We recently had a great conversation with our friends at Endurance Planet about gut health, probiotics, and the endurance athlete (check out the podcast). The question of how inflammation affects performance came up and I felt like revisiting the issue a bit more extensively in this post.
Inflammation is not necessarily the boogeyman that it is often believed to be. To understand how inflammation might affect athletic performance, let’s first define inflammation and its role in the body.
Inflammation is an extremely complex and dynamic process. It functions appropriately in our bodies as a means of warding off infections and responding to injured tissues. Think of inflammation as a cascade of events with the infection (injury, toxin, or stressor) resulting in the release of particular cells and chemicals that go after the infection or injured tissue to either destroy the offending stimulus or protect/repair the injured tissue. Inflammation is what leads to pus and to the straw-colored fluid in blisters. But most often the reaction goes on unseen inside our bodies.
It is important to understand that infection is not the same as inflammation. An inflammatory response occurs as a result of an infection, but that is not the only time inflammation occurs in the body. Exercise is a well established cause of inflammation too. Exercise can lead to tissue (ie, muscle) injury, which sets off a cascade of inflammation. However, this is a short-term effect. Exercise has actually been found to have a long-term anti-inflammatory effect.
So when is inflammation bad? This is a tough question without a good answer, but I think it would be generally accepted that inflammation, when chronic, is doing more harm than good. When does inflammation become chronic? Well, neither that blister nor that cold will last forever, so for the majority of us it’s not nasty bugs or autoimmune conditions that are driving chronic inflammation. It is our diet and stress!
The link between our diets and chronic, systemic inflammation is thought to be mediated through our guts. A less diverse microbiota, associated with a typical Western diet, has been linked to increased intestinal permeability. This process allows substances that should not cross into the bloodstream do so, triggering an inflammatory response. This process has been linked with increased insulin resistance and in turn obesity and type II diabetes. Current research is also pointing toward chronic inflammation as a culprit in the development of cardiovascular disease and even depression.
How does inflammation affect performance
As I mentioned earlier, exercise actually causes inflammation, but it dissipates within hours to days with adequate recovery. The problem arises, when you don’t allow for adequate recovery or add on other stressors (ie, poor diet, poor sleep, alcohol, etc) that augment the inflammation leading to, you guessed it – chronic inflammation. At this point, you are treading in dangerous territory and run the risk of overreaching and overtraining. IF we are to assume that these syndromes represent a state of chronic inflammation – or are in fact synonymous, then we can most definitely say that they affect performance!
What to do about it
Proper Nutrition: Despite some good guiding principles with nutrition and hydration, what you consume is a very personal choice, and it takes a lot of self-experimentation to figure out what works. But the bottom line is that you should take as much care with what you put in your body as you do with picking out your gear. Check out Endurance Planet for several great podcasts on nutrition for athletes as well as the website for a leading exercise physiologist Asker Jeukendrup.
Proper sleep: Get it! Read more about gut health and sleep here
Maintain a healthy gut: Personally, this doesn’t have anything to do with adhering to a specific diet or relying heavily on a particular food group, but rather focusing on the least refined, most natural foods I can find. I also eat a wide array of fermented foods/drinks like miso, kombucha, and sauerkraut. The goal is to increase microbial diversity in our gut. Increased microbial diversity is associated with less inflammation.
Proper sleep and reducing stress also have beneficial effects on gut health.
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Don't be quick to accept an antibiotic prescription. Ask your doctor if it is really needed and if "waiting it out" might be a better option (as is the case for a cold and most sinus issues).
Avoid excessive alcohol
Don't take NSAIDs for pain
Get a coach: A coach can keep track of your training intensity and see patterns in your performance that will prevent you from overreaching and aid in proper recovery. A good coach is worth every penny!