When you exercise, you add stress to your body. From your delicate nerve fibres to your gut, brain, muscles and ligaments to name a few. Even your red blood cells need replenishing after a hard workout with the use of iron.
Studies have even shown that chronic inflammation can hinder recovery and cause injuries – limiting your performance. (I) Furthermore, additional stress and inflammation from exercise damages your gut, which weakens your immune system. This allows toxins to enter your bloodstream – negatively affecting your recovery.
Furthermore, foods that assist the gut bacteria such as garlic which contains inulin helps to increase nutrient absorption whilst increasing blood flow into damaged muscle fibres (more on this below).
Adopting simple nutrition practices such as consuming beetroot smoothies pre-workout, and eating plentiful amounts of tart cherries post-workout can sometimes make the biggest difference in how well you recover and lower your inflammation.
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How Inflammation Affects Recovery
When your muscles are injured after a workout, something called ‘neutrophil activation’ happens within your muscles. Neutrophil Activation is the release of white blood cells which causes inflammation to rise.
Inflammation (and the release of white blood cells) is necessary for any healing process. However, too much of it and we begin to run into problems, such as delayed recovery, muscle scarring and the onset of illnesses.
It’s even been shown that inflammation, when chronic, can cause respiratory illnesses as said by the Harvard School of public Health; “Chronic, low-grade inflammation is a key factor in the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease”. (III)
How Muscles Recover From Inflammation?
Muscle stem cells, known as satellite cells (which are precursors to the building of muscle), are released when neutrophil is activated. (IV) (V) Therefore, this highlights how small amounts of inflammation is necessary post-exercise to signal for cellular growth and repair, but again, too much and your recovery process will become delayed.
Another part of the muscle healing process (and something that we want to limit) is when toxins classed as ‘oxygen free radicals and proteases’ are released into the muscles. These cause damage and injury directly to our muscle cells. This all begins when ‘neutrophil activation’ happens from exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). (VI) (VII)
This is just a quick summary of how inflammation increases, and with it, how new muscle fibres are created. Therefore, this leaves us with the question; “How can we reduce inflammation and damage to our muscle” The answer lies in nutrition.
Eating nutrients high in amino acids, carbohydrates and fats, along with detoxifying nutrients containing polyphenols and antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin K and vitamin C, enhances the recovery process that would otherwise linger – sometimes for days and weeks.
How Foods Can Lower Inflammation
There are two food groups in particular which I’ve listed below. These are foods which contain high amounts of polyphenols and the prebiotic bacteria classed as inulin. It’s foods containing these elements which have the biggest impact on recovery where inflammation is concerned.
Potent Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Polyphenols are found in foods such as beetroot, tart cherries and even dark chocolate. It’s polyphenols, specifically anthocyanins that have been shown to reduce muscle soreness while reducing inflammation through your entire body.
As for the prebiotic inulin which is found in a number of foods listed below, helps to feed you already existing gut bacteria. Once it reaches your intestines, inulin allows your complex and vast gut ecosystem to become stronger and more robust – allowing for exercise induces toxins to be eliminated.
In short, inulin helps you to absorb more nutrients for the foods you eat. Furthermore, it also limits toxic build-up in your intestines both during and after exercise.
Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods For Recovery
You can easily add these into your diet surrounding your busy schedule where you’ll be sure to feel their many benefits. However, like with all things nutrition related – some of it comes down to personal preference.
1. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate higher than 70% in cocoa content has been linked to faster recovery thanks to the added polyphenol content. Polyphenols come from anthocyanins, which are also grouped in plant foods named flavonoids.
It’s in this group that polyphenols improve “digestion, brain function, and blood sugar levels, as well as protect against blood clots, heart disease, and certain cancers”. (IX)
However, not all chocolate is equal. When choosing dark chocolate, it’s best to avoid those filled with sugar, as sugar will have the opposite effect – increasing inflammation. (X)
Turmeric has been around for thousands of years. It’s been associated with numerous health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory, metabolic syndrome management, reduced muscle soreness, anxiety, and even improved sports performance. (XI)
How does turmeric achieve all of these amazing benefits? This is thanks to the main ingredient named curcumin. It’s curcumin that can reduce fatty livers (XII) whilst improving blood flow – limiting muscle and cell inflammation that might otherwise cause disease.
Ginger is not only a cooking ingredient, but it also acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory and recovery aid. This is thought to be thanks to the way it mimics COX-2 inhibitors. (XIII)
It’s COX-2 inhibitors which are pharmaceutical drugs which are used to treat the sensation of pain and inflammation.
In one study it was shown that ginger had a positive anti-inflammatory effect on the knee area in those suffering from osteoarthritis. (XIV)
4. Green Tea
Green tea is full of polyphenols. In fact, it’s thought that polyphenols make up at least 30% of green tea making it a powerful antioxidant and inflammation relief. (XV)
Furthermore, green tea also contains catechins, more specifically epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). It’s catechins which have been linked to yield a high antioxidant effect on the body.
To highlight the importance of catechins, it’s been shown that even your DNA, caused by oxidative stress can be improved with the use of green tea. Not only that, but it’s also thought that green tea can benefit lipid oxidation and protein synthesis.
Inside garlic, you’ll find high amounts of inulin. It’s inulin that is the fibre inside plant sources like garlic. Inulin helps to break down fats, it increases food absorption while increasing the immune system.
How does garlic do all of this? This is because garlic (inulin) improves gut health. When you eat garlic, the inulin content feeds the friendly bacteria in your intestines, acting as food for the probiotic bacteria in your gut ecosystem.
Onions are in the same family as garlic, they help to increase your friendly gut bacteria whilst improving digestion and nutrient absorption.
Furthermore, eating onions has been shown to inhibit low-density lipoprotein oxidation which would otherwise increase the risk of heart disease.
