There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the terms “inflammation” and “anti-inflammatory foods.” As a registered dietitian, I get a lot of requests for tips on how to reduce inflammation to prevent chronic disease, but I find that many times individuals are not aware of the strong relationship between inflammation and exercise performance. Whether you’re training with FightCamp at home or in the ring, it’s important to understand how inflammation can impact your training and ways to mitigate it.
WHAT IS INFLAMMATION?
Inflammation is not all bad. In fact, inflammation is your body’s normal response to any stressor, injury, or foreign “invaders” to the body, such as bacterial and viral infections. Inflammation is absolutely necessary; it is your immune system’s defense mechanism to protect and help the body heal. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is short-lived. For example, when you cut your finger, your immune system sends its soldiers - white blood cells - to heal the area, which in turn creates swelling and redness. Another type of acute inflammation is exercise-induced inflammation, a natural recovery process after bouts of exercise where the body compensates from the stress of the workout. This type of inflammation also helps with muscle repair, recovery, and adaptation to exercises. The end goal of the inflammatory process is to restore homeostasis (balance) in the body.
Inflammation is supposed to be a momentary process, and issues arise when the body remains in an inflammatory state, known as chronic inflammation. Chronic - or systemic - inflammation is long-term and results from persistent damage to body tissues that keep the inflammatory process running continuously. This can arise from poor lifestyle choices, such as a diet high in inflammatory foods, smoking, alcohol consumption, stress, inadequate sleep, lack of exercise, and autoimmune conditions. In fact, inflammation is at the root of many age-related diseases, such neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and Type II Diabetes (Sources 1 & 2).
INFLAMMATION AND ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Chronic inflammation can negatively impact a boxer’s performance by causing fatigue, decreasing range of motion, increasing muscle soreness, joint pain, and muscle damage, limiting muscle growth, increasing muscle loss, and lowering immunity, which in turn can affect a boxer’s wellbeing. In an attempt to lower inflammation, athletes may turn to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are over-the-counter medications, such as Ibuprofen. However, NSAIDs have been associated with gastrointestinal tract (GI) damage, and some studies show NSAIDs diminish training adaptations that help athletes recover and improve performance (Sources 1 & 2).
HOW TO REDUCE INFLAMMATION
By better managing post-exercise inflammation, boxers can recover more quickly, enhance their training adaptations, perform better in workouts and competitions, and possibly avoid injuries associated with inflammation. Here are some ways that you can reduce or prevent inflammation in the body, especially when training.
Get enough sleep and incorporate rest days
During sleep, muscles rest and recover. The Sleep Foundation recommends that athletes get a minimum of 7-9 hours of sleep and dedicate a full day for resting. Inadequate sleep can result in fatigue, decreased reaction time, and negatively affect exercise performance.
Limit or avoid pro-inflammatory foods
In addition to adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet, you should also limit and avoid pro-inflammatory foods. Here are some examples:
Refined carbohydrates and added sugars: White flour products, sugar-sweetened beverages, fried foods, processed foods, baked goods, desserts, packaged snacks, and fast foods. Some of these foods include cookies, pizza, french fries, chips, etc.
Saturated fats: Found in animal proteins, processed foods, tropical oils (such as coconut oil and palm oil), whole-fat dairy products (butter, cheese, cow’s milk)
Alcohol: Excess alcohol consumption can promote inflammation and disrupt sleep, both of which can be detrimental to sports performance over time.
Consume anti-inflammatory foods regularly
These foods work by fighting and reducing inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6. They also act as antioxidants, reducing oxidative stress and protecting cells from oxidative damage.
BEST ANTI-INFLAMMATORY FOODS
Now that we know what foods to avoid and limit to reduce and prevent inflammation in the body, here are some key foods to add to your diet to enhance your training and reduce potential inflammation in the body.
Fruits and vegetables
Tart cherry: Sports performance studies indicate that tart cherry juice reduces muscle pain and soreness associated with exercise. High in antioxidant anthocyanins, tart cherries have been shown to maintain muscle strength and reduce muscle pain by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress (Sources 1 & 2).
Berries: Wild and regular blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and cherries are excellent sources of phytochemicals and antioxidants, shown to reduce inflammation.
Dark leafy greens: Spinach, kale, collard greens, arugula, beet greens, swiss chard, and bok choy contain both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Red/Orange vegetables: Sweet potatoes, bell peppers, and carrots are rich in carotenoids, which have been shown to reduce levels of C-reactive protein.
Nitrate-rich vegetables: Beets and leafy greens are great sources of nitrates, which are converted into nitric oxide, a substance that increases blood flow, enhancing exercise recovery and reducing inflammation (Sources 1 & 2).
Nuts and seeds: walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds
Fatty fish: salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, tuna
Turmeric: Several studies have examined the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, the most active compound in turmeric, and its ability to relieve pain related to a wide range of inflammatory conditions (Sources 1, 2, 3).
Now that we understand the role of inflammation in the body and how it can impact a boxer’s performance in the long term, it’s important to incorporate diet and lifestyle changes to lower inflammation, in an effort to assist with muscle recovery and growth, improve overall exercise performance, and prevent the development of chronic diseases. Load up on the anti-inflammatory foods, stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, and keep up with the punches!
A Boxer’s Diet: How To Eat Like a Boxer (Beginner’s Guide)
Boxing Nutrition 101: A Dietitian’s Guide to a Boxer’s Diet
Importance of Carbs For Boxers | Explained by a Dietitian
Boxer’s Diet: Protein Requirements and Best Protein Sources