After any training session, your body uses inflammatory responses to trigger growth, repair, and healing that you wouldn’t want to stop or blunt. But while acute inflammation is a must to prompt adaptation, if you get stuck in a chronic inflammation state, you’re more likely to suffer from painful muscles and cranky joints and are at greater risk from developing a metabolic, cardiovascular, or neurological disease. In this article, we’ll explore how you can game your nutrition to tame excess inflammation.
The Performance & Recovery Pitfalls of Inflammation
If your body is constantly inflamed, one of the biggest issues from an athletic perspective is that it could cause or contribute to ongoing joint problems. “Chronic inflammation in the joints can damage cartilage, bones, tendons (which attach muscle to bones), or ligaments (which hold joints together); irritate nerves; and produce a long list of symptoms, including pain, swelling, and stiffness,” Heidi Godman, executive editor of Harvard Health Letter, wrote in an article.
If not addressed, Godman stated that such chronic inflammation can develop into several types of inflammatory arthritis, including gout, calcium pyrophosphate deposition disease (CPPD,) and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis used to be considered non-inflammatory, but newer research has found elevated levels of inflammation markers in cells of people suffering from it.
While overtraining, under-recovering, and a lack of strength training might be partly to blame for conditions like patellar and Achilles tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis, elbow and knee bursitis, and other painful chronic issues that many endurance athletes battle, inflammation might also be a factor. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the higher the level of people’s pro-inflammatory markers were, the higher their likelihood of Achilles tendonitis and rupture. The more such conditions flare up, the less able you’ll be to handle training intensity and volume without pain. Flare-ups can reduce the duration and quality of the workouts you are able to complete and can also make for miserable race day experiences.
Chronic Inflammation = Chronic Disease
One of the main reasons to limit your use of Advil and other NSAIDs after training and racing – or even avoid them completely – is that while they put a dent in your pain when you’re hurting, they also mitigate your body’s natural acute inflammation response to exercise. This is what kickstarts the repair of muscle fibers that suffer microtears during exercise and also prompts several other essential reparative mechanisms.
Yet while such one-off inflammatory reactions are a necessary and even desirable component of your recovery process (even if they don’t feel like it at the time), ongoing inflammation is neither. One of the reasons is that sickness and disease flourish in a pro-inflammatory state. This applies to seasonal maladies such as colds and the flu, and – as I wrote in a previous TrainingPeaks article – COVID-19 too. Yet as inconvenient as such illnesses are, it’s arguably the role that chronic inflammation plays in long-term health problems that is the biggest cause for concern.
A review released via Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine noted that “Chronic inflammation in humans is associated with accelerated development of cardiometabolic diseases such as myocardial infarction, stroke, and diabetes.” Getting stuck in a pro-inflammatory cycle has also been identified as a contributing factor to other common forms of life-threatening illness.
A paper published in The British Journal of Nutrition stated that while the acute inflammatory response is a necessary function of immunity, “a chronic low-grade inflammatory state is a pathological feature of a wide range of chronic conditions, such as the metabolic syndrome (MetS), non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and CVD.” Other research has suggested a correlation between continual inflammation and some types of cancer.
Persistent inflammation doesn’t just affect your body but can also negatively impact your brain. The authors of a review conducted at the University of L’Aquila in Italy wrote that, “recent evidence suggests a potential role of inflammatory mechanisms also in neurological conditions not usually categorized as inflammatory, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, stroke and traumatic brain injuries.”
Fighting Inflammation with Fruit and Vegetables
Thankfully, one of the easiest ways to ward off chronic inflammation is through regular training. A team of British and Norwegian researchers stated that “There is biological plausibility that exercise may have anti-inflammatory effects. This may be particularly important for patients with chronic inflammatory rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs).”
You can bolster the inflammation-fighting effects of your regular training routine with a diet that contains foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. As the authors of the study in The British Journal of Nutrition put it, “There is a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that many foods, nutrients and non-nutrient food components modulate inflammation both acutely and chronically.” Let’s look at some of the readily available options to add to your grocery store cart.
