An Athlete’s Guide to Inflammation: Understand, Reduce and Prevent

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Pain is hard to ignore. Pain, heat and swelling are often present with acute inflammation. Inflammation is a normal physiological response to a physical activity. During the recovery period, the inflammatory process repairs any damage and also promotes training adaptations leading to strength and endurance gains

Research has now proven links between inflammation, diet, and gut bacteria. This is the main reason why many athletes are now looking towards personalizing their diets and adding in more anti-inflammatory foods and practices [e.g. Heart Rate Variability devices and monitoring]. A good quality diet and moderate, consistent aerobic exercise are some of the best ways to lower inflammation. Regular exercise has actually been shown to reduce inflammation by 20-60% and to reduce white blood cell count (a marker for inflammation) during and after exercise. Interestingly enough, inconsistent exercise can actually have the opposite effect on inflammation, increase your white blood cell levels, increase inflammation and weaken your immune system.

Chronic inflammation is a common theme with my clients in the clinic. A way to describe this is like a smoldering fire that keeps your immune system in a constant state of red alert.  A low grade inflammatory fire ranges from mild niggles in your body to full blown conditions such as pre diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, auto-immune conditions and accelerated aging.

There are many signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation and unfortunately these are often ignored! Athletes who over-train or over-exert themselves can suppress their immune system leaving them in this constant state of red-alert, where joints and soft tissue become more susceptible to injuries, making it more difficult to recover properly.

Popping pills such as ibuprofen is the quick solution to treat pain. For the most part NSAIDs are tolerated relatively well if respected, but this little pill can do more harm than good, as it is widely known to impair the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract which is thought to compromise immune function in the gut lining, resulting in an inflammatory response and also linked with ulcers. How ironic? Taking anti-inflammatory medications can actually cause inflammation in the GI tract of susceptible individuals.

Sleep is also important.  Poor or insufficient sleep has been linked to higher levels of inflammation. In one study, levels of 3 inflammatory markers  [fibrinogen, IL-6 and C-reactive protein] were measured. C-reactive protein (CRP) acts as a proxy for inflammation. Levels of CRP rise and fall in response to inflammation, and knowing your CRP measurement tells you a lot about what’s going on in your body. It was observed in the study that participants with poor sleep quality had significantly higher levels of these inflammatory markers than participants with good sleep quality.

Several studies have also shown an inverse relationship between HRV and CRP levels and to physical activity levels, where the most physically active people demonstrate the lowest CRP, and highest HRV.  HRV is easy to monitor and more and more athletes are taking this on board.

What you eat also has a big effect on inflammation. To keep your levels in check, avoid eating processed foods or foods that are high in empty calories, sugar, and artificial additives. The most practical steps to support the immune system is to change your diet by adding in the right types of anti-inflammatory foods, spices and herbs. Easy to say, but for some it’s not so easy to implement.

 My favorite anti-inflammatory foods

  • Fats: Olive Oils, Avocados, Coconut Oil / Butter
  • Proteins: Oily Wild Fish
  • Stock or Bone Broths
  • Greens
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Brightly coloured vegetables
  • Berries
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Green Tea
  • Rosemary

More Natural Products / Supplements that reduce inflammation

  • Vitamin D3
  • Lipoic acid
  • NAC
  • Grape seed extract
  • Propolis
  • Zinc
  • Co-enzyme Q-10
  • Selenium
  • Indole-3-carbinol (I3C)
  • N-acetyl-L-cysteine
  • Resveratrol
  • GLA
  • EPA
  • Boswellia


1. Morris A et al Circulation. 2010; 122: A17806 2. AHA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Maev is an active member of the American Institute of Functional Medicine, runs her own private practice and lectures in nutrition. You can view more on her website Maev Creaven Nutrition

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