As athletes, we spend time regularly dealing with inflammation. It may be an ice pack on a sore muscle or a bruised limb or wearing compression clothing after a game, race or workout to enhance the recovery process. Inflammation comes with the territory and each athlete learns to manage it. Everybody, not just athletes, is impacted by inflammation, some of which is beneficial and healing while other types of inflammation are harmful, serious and life-threatening. What we eat and drink can cause inflammation in the body that may lead to chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, arthritis and autoimmune disease.
“Inflammation is a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Vivian Chen, a former allopathic doctor who now teaches and empowers individuals to be in charge of their own health and healing via Plateful Health (https://www.platefulhealth.com/). “In the acute situation, for example, if you have a cut or you burn yourself, acute inflammation brings the necessary cells to the wound to help the body repair and regenerate. In an ideal world, once the body has healed, the inflammation calms down and the body goes back to harmony. Sometimes, however, the inflammation doesn’t go away and instead turns into chronic inflammation where the body thinks there is still (healing) work to be done and keeps sending inflammatory cells into tissues. This is when chronic diseases and pain can ensue because the inflammatory messengers can recruit cells that cause tissue damage, disrupt hormonal signaling and release, with a whole host of symptoms such as eczema, fatigue and arthritis.”
Each day in training and competition, an athlete breaks down muscle and attempts to repair it as fast as possible through nutrition and rest in order to be able to train or compete again the next day. If the foods we eat are creating and/or increasing inflammation in the body, those foods are delaying the body’s ability to heal and recover, thereby adversely impacting athletic performance in addition to damaging the body’s overall health.
Despite what we were told while growing up or have seen in advertising campaigns, dairy products are among the most harmful and inflammatory inducing – especially if you are among the 65% of the human population that has a dairy intolerance or allergy.
“Our bodies are very clever and are always trying to protect us. If there is chronic inflammation going on, it means there is something lurking in your body that shouldn’t be there. That means the consumption of foods you are intolerant of, with dairy being the most common one. Your immune system is on high alert because it is encountering things that shouldn’t be in your body, and so triggers off a chronic, low-grade inflammatory response to try to counteract and remove it,” explained Dr. Chen.
“Over time, the inflammatory cells and cytokines that get released can actually damage tissues like blood vessels, causing it to clog up and become leaky. This, as you can imagine, can then impair blood flow and affect athletic performance and recovery as it has an adverse effect on oxygen delivery. In addition, inflammation in the body means cells which would normally be recruited for regenerating damaged tissue during performance is diverted away, meaning it could take longer for the body to repair itself after training. Inflammatory cytokines, which are the chemical messengers that the body uses to communicate with, can also cause fatigue which will also interfere with athletic performance.”
Many people aren’t even aware that they are intolerant of dairy products and eggs until they remove them from their diet and “miraculously” find the symptoms that they’ve dealt with or accepted for years “suddenly” disappear. According to Dr. Chen, eating animal products can also be a source of environmental toxins.
“Studies have shown that toxins like to hide in the fatty tissues. Dairy and animal products are often high in fat content and therefore can contain high levels of toxins. These toxins also trigger inflammation in the body as it puts the immune system on high alert.”
To minimize inflammation, there are other types of foods to avoid besides just dairy and animal products.
“Remove foods that cause inflammation like refined sugar, refined flour, refined oils high in omega-6 like vegetable/sunflower oil, and foods which commonly cause intolerances and allergies like dairy and eggs,” said Dr. Chen.
Over and over again, we hear the mantra “eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet,” which means a diet that minimizes processed foods. Dr. Chen concurs.
“Avoid processed foods as much as possible as these often contain additives and chemicals that can cause inflammation in our body as well as omega-6 heavy oils and refined sugar, which are all highly inflammatory. Stick to a diet that is full of whole foods as close to the way it came out of the earth.”
Some people think they need to consume dairy products for calcium, but you can get calcium from plant-based sources such as kale, bok choy, oranges, tofu, edamame, broccoli, almonds and okra.
Since dairy products and eggs are major culprits that diminish athletic performance and impair recovery, what type of foods are anti-inflammatory and beneficial to performance and enhance recovery?
“Add foods rich in antioxidants which help to combat inflammation. The foods highest in antioxidants are plants because they contain phytochemicals with an array of different nutrients which help our body detoxify, counteract free radicals and fight inflammation.”
Great sources of antioxidants are dark chocolate, pecans, cranberries, kidney beans, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkin seeds, sweet potatoes, strawberries, grapes and squash. Dr. Chen advocates eating the rainbow – meaning, eat a wide variety of richly-colored fruits and vegetables.
“Each color contains different phytonutrients that perform different functions. Foods which help to boost blood flow to tissues can help with recovery. Some examples are arugula, cacao, beets, blueberries and pomegranates.”
Dr. Chen’s conclusion on inflammation is simple. “Not only will you boost your performance by reducing inflammation, you will also reduce your chances of getting chronic diseases.”
That’s sage advice applicable to us all.