Alleviate unnecessary inflammation to feel and dance your best.
When Arthur Stashak injured his foot at 16, he did everything he could to get his training back on track. Then a student at Canada’s National Ballet School, he took anatomist Rebecca Dietzel’s advice and tried an anti-inflammatory diet. The results were convincing. “I noticed changes around two weeks after I started,” he says. “I had more energy. My body felt great, and my muscles became a lot more defined.”
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to an injury—it protects wounds from infection. Most dancers are familiar with this type of inflammation from acute injuries like Stashak’s or chronic conditions like tendonitis or bursitis. Also, intensive dancing creates many undetectable micro-tears in muscle tissue and tendons, causing dancers’ overall inflammation levels to rise.
But there’s another factor that can contribute to systemic, or body-wide, inflammation: diet. Dietzel, also a biochemist, says eating certain foods can signal the body’s inflammatory response, sending agents of inflammation rushing through the bloodstream. Stress and lack of sleep also contribute to this reaction.
While it has no immediate symptoms, studies have linked systemic inflammation to many common diseases and overall poor health. Dietzel says, generally speaking, “the more you can control your inflammation, the healthier and happier you will be.” So while you may not be able to limit your hours of heavy dancing (or the stress of your job), small dietary changes can make a noticable difference in your physical condition.
Feed Your Need for “Real” Food
Being on a blood sugar roller-coaster not only makes you feel lousy, it also contributes to systemic inflammation. Starting a day with high-glycemic carbs, like bagels or Frosted Flakes, causes glucose levels to spike and then plummet. And spending hours dancing without a snack isn’t healthy, either. The easiest way to regulate blood sugar levels, says Dietzel, is to eat real, whole foods. “Eliminate processed food wherever possible,” she says, like bread, pasta, cookies and crackers. Replacing a bagel with a breakfast of cream of buckwheat, pecans and blueberries will go a long way to keeping blood sugar stable throughout the day.
Balance Essential Fats
While omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are both important dietary components, many sources of omega-6 cause inflammation, while omega-3s tend to be anti-inflammatory. A healthy diet’s ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be between 2:1 and 4:1. But for most Americans, the ratio hovers around 15:1 or higher. Try cutting back on vegetable oils and partially hydrogenated oils, as well as other sources of omega-6, including wheat as well as corn, soy and peanut products.
Just decreasing your omega-6 intake is not enough to balance the ratio—you’ll want to eat more omega-3s. These fatty acids are found in oily, coldwater fish like salmon, mackerel and herring; dark, leafy greens; walnuts; almonds and almond oil; and pumpkin seeds and pumpkin oil. Dietzel says a simple switch from peanut to almond butter can make a difference in inflammation significant enough to feel.
Spice Up Your Life
When Stashak was injured, he drank gallons of fresh ginger tea. Occasionally, he’d even chew chunks of the pure root. “It is disgusting and makes you cry,” he warns, but Dietzel confirms fresh ginger is strongly anti-inflammatory. She recommends slicing off a piece of root long-ways and boiling it in water. You can sip this tea—hot or cold—all day. And it must be straight from the root. Dried ginger does not have the same effect. Dried turmeric, however, also helps reduce inflammation.
Experiment with Nightshades
Some naturopathic doctors claim that a category of plants known as nightshades causes inflammation, because they contain alkaloids like solanine, which can be poisonous in large doses. Dietzel says the effects of nightshades—which include eggplant, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes—vary from person to person. Surprisingly, some nightshades can offer anti-inflammatory benefits. Stashak gave up tomatoes, but others may find the fruit’s lycopene content helps lower inflammation. Dietzel says eliminating nightshades for three weeks is enough time to tell if it makes a difference.
Make It Work for You
Three years after his injury, Stashak, now an advanced student at the Hamburg Ballet School, maintains a basic anti-inflammatory diet, with allowances for treats like ice cream on weekends. If he’s injured, he tightens the regimen, eliminating all pro-inflammatory foods and mainlining ginger root. Dietzel emphasizes that the diet need not be an all-or-nothing commitment. Any changes you make have an impact, especially if you’re already a healthy eater. But in her experience, once people notice the effects, nobody goes back. “There are some weeks where I may be a little more relaxed on the diet,” says Stashak. “But gradually I realize the effects on my body and my dancing, so I get back on track.” DT
Anti-Inflammatory Menu A day’s worth of anatomist/biochemist Rebecca Dietzel’s favorite anti-inflammatory foods
Breakfast Unprocessed hot cereal, like steel-cut oats or cream of buckwheat with berries and chopped nuts or almond butter.
Lunch Black bean soup with carrots, cilantro, lime and sweet potatoes.
Snack Fresh fruits and walnuts or pumpkin seeds. Eat nuts and seeds raw or toasted at home at 325 degrees for best omega-3 absorption.
Dinner Baked salmon with brown basmati rice and your choice of dark, leafy greens.