Spice it up

One of the benefits of eating real food is that it minimises the amount of processed refined foods that drive the inflammation pathways in the body which, as you know, is the underlying cause of modern chronic disease. From a general health perspective, this is awesome. From an athlete perspective it is even more so – given that the training derived oxidative stress causes cell damage and breakdown, increasing recovery time from sessions. Anything that impedes recovery is not going to allow you to make the fitness gains you are looking for. Of course, it’s more than just diet you have to consider.  I’m three weeks post-marathon and am up to running around 50 minutes every 2-3 days, with calf and foot niggles making me more cautious that what I’ve needed to be in the past. It’s frustrating for me to tell you the truth; yes I enjoy gym work and swimming, but there is nothing I love more than running and when the weather is blossoming into summer and the choice is between a Smith squat machine or Auckland Domain, I’d know where I’d rather be. Worse is that I really only have myself to blame. I’ve pretty much got my diet dialled in (as to be expected – though, no, it’s not perfect as I am human 😉 ) and I honestly have been taking the return to running seriously and listening to both Coach and osteo advice to ease into it. But it’s slower than what I would have imagined. Where I fall down is the recovery out of training – you know, the wind down time, getting enough sleep – that kind of thing. Hence I’ve been making a real effort this week to get to bed early, to practice diaphragmatic breathing whilst driving and to invert my legs up onto the wall at the end of the day and just ‘be’. So it got me thinking about additional ways to support the body outside of the diet, exercise and lifestyle. What other dietary factors can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body outside of a reduction of processed food and the free-radical scavenging properties of fruits, vegetables, animal protein and eggs?

A lot of athletes are heading into heavier schedules with the Christmas holidays allowing for some block training to occur. This is (for some) combined with the increased indulgences of additional alcohol at end-of year drinks and caffeine to get through the day. In combination with late nights and early starts, it’s no wonder that we hang out for December 23 as this time of year can wreak havoc on the body. It’s too easy to think you can pop a Voltaren or Neurofen tablet before going out and training (or at the end of a hard session) to mitigate the niggles and strains you feel that come from a lack of recovery. This might not seem like a big deal at the time but it really does more damage than what you think. I know – I used to be blasé about these things too – I had a ‘stomach of steel’ that was Impenetrable to even the most harshest of substances (there’s few things harder on the stomach than a mixing bowls worth of green gooseberries that I’ve successfully put this away with no ill effect in my younger years). But the older I’ve become, the more digestive issues I’ve struggled with around training, the more aware I’ve become of the impact that anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals can have on the gut and subsequent health. Training in itself has been found to increase gut permeability. The decreased blood flow to the gut through even moderate steady-state exercise has resulted in intestinal injury and elevated liver enzyme parameters – and that’s an acute effect of just 60 minutes training. You can imagine what your normal high intensity effort or Sunday bunch ride does in relation to tearing up your insides?*  This increased gut permeability is a big deal. The once tight junctures that should not allow foreign matter to travel through are now not-so-tight. When we have foreign bodies allowed into our system this sparks an auto-immune response. Inflammation is one of the body’s first line of defence against injury, and over time this acute inflammatory response can become chronic which leads to deleterious health effects moreso than just impaired recovery. So the training in itself loosens the guts main defence against foreign proteins, which can increase inflammation – and when you throw ibuprofen on top of that, the effects on the gut and inflammation over time are even worse. It’s an easy thing to do, certainly, and a lot of people do it – however over time this can cause sensitivities to foods that you once had no problem digesting. Think grains, milk, certain types of carbohydrates in the FODMAP spectrum. Our gut has just one cell thickness protecting it from the outside environment. It doesn’t take a lot to upset the balance.

Of course, I’m speaking mechanistically here and everyone is different – some people will go through their athletic career and not have an issue at all despite a regular habit of popping vitamin V; others though, will notice that their tolerance to certain foods is now lower, the time taken to recover from training sessions is greater, and they are not able to get as fit as fast as they used to be able to. Is it an age thing? Sure. You’re not as bulletproof as you were in your 20s. But it could be more than that.

So I thought I’d mention some spices that can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body. This isn’t going to dive into the ins and outs of that information – this post is already verging on being too long.

Tumeric (active ingredient curcumin): (particularly in the presence of fat to help absorption) – my friend Chris loves eggs with a heaped teaspoon or two of turmeric, and avocado and butter in the morning.

Ginger (I love ginger tea, just grating it fresh into hot water) and in green smoothies with lemon.

Cinammon: known for helping blood sugar control and also for its anti-inflammatory properties – I always like to include this in my breakfast meals, as a sweetener for baked rhubarb (no sugar required), in a slow cooked meat recipe or mince.

Garlic a member of the sulfur family, a well known anti-inflammatory compound.(okay, not a spice, but worth a mention)

Cayenne and chilli (active compound capsaicin) – chilli flakes and cayenne pepper are great on eggs, in salad and have you tried chilli chocolate? it is Christmas after all.

The beauty of these spices is that they are cheap, readily available and complement perfectly your real food lifestyle. This post is not prescribing anything more than the liberal inclusion of them in your everyday food. Every real food pantry should regularly utilise these in cooking, baking and barbequing. They are not a panacea to burning the candle at both ends – but it is worth your while to spice things up a little bit in the kitchen if you’re not already doing so.

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