I recently was interviewed by a running publication on anti-inflammatory diets for athletes, and it got me to thinking more about inflammation. I want to share that full interview with our LPC crew plus more on this topic of inflammation—it’s such a buzzword but is it such a serious matter? You bet. Inflammation is a big deal, that is, systemic chronic inflammation (acute inflammation to heal an injury or wound is not a concern and a great natural response we have). Chronic inflammation is at the root of so many health ailments—from autoimmunity to atherosclerosis to depression—and even if you’re seemingly healthy as can be and an athlete, inflammation can be a sneaky bugger harming your health. In fact, if you’re an endurance athlete, you’re probably constantly fighting some level of inflammation in your body. A little inflammation to repair and recover is ok, but chronic training without sufficient recovery leads to chronic inflammation—and let’s face it most endurance athletes are chronically training even if they’re not necessarily “overtraining,” and this makes you more susceptible to illness and injury (1).
The good news is we can put out the fire by taking proactive steps covered in this article! Starting with the cliff notes version…
Fighting inflammation comes down to 5 main variables:
- Eating a healthy anti-inflammatory diet – This is by far the #1 way to maintain low levels of inflammation, recommendations follow in the interview.
- Those who qualify may also consider other diet techniques like intermittent fasting and occasional full-day fasts to fight inflammation (2).
- Self-care – Adequate sleep, balanced training (not overtraining), stress management, injury prevention, etc.
- Gut health – Digestive issues and inflammation go hand in hand, and increased exercise puts the gut at a higher risk (3). Test your gut as needed and clean it up, yo!
- Immune health – We need a strong (but not overactive) immune system to fight the inflammatory response and protect us.
- Supplements as needed – Sometimes food is not enough and we need to supplement our diet with extra antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. But it also depends: “Mixed diets high in antioxidants may be safer than antioxidant supplementation and possibly confer greater benefits. Higher antioxidant intakes may help maintain a normal pro-oxidant/antioxidant balance. Endurance athletes who undertake very high levels of training, either living and/or training at moderate to high altitudes, or who participate in ultra-endurance competitions, may benefit from antioxidant supplementation (4).”
So let’s get talking on some important factors to consider with inflammation, and at the very bottom (in red) you’ll see my top 3-5 foods I recommend people eat and top 3-5 I suggest to limit or avoid, plus my top supplement recommendations that fight inflammation and will round out a healthy diet.
Here are some shows we’ve done on Endurance Planet that cover the topic of inflammation in a variety of ways with top doctors and experts:
- Dr. Cate Shannahan: Deep Nutrition and the Human Diet, The Role of Epigenetics and What Your Ancestors Ate, and Your Activity Levels to Determine Dietary Needs
- Dr. Phil Maffetone: Heart Health For Athletes, Identifying Risks, Weeding Out Hype and Why Exercise Is Still Your best Medicine
- Dr. Phil Maffetone: Why Refined Carbs and Sugars Are Harmful To Athletes, Dispelling More Nutrition Myths and the New Sleep Low Study
- Sports Nutrition with ben Greenfield: Fighting Inflammation, how Much Water Per Hour Is Too much, Can You Bonk on Fat Adapted Nutrition and More
- Ask the Doc: New Findings on Post-Race Oxidative Stress (and Inflammation), What Are Lipopolysaccharides, and Iron Deficiency Anemia
- Drs. Phil Maffetone and Cathy Dudick: Sports-Related ‘Trauma’ (Inflammation), Training Through Injury, and Recovery
- Ask the Doc: Safe Solutions for high Blood Pressure, Overcoming Osteoarthritis, Burn Off Stubborn belly Fat, Recommendations for Inflammation, and More
Anti-Inflammatory Interview Transcript
- Motiv Running : What benefits have you seen from an anti-inflammatory diet personally?
- Tawnee Gibson: Personally, adhering to an anti-inflammatory diet was a key component to repairing my body from a lot: overtraining, gut dysbiosis, HPA axis dysfunction, and even an autoimmune condition, the latter which I was able to naturally put into full remission without a single drug (diet played a huge role).
