What can influence how quickly your injuries heal, whether or not you catch the flu, and the health of your cardiovascular system? The answer: inflammation! Inflammation is part of the vascular system’s complex response to harmful stimuli. The tissues and blood cells that keep your body healthy are intertwined in a complex network that makes up your vascular system. It plays a critical role in maintaining your body’s immune system and heart function. Inflammation affects everyone – and tends to become harder to control as you age – but it is especially important for athletes to control inflammation in order to be able to compete at peak performance.
One of the best inflammation indicators we have is a protein in the blood that acts as a proxy for inflammation, called C-reactive protein (or CRP). Levels of CRP rise and fall in response to inflammation, so knowing your CRP measurement tells you a lot about what’s going on in your body. The American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have designated a CRP concentration of below 1.0 mg/L as low risk for heart problems; between 1.0 to 3.0 mg/L as average risk for heart problems; above 3.0 mg/L as high risk for heart problems. Very high levels of CRP (more than 10 mg/L) can also indicate an impaired immune response or inflammatory disease.
Since CRP is a protein found in your blood, the only way you can get information about your levels is to have a blood sample analyzed through a service like InsideTracker. CRP is measured in the Performance Panel, along with testosterone, white blood cell count, potassium, sodium, zinc and chromium (in addition to the thirteen other biomarkers). It is also measured in the Ultimate Panel, along with many additional markers.
Inflammation and athletes
Athletes should be particularly concerned with monitoring their levels of CRP since performance is so closely tied to their cardiovascular fitness. Good news for athletes: consistent and moderate aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to lower inflammation. Regular exercise has actually been shown to reduce inflammation by 20-60% and to reduce white blood cell count (another marker for inflammation) during and after exercise. That’s why athletes, especially swimmers, have some of the lowest levels of CRP around.Interestingly enough, inconsistent exercise can actually have the opposite effect on inflammation. For all you weekend warriors out there, keep in mind that engaging in intense, but inconsistent exercise can increase your white blood cell levels, increase inflammation and weaken your immune system. Research has shown that prolonged strenuous exercise (i.e. running a marathon) can actually triple white blood cell levels! And athletes who over-train or over-exert themselves during competitions can weaken their immune systems, making it more difficult to recover properly.
Controlling CRP through diet
What you eat also has an effect on inflammation. To keep your levels in check, avoid eating foods that are high in fat, calories, sugar, and salt (such as fast foods). Aim for foods that are high in antioxidants like vitamins C and E, fiber, calcium, fish oils, mono-unsaturated fats, and low on the glycemic index. Specific foods that have been shown to have an effect on lowering inflammation include garlic, grapes, herbs and spices, soy protein, nuts, olive oil, black and green teas, and vinegar. (Many of these foods are consistent with following a Mediterranean Diet, a good way to keep your CRP levels in the healthy range.) Aim to eat at least six servings of fruits and vegetables per day, which will benefit much more than your CRP levels. Discover new types of fruits and vegetables to work into your daily repertoire using InsideTracker’s Food Menu tool.Alcohol’s effect on inflammation is complicated. Researchers agree that your best bet is to drink alcohol in moderation. Consuming moderate amounts of alcohol (such as no more than 2 glasses of wine, 1 pint of beer, or 4 oz. of liquor at a time) will actually lower your white blood cell count and CRP levels more than not drinking at all or drinking too much. That’s right; you’re better off drinking a little than not at all when it comes to CRP. Cheers!
When diet and exercise aren’t enough
When you can’t control inflammation through diet and exercise alone, supplements can help. Vitamins C, D, and E have all been linked to promoting healthy levels of inflammation. Taking 1,000 mg vitamin C per day may reduce your CRP levels by as much as 25%. Long distance runners or triathletes can cut their risk of developing upper respiratory tract infections in half by taking 600 mg per day of vitamin C for 21 days before a competition. This dosage works well to reduce the severity and duration of infections as well. Vitamin D also appears to play a role in reducing inflammation for women. Those with adequate levels of vitamin D in their blood were less likely to develop inflammation, according to researchers. In fact, each 10ng/ml increase in serum vitamin D is associated with a 25% reduction of CRP. So make sure you soak up a few minutes of sunshine per day, or consider taking a supplement to get your D fix. Some factors influencing inflammation are outside of your control. Environmental factors such as air pollution, second-hand smoke, and economic stress can all increase inflammation. But there is much you can do to ensure that inflammation doesn’t adversely affect your health. Engage in moderate, regular exercise and eat a diet that includes many of the foods listed above. If you smoke, quit. Make sure you get enough sleep (adults should aim for 7 – 9 hours), and lose weight if your weight is currently outside of a healthy range.
If you need help with finding foods you like that can lower your inflammation, consider signing up for InsideTracker’s Performance Panel for a uniquely customized tool to help you make the most of your diet and exercise to optimize your well-being.