While there is a long list of health implications related to inflammation, this article is directed towards exercise performance. The opening message is this: when the body is in a high inflammatory state, aerobic capacity can be 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, blood flow is impaired, and that equates into less oxygen and nutrient delivery to and 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. A small amount of inflammation is a good thing, but a high training load can tip the scales from beneficial to detrimental.
There are two main types of inflammation: classic and silent. Classic is the most common type, and is often seen as bruising. It doesn’t take much for the body to respond to this internal bruising.
Silent inflammation, on the other hand, can have significant negative performance (and health) effects. There is no external swelling or bruising, thus it is sometimes difficult to know if you have it or better yet, how much you have. Everyone has some degree of inflammation. Everyone.
The Science of Inflammation
I will spare you the in-depth biochemistry lesson, but I want you to understand a few food facts as it pertains to inflammation.
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 more inflammation. Because the typical American diet is overloaded with the vegetable oils mentioned above, AA is produced in copious amounts—20-30 times more than is needed! GLA, while an omega-6 fat, has 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 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 higher levels of AA. The easiest way to help this situation is to focus on your food intake of omega-3 fats.
Omega-3 fats are converted to the beneficial compounds that you have likely 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. If you eat a large amount of vegetable oil and processed foods, laden with omega-6 fats, and a small amount of omega-3 fats, the conversion to the pro-inflammatory AA wins and you are left with a higher inflammatory response that your body has to try to fight off.
Inflammation and Food
As mentioned previously, you can use certain fats to increase or decrease inflammatory responses in the body. Besides omega-3 fats, there are a host of other foods that also contribute, either positively or negatively, to the inflammation process. In no specific order, a brief list of foods that can produce a PRO-inflammatory response include:
- Refined starches and sugars (white bread, cereals, candy, soft drinks, pastries)
- Sweets (cakes, cookies, pies)
- Fried foods (high in saturated and trans fats)
- Processed meats (sausage, pepperoni, lunch meats)
On a more optimistic note, here are a few food choices that have good ANTI-inflammatory properties and should be included in your daily nutrition plan:
- Wild caught salmon
- Hemp hearts
- Extra virgin olive oil
Testing and Supplementation
As triathletes, we are definitely used to taking pills, powders and potions. My message when it comes to taking any type of omega-3 supplement is to first have an Omega-3 Index test done (super easy and economical), then, based on the results, reformat your daily nutrition plan to produce a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio. For most athletes, it can be quite easy to reduce inflammation in the body via food. If supplementation is necessary, speak with a qualified Registered Sport Dietitian or medical professional.
The simple message I want to leave you with is: increasing omega-3 fats and decreasing omega-6 fats in your daily nutrition plan will offset the amount of AA being produced. Pay close attention to the ingredients in the foods that you eat, and try to significantly reduce vegetable oils that are popular in many food products.
Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, METS II is a Registered Sport Dietitian, Exercise Physiologist, USAT Level III Coach and the creator of the Nutrition Periodization and Metabolic Efficiency Training concepts. He provides nutrition coaching and physiological/biomarker testing through eNRG Performance (www.enrgperformance.com) and metabolically efficient cocoa, creamer and “anti-oatmeal” products through his company, Birota Foods (www.birotafoods.com). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.