- My gut was wrecked from years of intense endurance training and stress, and inflammation had accumulated which was later linked to the reason I developed autoimmunity. Not to mention, early on in my triathlon career, before I knew better, I was still eating higher amounts of sugar and refined carbs and not enough fats, which only served to worsen my gut, injury rate and total-body inflammation (I used to get injured a lot, but haven’t had a injury in years). A cleaner, anti-inflammatory diet undoubtedly helped me recover fully and get my health and energy back to a good place—free or injury and all signs autoimmunity. Although, it should be noted that diet alone did not cure me, I also did a ton of work on stress management, recovery, less intense training and so on. Inflammation is not just a result of the food we eat; it’s also about our stress levels, training loads, and/or other imbalances in the body.
- MR: Why do you suggest it for your clients?
- TG: Hippocrates said it best, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Why would we knowingly fuel out bodies with chemicals, junk and “crap” that is known to contribute to poor health and disease? Even if we’re in our 20s eating junk yet feel great due to youth, that doesn’t make it ok. We don’t have control over everything, but we can control what we eat, so why not choose clean food that will keep you healthy, free of illness, help prevent injury and aid in athletic performance. Junk food diets may work temporarily without side effects, but certainly not long-term and you can’t outrun a bad diet.
- My clients are interested in more than performance; they want to maintain good health too, so they can run around with their kids and just feel good. So it goes without saying that a healthy diet is a key component, especially a diet that is anti-inflammatory. I find that diet and nutrition are just as important for athletes as their training; a healthy anti-inflammatory diet aids in injury prevention, ability to train consistently and avoiding the common cold and becoming run down. Just today, I had a female athlete, who I started coaching to help her comeback safely from ACL surgery, tell me that since we started working together she has not had a single cold, whereas she used to get sick every month or two—I’m not just coaching her for sport but on nutrition and we’ve had her cut back on a lot of inflammatory foods like dairy, wheat, gluten and alcohol. She’s a busy mom of three kids and really doesn’t have room to get sick that often so it’s good to see the diet tweaks she made paying off.
- I should note: While I preach a lot about eating clean and avoiding “less than healthy” foods, I am also against intense diet restrictions. In my opinion, there is always room for treating yourself and eating out every once and a while, even if the foods are known to be a bit more inflammatory. Maintaining flexibility may save you from developing disordered eating patterns or something called “orthorexia,” an obsession with only clean healthy eating. I firmly believe that it’s important to adhere to an 80-20-style rule with your diet and allow yourself to enjoy food not punish yourself or live a life of restriction. But just remember: Moderation is key, and it’s best to keep the “bad” stuff to a minimum.
- MR: Could most athletes benefit from it?
- TG: Without a doubt all athletes—all humans—will benefit from keeping inflammation in the body low, and one way to do this is by eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Inflammation is one of the biggest problems in the modern world and it’s linked to being a root underlying cause to many chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, allergies and autoimmune diseases. So even putting aside athletic performance and training, we’re talking about making sure you’re healthy now and in the future so you can live a long fruitful life.
- If you suffer from any the following you may need to assess your inflammation and adopt a more anti-inflammatory diet: chronic pain, IBS, low energy, asthma and high blood pressure. This will enhance your ability to train and race well.
- That said, acute inflammation is nothing to worry about; it’s the body’s normal response to a stressor and inflammation signals the body to repair, recover and essentially build back to a stronger state than before. This is a huge reason to avoid NSAIDs, which block the inflammation response in hinder recovery among other issues. Problems arise when there is chronic inflammation present in the body, also known as systemic inflammation, and this is often due to eating a lot of inflammatory foods, intense exercise or even environmental contaminants, and chronic inflammation results when we don’t have enough anti-inflammatory agents to fight the inflammation. So an athlete eating a diet rich in highly refined carbs and sugar may find that it helps then reach max speeds and go fast, but long-term it’s not doing the body any good and ultimately will take a toll on athletic performance. If you need the sugar and carbs to perform well in racing, practice with these products a few times in training so your gut adapts and you can hit your workout goals and also use them on race day, but otherwise try to keep the high sugar and carbs to a minimum. If you’re into heavy endurance training and need a lot of calories, you can get the bulk of your carbs from whole food sources and gluten-free grains as well as healthy fats and proteins; it’s a myth that you need processed carbs and added sugars to make it as an endurance athlete.
