Inflammation is an essential component of human physiology as it allows us to deal with bumps and bruises as well as more virulent attackers of our immune system. However, when inflammation goes unchecked (what is termed “chronic low-grade inflammation”) it is directly linked to increased risk of a variety of diseases – namely obesity, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and potentially even some forms of cancer.
The impact of chronic inflammation on overall health is a major concern, as it is something that can be “silent” (meaning, we often don’t notice it). The causes behind chronic inflammation can range from: a diet high in processed fats and sugars, not managing muscle recovery properly while training for a fitness event, or leaving emotional/mental stressors unresolved. Also, some research sheds light that specific foods cause an increased inflammatory response, similar to gluten in individuals with celiac disease or lactose in those that are lactose intolerant.
While you can quickly identify if you have an intolerance to lactose, it can be much tougher to determine if low-grade inflammation is affecting you (and what might be the driving factors behind it). Therefore, here are some general tips that can help you keep low-grade inflammation in check over the long run, thus reducing changes for disease risk and increasing athletic performance and recovery:
1) Sleep – A good rule of thumb is to shoot for 7 to 9 hours per night. While this may be the right mix for most people, depending on your daily activity level you may need 9+ hours to feel fully refreshed. The important thing though is to make sure you are getting enough sleep where you wake-up feeling refreshed.
2) Limit processed carbohydrates/sugars – sugar consumption has been extensively documented to increase inflammatory levels inside the body. If possible, try to eliminate processed sugars from your diet completely (with the exception of immediate post-workout when training).
3) Watch the fat – while most studies conclude that a high-fat diet causes low-grade inflammation, cross-field conclusions determine that low-quality fats like conventionally raised beef fat and high-heat processed vegetable oils are the biggest offenders. You can mitigate this by just sticking to high-quality fat sources (e.g. grass-fed dairy products, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, etc.)
4) Nail that 2:1 omega ratio – while omega-3 is cardio-protective, omega-6 is inflammatory and has been linked to increases in cancer risk. Omega-6 fatty acids are most prevalent in vegetable oils and nuts, and many of the foods found in the “SAD” diet (Standard American Diet). Make sure you are balancing your omega ratio by eating cold-water fish and grass-fed dairy while trying to minimize processed vegetable oils/foods.
5) Don’t overtrain – individuals that run vigorously 5-7 days a week tend to have higher blood inflammation markers then their moderately exercising cohorts. While exercise can quickly become a distress on the body, managing it with sleep and recovery makes it a eustress (or “beneficial stressor”), thus lowering inflammation.
6) Watch carbohydrate (CHO) quality and intake – high-carbohydrate diets, and especially those that consist of high-glycemic load CHOs cause blood glucose spikes, which have a direct impact on cortisol levels. Cortisol of course helping to fuel the low-grade inflammatory response; so if we’re trying to reduce low-grade inflammation we want to make sure we’re focusing on quality and quantity when it comes to CHOs (e.g. sweet potato over white potato, or leafy greens in place of rice and beans). Paleo research is coming around, indicating greater health benefits from eating squash, fruits and vegetables compared to whole wheat, rice and beans – with many of the health benefits reported to be associated with consumption of the less inflammatory foods.
I hope these general tips for managing low-grade inflammation can be of use to you in your daily lives. If you want more information regarding this subject, check out the British Journal of Nutrition. If you have any questions for me, please feel free to post below!