiotic rich foods. Probiotics are live strains of bacteria that occur naturally in many fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchee, miso, and tempeh. While probiotics do not have a direct ergogenic effect, they have many health benefits that over time may lead to improved health and reduced inflammation in athletic populations. For example, probiotics have been shown to reduce symptoms of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Additionally, they help prevent bouts of travelers’ diarrhea and lessen the severity of symptoms associated with a lactose intolerance. Lastly, probiotics can help restore an athlete’s suppressed immune system during seasons of heavy and prolonged training, leading to better recovery and less sick days.
And there you have it; three new ways to start fighting off inflammation!