On top of this, onions can also help to improve vitamin and mineral retention and generation – more specifically vitamin E which is a powerful antioxidant. (XVI)
7. Red Cabbage
As we’ve already discussed, anthocyanins are vital if you want to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. Therefore, one food not to leave out of the equation is red cabbage.
Red cabbage contains 36 different types of high-quality anthocyanins (XVII) which makes red cabbage a food that you shouldn’t skip out on if improved recovery is your goal.
Broccoli contains high amounts of anti-inflammatory antioxidants, more specifically sulforaphane. It’s the role of sulforaphane to fight inflammation by reducing levels of cytokines which initiate inflammation build-up. (XVIII)
Furthermore, broccoli also contains high amounts of fibre which help to reduce waste products whilst easing digestion along with feeding the healthy bacteria in your gut.
The healthier your digestive system is, the more nutrients you’ll absorb, which leads to enhanced recovery. On top of this, eating vegetables high in fibre has also been associated with a reduced risk in heart disease. (XIX)
Inside peppers, you’ll find high amounts of vitamin c which is well-known for its powerful antioxidant properties. Consuming vitamin c from whole foods has been shown to lower inflammation whilst improving your immune system. (XX)
Because of the high levels of antioxidants found in peppers, the less likely you are to suffer from oxidative damage. It’s oxidative stress that creates illnesses and increased inflammation throughout your body. (XXI)
On the topic of peppers, chilli peppers contain sinapic acid and ferulic acid, both of which have been shown to reduce inflammation, leading to fewer diseases and healthier ageing. (XXII)
Beetroot contains nitrates, more specifically, high amounts of nitric oxide. It’s the role of nitric oxide to increase nutrient absorption, oxygen supply, and the removal of waste products such as carbon dioxide.
Furthermore, beetroot can also speed up the removal of lactic acid and other exercise-related toxins from the muscles. Therefore, this puts beetroot high on my list of foods that lower inflammation.
11. Tart Cherries
Tart cherries are becoming more popular year on year ever since the were discovered to hold potent anti-inflammatory components that reduce muscle soreness.
Inside tart cherries, you’ll find pigments called anthocyanins which have been shown to increase the rate of recovery.
Another thought process behind how anthocyanins reduce muscle soreness is by the way they increase blood flow. Furthermore, consuming tart cherries post-workout can replenish muscle glycogen stores which heal microdamage done to your muscles.
Blueberries have been shown to increase sports performance and recovery significantly when consumed prior and post-exercise thanks to their antioxidant and nitrate properties.
In a randomized cross-over design study, female athletes were given either a placebo or a blueberry smoothie 5 – 10 hours before and 12 – 36 hours after exercise-induced muscle damage (300 strenuous eccentric contractions of the quadriceps).
The results showed that after 60 hours when compared against the placebo group, a significant ‘positive’ observation in isometric tension was noted. This means that three days of post-exercise recovery was increased compared to the placebo group – resulting in faster muscle recovery.
Another interesting point to mention from this study was how the supplemented group managed to lower their oxidative stress and inflammation. This was thanks to the plasma antioxidant capacity – which increased with the use of blueberries prior and post-exercise. (XXIII)
13. Flax seeds
Flax seeds are high in omega 3’s and have been shown to lower inflammation. This is thanks to the way omega 3’s reduce inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines – leading to greater cell and muscle repair after exercise. (XXIV)
Furthermore, flax seeds are high in arginine which gets turned into citrulline inside your body. It’s citrulline that triggers for a release/creation of more humane growth hormone whilst improving the role of nitrates in muscle repair.
For example, when you consume a beetroot smoothie, it’s best to combine it with flax seeds as the arginine/citrulline will enhance the nitric oxide found in beetroot to promote muscle repair over muscle scarring – which results in more efficient and healthier recovery.
Avocados are important for recovery and reduced inflammation due to their fibre content. Along with the added potassium, magnesium, and healthy monounsaturated fat. It’s the combination of these essential minerals and fats that places avocados in the category of superfood.
Furthermore, avocados contain carotenoids and tocopherols. It’s the role of carotenoids to help lower inflammation whilst improving the levels of antioxidants inside the body.
As we’ve seen from other food sources such as blueberries, beetroot and dark chocolate – foods containing flavonoids in the class of carotenoids are vital for the quality and timing of your recovery.
Not only that, but studies also indicate that when avocados are eaten in combination with fatty meals, it can actually reduce the initial inflammation biomarkers that would otherwise increase from carcinogenic foods. (XXV)
15. Amino Acids
Proteins, which are made up of amino acids are the building blocks of your hard-earned muscles. Therefore, without a constant supply of amino acids via supplementation or from whole foods, your recovery could be seriously hampered.
To increase your healing process further, combining amino acids with arginine and nitrates found in flax seeds and beetroot will increase your rate of recovery – allowing you to train more often, making faster progress.
Sport Nutrition Expert Recommendation?
For a way to speed up your recovery while preventing illnesses that are caused by inflammation, there’s no better solution than using healthy foods, and in some cases, prebiotic supplements.
Choosing foods that are high in polyphenols, antioxidants, fibre, and healthy fats is a sure-fire way to speed up your recovery.
Personally I like to drink smoothies on a regular basis which contains most of these ingredients. By doing this you can retain a lot of the freshness, along with the immediate convenience and benefits of these foods.
Eating foods in their rawest form also retains a lot of the nutrients that your body needs. This is just one reason for the popularity of smoothies or ‘raw food’ diets as they pack a punch when it comes to lowering inflammation.
For more information on recovery, you can read my guide on ‘Foods For Recovery‘ otherwise feel free to browse through my ‘Nutrition Guides‘ which are full of useful information on supplementation and dieting protocols.