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Inflammation – when it’s ‘good’ and when it’s not
PILLAR Athlete

Inflammation. It’s a word we hear a lot and usually with negative connotations.

The truth is a little more complex than that, and as athletes it’s worthwhile understanding the key components of inflammation, as it relates to both diet as well as training and performance.

Inflammation can either be acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is a natural and healthy response by the body to injury, illness or stress. It’s ideally dealt with relatively quickly and actually allows for adaptations to occur, including for athletes as part of the training response post workout. It’s a positive – and with rest and recovery – a necessary process in any good training plan. 

When inflammation becomes pervasive and chronic, though, then it becomes detrimental. 

Chronic inflammation is increasingly being recognised as the primary cause of many common health issues, rather than just a symptom. Obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease, digestive and gastrointestinal issues, arthritis, asthma, allergies and some cancers are all being traced back to inflammation as either accelerating progression of disease/ill health, or being the precipitating factor. 

Thankfully, chronic inflammation is something that we can, to some extent, have influence over through the lifestyle choices that we make each day. Diet, exercise, sleep, stress, pollutants, are all major contributors. Diet wise – you really have complete control – so here are the big factors to consider on a day-to-day basis. 

Top dietary sources of inflammation:

  • Sugars, sweeteners and refined carbs: When blood sugar is high, the body produces more cytokines, a type of inflammatory marker. Sugar rapidly affects blood sugar levels and resultant hormonal responses which prompts inflammation, damages blood vessels and also alters gut bacteria, which in turn is linked with an increase in systemic inflammation. Many other health issues have been linked with the consumption of excess sugar including diabetes, obesity and other associated inflammatory conditions. 
  • Omega 6 fats, trans fats and hydrogenated oils: Omega 6 oils are essential within the body but most diets provide an excess of Omega 6’s in proportion to Omega 3’s. The ideal ratio is somewhere around 1:1 or 2:1 (Omega 6:Omega 3), however many standard western diets sit at around 16-20:1. Vegetable oils, (including corn and soy oil) which are the most commonly used in fast foods and packaged foods, are rich in Omega 6’s. 
  • Gut irritants such as alcohol and individual food intolerances: Anything that irritates or disrupts the mucosal lining of the gut wall, will result in inflammation.  A permeable barrier separates the gut from the internals of the body, letting in select molecules (nutrients, water) and keeping others out (large food particles, bacteria, viruses etc). An irritant such as alcohol, or gluten in the case of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, can compromise the barrier so that foreign substances are allowed into the body that would not normally be there – eliciting an inflammatory immune response.  

Top foods to include to curb inflammation:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines.
  • Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, broccoli.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Herbs and spices such as ginger, turmeric, chilli and cinnamon.
  • Garlic and onions.
  • Beetroot.
  • Carrots.
  • Berries and cherries.
  • Olive oil.
  • Probiotics – such as natural yogurt, kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, kombucha.
  • Dark chocolate and unsweetened cocoa.

Athletes, stress and sports foods:
Athletes’ higher energy needs means that sports foods and refined foods are often a necessary part of fuelling, providing much needed energy to delay onset of fatigue and support performance. Higher intakes of carbohydrates in and around sessions will help support immune function and hormone production for ongoing health, as well as to allow progressive adaptations to training stimuli. Having this high level of energy availability promotes immune function and resilience.

However, if there is too high a reliance on refined carbs and sports foods, at the expense of more nutrient dense options, then athletes can run the risk of missing out on key nutrients – including foods that dampen down inflammation as appropriate. A good sports dietitian can help with this, getting the timing, context and balance right between fuelling up and getting adequate nutrients in to maintain long term health and wellbeing. 

– Pip Taylor

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