By: Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC

If you’ve ever gone home after a hard workout and popped some Advil or Ibuprofen to help ease the aching muscles you’re anticipating, then you might want to rethink why you’re doing that. Taking an anti-inflammatory is not the best way to deal with post exercise soreness or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). When it comes to dealing with acute inflammation due to exercise, the best thing you can do to help your body naturally recover is to use food.

During exercise, your muscle fibers are damaged. This happens mainly during the eccentric (or controlled lengthening of a muscle under load) part of an exercise. This can create acute inflammation in the muscle and, therefore, pain. During this acute phasewhite blood cells come into the muscle (leukocyts and inflammatory cytokins) and begin the inflammation process. Then there is a release of ROS (reactive oxygen species, which creates oxidative stress in the muscle) & proteolytic molecules to get rid of cellular debris. Lastly, repair and remodeling of the muscle occurs with anti-inflammatory cytokins and other helpful molecules. If inflammation is a normal adaptive process that is part of exercise, should you be trying to blunt this process with medication? Your acute inflammation can go to chronic inflammation when when this process is inhibited – constant use of anti-inflammatory medications or NSAIDS to reduce acute inflammation from exercise can actually be a contributing factor. A good example of this is athletes who chronically consume NSAIDS to address pain from training, lifting, playing, etc. If you don’t want to get caught in the cycle of using medication to battle post exercise soreness, turn to food instead. You’ll see why by reading on…

There are many foods containing anti-inflammatory compounds that will help your body naturally aid the recovery process. These include polyphenols (plant-based foods, especially spices), omega 3-fatty acids (such as cold water fish), vitamin D, and whey protein. Below is a list of foods and what they can specifically do to help the process of recovery.

Tart Cherries/Juice: One study that was done with racehorses involved the horses consuming 30 milliliters of concentrated tart cherry juice, which resulted in reduced inflammation. It was concluded that human consumption of tart cherry juice would produce the same results, and it does! We also know that tart cherries reduce hsCRP (a high hsCRP level is a risk factor for atherosclerosis), lower uric acid and lower blood pressure. Consuming 30 milliliters of concentratedtart cherry juice or 8 ounces of un-concentrated juice will give you the most benefit.

Berries (all kinds!): Did you know raspberries contain a derivative of aspirin? And blueberries have higher levels of polyphenolic compounds, which are beneficial to brain health, especially those who are concussed or have a brain injury. Eat them fresh, add them to smoothies or your oatmeal! Any way you like them, eat ‘em up!

Beetroot Juice: Though not great tasting (to some) with its earthy flavor, beetroot juice is an amazing polyphenol! Just be aware that consuming large amounts of beetroot juice will turn your urine red! What’s so amazing about beetroot juice? It delivers dietary nitrate, which converts to nitric oxide in the mouth. Good bacteria in the mouth convert nitrate to nitrite, then to nitric oxide, which increases oxygen flow in blood! So if you use antibacterial mouthwash, this won’t happen! Beetroot juice has been shown to improve aerobic and anaerobic performance by up to 1-3 percent. Use caution, however, as it will acutely drop blood pressure, so if you’ve got low blood pressure take note. If you’ve got hypertension (high blood pressure), then try out some beetroot juice to help lower your blood pressure! The quantity needed to improve performance is quite a significant amount: you must drink 8-16 ounces for the effect. It can be distilled and added to smoothies for a less “dirt-like” taste.

Turmeric: Turmeric is often known for being present in Indian dishes. It contains curcumin, which can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, as it helps to reduce inflammation. You can utilize curcumin as a supplement, but make sure that the label says “curcumin 95” to be most effective. Turmeric also promotes joint health! Many with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis have improvements in their symptoms with the consumption of turmeric.

Ginger: Another great spice to add to your meals! Properties of ginger include: anti-inflammation and it acts as an analgesic. It takes about 2 grams of ginger (which is quite a bit) to help reduce pain after exercise, so try mixing it into dishes such as stir-fries or smoothies to reduce the concentration.

Saffron: Another super-spice!Saffron is another common spice in Indian dishes. It is on the pricy side, but unlike turmeric and ginger, does not have such a potent flavor. It helps lower lactate dehydrogenase, which is a byproduct of eccentric exercise.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Look for cold-water fish if you want to get in your omega 3s. Omega 3s are found in fish such as salmon, cod and albacore tuna. Most often, omega 3s are recommend as a supplement, especially if you don’t eat cold water fish. When looking for a supplement, EPA & DHA must be on the label! EPA & DHA are critical for brain health and are a dietary essential. Sometimes omega 3s may be advertised through other dietary means, such as flaxseed. However, this can be inaccurate as flaxseed is the wrong kind of omega 3. It contains ALA, which does not convert in a high percentage to EPA & DHA. And don’t confuse omega 3s with omega 6s. We eat a lot of omega 6s as a culture. These include, but are not limited to, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and red meat. In fact, the average American diet contains about 10 times more omega 6s than omega 3s and when a diet is high in omega 6s, less omega 3s are converted to EPA & DHA. What’s the difference between an omega 6 and omega 3? Omega 6 converts to pro-inflammatory prostaglandins & leukotrienes. One type of red meat that does offer omega 3s is grassfedbeef. The diet a cow eats influences the type of fat in its meat, resulting in more omega 3s. When cooking food, the types of oils used also matters. Olive oil versus corn oil and avocado oil versus sunflower oil, for example. Another neat fact is that kids with mild depression and ADD that were given higher amounts of omega 3s had decreased symptoms and it was just as effective as depression medication.

Vitamin D: Especially in northeast Ohio, vitamin D is often low. Even in south Texas where it’s very sunny year round, athletes who often practice outdoors were tested ands 41 percent were still deficient in vitamin D. Darker skin also makes it harder to absorb, as well as higher body fat because too much body fat merely stores the vitamin D instead of utilizing it. Leanness also makes it harder to store because it stores too little. Vitamin D will also up-regulate genes involved in the body’s immune status. Low vitamin D can also be related to low levels of iron. Hepcidin can sequester iron stores, leading to chronic anemia. Vitamin D can down-regulate hepcidin and help restore iron levels.

Whey Protein (Branch Chain Amino Acids): Leucine in particular prevents muscle protein breakdown (not hypertrophy). The injury response to strenuous exercise or injury makes you selectively lose muscle mass. Leucine can prevent this muscle loss. Where can you get leucine? Beans, milk, and cottage cheese are especially high in this branch chain amino acid.

What are some practical ways to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods in your diet?…

  • Make your plate ½ fruits & vegetables. Get in those polyphenols!
  • Smoothies can include many anti-inflammatory compounds (add spinach to your smoothies, ginger, berries, etc.)
  • Supplements in vitamin D & omega 3s should be considered because they are difficult to get into your diet and are lacking the most often. Look for 2000mg of EPA & DHA in your supplement. Or at least 2 meals a week should include cold water fish.
  • Whey protein prevents muscle breakdown, which is a consequence of chronic inflammation, therefore, have protein in each meal. And don’t skip breakfast!
  • Avoid sweets & dessert. These contain high amounts of sugar, which is pro-inflammatory.
  • Limit fried foods – reused oils are a source of trans fats (most especially when eating out since oil is often reused) and can create inflammation.
  • Spices can be used as a source of additional flavoring & antioxidants.