The easiest way to make your diet anti-inflammatory is to include more fruit and vegetables. Both food groups provide a wide range of phytonutrients. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that the more flavonoids US residents consumed, the lower their levels of c-reactive protein – a key inflammation marker – were. They concluded that “Intake of flavonoid-rich foods may thus reduce inflammation-mediated chronic diseases.” Among the flavonoids they linked to this inverse relationship were quercetin, kaempferol, malvidin, peonidin, daidzein, and genistein. Rich plant sources of these are, respectively, grapes (especially in red wine form, vino lovers), kale, blueberries, cranberries, blackcurrants, and broccoli.
The berries just listed – along with others such as strawberries, blackberries, and huckleberries – also provide plenty of anthocyanidins. A Frontiers in Pharmacology review stated that in one study, these “were found to reduce infiltration of inflammatory cells, the expression of proinflammatory cytokines, such as IL-1β and TNF-α, to increase the expression of anti-inflammatory cytokines, like IL-10, and finally to increase the expression of Na+, K+-ATPase and Ca2+-ATPase.” Based on this response and findings from other prior trials, the researchers concluded that anthocyanidins had neuroprotective properties.
Going with Ginger and Turmeric
One of the reasons that people in India, Nepal, and Pakistan have much lower rates of heart disease than we do in the West is that they eat a lot of curry. This contains a wide range of spices known to have anti-inflammatory properties, such as coriander, chili peppers, and coconut. But perhaps the most potent ingredient is turmeric. It’s rich in a class of plant chemicals known as curcuminoids. A review published in Foods suggested that these can help manage a wide range of inflammation-related diseases. If you don’t like the taste of curry or it upsets your stomach, you could try taking a supplement sourced from the Himalayan plateau that contains piperine, a black pepper extract that increases the bioavailability of curcuminoids.
Ginger is another ingredient found in certain curry dishes. This root is a potent source of inflammation-fighting phytochemicals such as gingerols, shogaol, and paradols. After analyzing previous studies, a team of Iranian researchers concluded that ginger “can treat a wide range of diseases via immunonutrition and anti-inflammatory responses. As a result of anti-inflammatory effect of ginger, it can reduce muscle pain after intense physical activity.” The purest form you can find at your local store is ginger root, which you could include in recipes and grate into green, black, or white teas, all of which contain inflammation-fighting elements.
Resetting Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio
A review published in Biochemical Pharmacology stated that a diet that has a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to several leading kinds of cardiovascular disease through the mechanism of long-term inflammation. Unfortunately, many people get far too little omega-3s and too many omega-6s, particularly due to the massive rise in the consumption of toxic seed oils that are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
If you pursue a largely or exclusively plant-based diet, the good news is that chia seeds, walnuts, algae, brussels sprouts, and hemp seeds all contain omega-3s. The bad news is that this is in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which must be converted to the other two main kinds of omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), to become usable in your body. This is sadly not a very efficient process, with up to 95 percent of the ALA lost in the process. So you’ll need to eat a lot of plant-sourced omega-3s to get enough to move the needle.
In contrast, marine-sourced omega-3s contain a mix of DHA and EPA that’s highly bioavailable. Eating fish such as mackerel, salmon, and pollock a couple of times a week should provide enough omega-3s. If you don’t eat fish, look for a supplement that supplies at least 500 mg of DHA and EPA. The first challenge with such products is that they can oxidize, distorting the structure of the fatty acids to make them less usable and possibly even harmful. Due to lax regulations, many marine-based omega-3s also aren’t sourced responsibly and don’t contain nearly as much EPA and DHA as their label claims.
For example, a 2013 study found that over half of the top-selling brands contained less of either or both omega-3sthan their manufacturer stated. To counteract these issues, make sure you check the expiration date before purchasing and choose an option that has been third-party batch tested for purity and quality by the likes of NSF or Informed Sport and keeps omega-3s in their original triglyceride form to aid absorption.
Another way to reset your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to tip the balance back in favor of anti-inflammation is to stop eating seed oils, replacing them with olive, macadamia, or avocado oils and grass-fed butter. Limiting the amount of nuts and seeds you eat can also help, as can getting more dietary omega-3s from pasture-raised meat, dairy products, and eggs.
Whether you want to train harder, longer, and more often, relieve joint pain, or improve your cardiovascular and neurological health, daily nutrition plays a major role. Fitting in some of the foods mentioned here and avoiding those that cause or exacerbate inflammation – like seed oils and excess sugar – is a solid starting point.