- Also, too much inflammation in the body and inflammatory foods will not help you achieve an optimal body composition for sport. This day in age we often see many overfat endurance athletes and it’s certainly not because they are lazy, it’s often because they are eating an inflammatory diet rich in refined carbs and sugars. Even if you’re not overfat you may wonder why despite all your training you’re feeling a bit flabby or even putting on weight. It’s diet. We often think, “I train my butt off so I can eat whatever I want, I deserve it,” but sadly it doesn’t work like that. Lowering inflammation via diet will also decrease your pant size, and keep your body composition at desirable levels. Second to that, we’re living in a time where body positivity is increasingly popular, which is absolutely great, and I’m all about preaching self-love, but body positive should not be an excuse to ignore health needs and eat a poor-quality diet that leaves you unhealthy on the inside.
- MR: What’s a good way to get started with anti-inflammatory eating?
- I always say 1) baby steps and 2) increase your knowledge on a given subject. If you’re reading this article, that is a great start, so good job. Don’t feel like you need to do a diet overhaul overnight, make it a transition and start to understand more about what’s in the foods you eat!
- To get started on anti-inflammatory eating, we need to decrease the amount of omega-6 fatty acids, oxidized fats, sugars, and refined carbs in the diet. Some food should just be eliminated like those with trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. Most people are consuming too many omega-6s and not enough foods rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3s, and this is throwing off the omega 6:3 ratio leading to more inflammation in the body. The balance should be about 1:1, but in many diets it’s closer to 20:1 (note that omega-6’s aren’t inherently bad, we need them, just not in excess). By cutting back on or eliminating junk foods and vegetable oils (with which most junk foods are made) we can make a lot of progress. Vegetable oil consumption is largely toxic not due to just the omega-6 content but due to the oxidized fats—these types of fats are more susceptible to oxidation—especially when used for very high-heat cooking like deep-frying (5). Instead, use ghee or avocado oil for your high heat cooking, both of which are much more stable fats and don’t oxidize as easily).
- As you cut back on the junk you definitely need to add in more of the good fats and foods like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, avocados, wild salmon, sardines, dark leafy greens, organic vegetables (especially crucifers), organic whole fruits (not juices), fiber, and so on.
- We also want to consume more phytonutrients from turmeric, ginger and foods with quercetin including cruciferous veggies, apples and red onion
- What goes hand in hand with an anti-inflammatory diet is a diet that’s rich in antioxidants, something we certainly want especially as athletes who are more susceptible to oxidative damage. For example, the flavonoids in quercetin and curcumin in turmeric will scavenge for free radicals to decrease oxidative stress in the body. Athletes can also take anti-inflammatory and antioxidant supplements in addition to what’s contained in food; however, it’s best to avoid taking any of these after your workouts because this is when the body needs that acute inflammation response to repair and adapt to make you stronger and fitter. Studies show that consuming antioxidants after exercise decreases the adaptation response.
- Lastly, assess yourself: I’d recommend getting a blood test that looks at markers of inflammation like C-reactive protein (CRP), homocysteine, blood glucose and white blood cells. This will give you very individualized data on your current state of inflammation and risk. Training may cause higher levels of CRP especially after a race, but if you’re rested and CRP is still high, you should certainly adopt a healthier anti-inflammatory diet right away.
- Homocysteine is natural amino acid in the body. It’s only problematic when blood levels begin to build due to homocysteine not being properly broken down (into methionine or cysteine), causing it to become what some consider a vascular toxin. High levels are associated with diseases like CVD, dementia, Alzheimer’s, inflammatory disease, etc. Causes may be deficiencies in B12, folate, B6 and poor methylation.
- MR: What are the top 3-5 foods you recommend people eat and top 3-5 you suggest they avoid?
- TG: Eat These Foods in Abundance:
- Fish oil or eating a fatty wild fish 2-3 times a week – smaller cold-water fish are best like sardines and salmon; avoid eating too many large fish like tuna and swordfish which can be high in mercury and other toxins.
