There's a word that connects cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, insulin resistance, arthritis, Alzheimer's, and depression. It's inflammation. But there's acute inflammation and chronic inflammation, and the difference between them is stark.
So what does the world we're currently living in have to do with chronic inflammation? And what does this have to with your gains in the gym? Only everything. It's pro-inflammation vs. anti-inflammation and your health and how much you progress in the gym are the stakes.
In today's world, we're up against a lot of pro-inflammation factors and we do a really crappy job of creating anti-inflammation factors to offset them. From a physiological standpoint, we're living in a physically and emotionally toxic environment and we're not designed to cope with it.
When we encounter stress, our sympathetic nervous system floods the body with cortisol, along with epinephrine and norepinephrine. Cortisol is a hormone people often associate with being "bad," but a certain amount of cortisol is needed to keep inflammation in check.
In our current environment, however, we're inundated with so many pro-inflammatory factors that cortisol can't keep up. Not only that, we do a fairly lousy job of offsetting all of these pro-inflammatory factors.
Case in point, we're getting less and less sleep because we're staying up later and later engaged in social media and the internet, allowing short-wavelength light to blast into our brains through our eyeballs and impair sleep. Consider that Ambien and other anti-insomnia drugs topped 2.8 billion in sales in 2011, and that number has most certainly grown by groggy leaps and bounds since then.
As far as what we eat, you don't need me to tell you that fast food and overly processed foods dominate our nutritional landscape.
As a society, we're suffering from depression, diabetes, cancer, and all manner of other horrors. We're in a state of sensory overload all the time. From food, to pleasure, to stress, we're living in a time where we have shitty relationships, shitty diets, shitty sleep, and shitty jobs. The pro-inflammatory factors are vast and wide.
But we don't have to give in to this inflammatory onslaught. There are things we can do to stave off death (for a while), improve quality of life, and speed up gains in the gym.
Here's what you need to do to balance inflammation:
We're just now starting to understand the significance of the bi-directional gut-to-brain highway and how the state of your gut has an impact on your mental acuity, mood, and even things like depression. Conversely, your mental state has an effect on your gut. The topic of gut health doesn't tend to make a lifter's knees shake with excitement, but it's literally one of the most important things he or she can do to improve recovery and performance.
Adding things like kefir, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, and yogurt into your diet will help to establish healthy gut microbiota and strengthen the healthy gut/brain connection.
One of the best things you can do to improve body composition is to eliminate fast foods for a while. Of course, this gets the IIFYM zealots' panties in a bunch because they believe everything is strictly about calories in and calories out, completely ignoring that food composition affects performance, health, wellness, mental acuity, gut function, mood, sleep, etc.
Fast food and overly processed food are also the main sources of trans-fats in our diet, which is directly associated with an increase in systemic inflammation.
Fish oil is one of the most researched supplements on the market and it's proven to be a potent agent in reducing inflammation. (As an aside, it also positively affects muscle protein synthesis.) Just take four capsules of Flameout® every evening before bed.
Most of what I read about keto diets only looks at body composition or performance and ignores its health benefits, one of which is the reduction of inflammation.
Both fasting and ketogenic diets elevate the levels of the ketone body beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) in the bloodstream, and BHB is an inhibitor to the NLRP3 inflammasome, which is fancy-talk for inflammation reduction.
The keto diet and fasting also come with the benefit of raising cortisol (stop freaking out and remember that cortisol is desirable in certain situations), so they provide a two-pronged approach to reducing inflammation. Throw in the fact that some occasional fasting also improves insulin sensitivity, partitions nutrients, and lowers blood pressure and oxidative stress without loss of muscle, and you've got a win-win-win.
So if you're like me and don't keto, throw in some form of fasting. Whether you choose the 16:8 approach (where you fast for 16 hours most days) or just the occasional 24-hour fast every few weeks, it's a great way to increase your BHB output, reduce inflammation, improve the digestive system, and boost insulin sensitivity. Just don't get carred away. Fasting is an occasional tool to use, not a "lifestyle."
Stress leads to inflammation, and each person's ability to cope with emotional, physical, or mental stress varies greatly. Morning and evening meditation, yoga, having a pet, and making time for cuddles with your significant other are pretty universal, however.
It's hard to go wrong with a consistent influx of the feel-good, stress-reducing endorphins and oxytocin these types of coping behaviors elicit.
I don't know how much more could be written about the importance of sleep. It really is your biggest weapon in the recovery arsenal. Not only does it reduce inflammation, it improves fat oxidation, glucose metabolism, and proper appetite control (sleep deprivation upregulates the appetite).
Of course, the evidence linking sleep deprivation and increased inflammation isn't conclusive, but the cascade of physiological effects from consistent sleep loss are; it's like one of those six degrees of Kevin Bacon deals. If you're not getting the full eight hours more often than not, then you're short-changing your efforts in the gym and at the kitchen table.
Our current environment plays a huge part in our sleep deprivation epidemic. All that blue light from our laptop and smart phones offsets the natural circadian rhythms our bodies use to regulate sleep.
Turn off the laptop and iPhone early, dim the lights, and take advantage of supplements like Z-12™ which will help give you a full night's sleep.
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