Inflammation and Performance, Part I

By Bob Seebohar | Feb. 22, 2010, 12 a.m. (ET)
This article is part one of a two part series on inflammation and how your diet can make a difference. Part two is available here

While there are a long list of health implications related to inflammation, this article is directed towards exercise performance.  When the body is in a high inflammatory state, aerobic capacity is reduced which can affect physical performance.

The basic concept of this detriment to performance is the lining of the artery, often referred to as the endothelial lining. When this lining becomes inflamed, there is less blood flow (restriction) delivered to working muscles.  This means less oxygen and nutrient delivery and less waste removal from the muscles. 

Basics of Inflammation

We encounter "invaders" (bacteria, viruses) quite often as we go about our daily routine but they are normally attacked and destroyed by our internal inflammatory processes, sometimes without us knowing about it. A small amount of inflammation is a good thing but running tips the scales from beneficial to detrimental. 

There are two main types of inflammation: classic and silent. Classic is the type that is most common and is often seen as bruising. It doesn't take much for the body to respond to this internal bruising. The good news is that a little rest, ice, compression and elevation can nullify this type of inflammation within a matter of days.

Silent inflammation on the other hand can have significant negative health and performance effects. This type of inflammation is often involved in disease states such as heart disease, Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.  It's the type that you can't see without swelling or bruising. The only way to now how much you have of it is to have a simple blood test done by your physician looking at the level of C-reactive protein (CRP) in your blood.  This is a marker of total body inflammation. It can begin at a very young age and slowly as we get older, the artery walls can become more compromised with less oxygen and nutrient rich blood delivered to the muscles. Can it affect performance? The better question would be "when will it affect performance?" Because you cannot feel it, it can be difficult to manage.

The Science of Inflammation

It is fairly common knowledge these days what foods should and should not be used to improve performance or speed recovery but more attention has been on the different types of fat. Once touted as "bad", fat can actually improve your body's ability to fight inflammation and improve performance. Of course, the right fats are the real story line. The metabolism and effects of fatty acids is quite complex and while this will not be a biochemistry lesson, it is important to understand on a basic level that different types of fats can either increase or decrease inflammation by way of "turning on and off" certain hormones. 

This doesn't mean you can open the floodgates and start to have unlimited pizza, doughnuts, cookies, potato chips and other high fat foods.  What this does mean is that you can and should include the healthier types of fat in your daily nutrition program with the extra benefit of quenching some of the inflammation response that you are putting your body through when you exercise.

The types of fat that are highly related to inflammation include saturated, trans and the polyunsaturates omega-3 and omega-6.  Saturated and trans fats promote inflammation.  It is wise to decrease these as much as possible in your daily nutrition program. 

Omega-6 fats, found in safflower, soybean, corn and sunflower oils, are broken down into two main constituents: arachidonic acid (AA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).  Too much AA leads to inflammation. Because the typical American diet is overloaded with the vegetable oils mentioned above, AA is produced in copious amounts, in fact 20-30 times more than is needed!  GLA, while an omega-6 fat, does have anti-inflammatory properties because it is not converted to the pro- inflammatory AA.  GLA is converted to dihomogamma-linolenic acid (DGLA) which competes with AA in the breakdown and if it wins, will negate the pro-inflammatory effects of AA.  Again, this isn't meant to be a biochemistry lesson but it is important to understand that consuming too much of the polyunsaturated, omega-6 fats can lead to a greater amount of inflammation in the body due to high levels of AA.  The easiest way to help this situation is use extra virgin olive oil.

The omega-3 family of polyunsaturated fats have very positive health outcomes. In addition to helping control inflammation, omega-3 fats have been proven to do the following:

  • Decrease risk for coronary artery disease
  • Decrease hypertension
  • Improve insulin sensitivity
  • Reduce tenderness in joints with individuals with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Protect against stroke caused by plaque buildup and blood clots
  • Lower triglycerides and raise HDL (the healthy cholesterol) levels

Omega-3 fats are converted to the beneficial compounds that most people have heard of: EPA and DHA. However, the same enzyme is shared in converting omega-3 fats to EPA and DHA as is used in the conversion of omega-6 fats to AA. Because we eat a high amount of vegetable oil and processed foods, laden with omega-6 fats, and so little omega-3 fats, the conversion to the pro-inflammatory AA wins and we are left with a higher inflammatory response in our bodies. 

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article as it will discuss the introduction of food into the inflammation story.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team. He has served as head coach for Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympian, was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist. He is the current coach of Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion.

Bob's new book, Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, will teach athletes how to structure their nutrition and training program throughout the year to maximize their body's ability to use fat as energy and improve body composition.  For more information and to order the book, visit or contact Bob at