- Turmeric – there is a ton of research that supports turmeric’s ability to decrease inflammation in the body via curcumin, which blocks the inflammatory chemicals. I also recommend a supplement called Meriva, by Thorne Research, which is curcumin based and shown in one study to be more effective than NSAIDs with zero side effects.
- Ginger – in addition to fighting inflammation it’s also good for athletes because it may increase blood flow, boost recovery, improve digestion and sooth the stomach and GI tract if it gets upset as it often can with training.
- Extra virgin olive oil – put it on salads, in sauces and marinades and use it for cooking at temperatures up to 375 degrees (but not high-heat cooking). The monounsaturated fats in EVOO are strong anti-inflammatories and also very heart protective.
- Avocados – so versatile, tasty, healthy and powerful.
- Green juices – first off avoid the green juices that have a ton of fruit like apples, oranges and pineapples, which negate the benefits of the greens by packing in too much sugar. The only fruits “allowed” in should be lemon or lime. Scrutinize the menu or ingredients and only choose or make green juices that are vegetable-based: kale, spinach, cucumber, celery, ginger, romaine, bok choy, and so on. This is basically a mega dose of vitamins and nutrients and also great for someone who struggles to get in enough greens or veggies.
- Avoid or Limit These Foods & Drinks:
- Canola oil (and other vegetable oils) – there’s often confusion with canola oil and it still touted as healthy in some circles. It’s not. Stop using canola oil. It is not a healthy oil, it is just another inflammatory vegetable oil, often genetically modified and Partially hydrogenated, making it a culprit of inflammation and heart disease risk. Other veg oils to avoid: sunflower, soy, safflower, corn, cottonseed, margarine, shortening, etc.
- Fast foods – especially fried foods in vegetable oils, which contain advanced glycation end products that contribute to inflammation and premature aging. Most fast food is pro-inflammatory and just empty calories anyways.
- Refined sugars – anything with added sugar or refined sugar is not going to help your inflammation status. Natural sugars found in fruits, whole foods and even small quantities of honey or maple syrup are ok.
- Wheat and refined grains – foods with traditional white flour and gluten, “white foods,” processed breads and cereals, and so on; these all have wheat which is highly inflammatory. It’s ok to have grains in the diet, but try to consume the least processed clean organic sources and keep to moderation.
- Alcohol – we all know athletes low to celebrate with a little booze. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if alcohol consumption gets too high (more than a couple drinks a day kinda thing) this can promote inflammation in the body among other negative effects.
- TG: Eat These Foods in Abundance:
There are two top supplements I’d get your hands on and you can buy these supplements (and any supplements you desire) from my personal online dispensary for 10% off using the directions below…
- Meriva 500-SF by Thorne Research – this is a turmeric/curcumin extract, which is even reported in research to be just as/more effective than NSAIDs (6).
- Liposomal Glutathione by Empirical Labs – Discussed in this ATD podcast, glutathione is the master antioxidant that detoxifies and decreases oxidative stress and inflammation.
Some other supplement ideas include:
- CoQ10 – I like Allergy Research group CoQH-CF (ubiquinol, a reduced form of coenzyme Q10; the actual antioxidant form of coenzyme Q10)
- Probiotics – I like Prescript Assist and Sound Probiotics (these are not available on dispensary; click to buy).
- Vitamins C, D, E and/or a high-quality Multi-Vitamin – I like Thorne Multi-Vitamin Elite AM/PM Formula, Thorne Liquid D/K2 and Designs for Health Stellar C.
- Digestive enzyme – Especially if you struggle with gas, bloating or indigestion—this will take some “pressure” off your system.
- Fish oil – I like products by Nordic Naturals.
To buy these supplements:
- Go to: http://www.npscript.com/
- The code for your account is: coachtawnee (one word, no caps).
- Create an account by entering your contact information, email, username and password (just make sure to remember your password for future log-ins).
- Search for your supplement(s)(enter: supplement name, brand) in the search bar as you normally do on any other online storefront. You can order those recommended plus ANY other supplements you please whenever you want for 10% off, and have peace of mind that you are getting them from a reliable source.
- Bessa, A. e. (2008). High-intensity ultraendurance promotes early release of muscle injury markers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 42(11), 889-893.