Why Athletes Should Use Turmeric for Inflammation

Athletes have long been turning to supplements to further performance, using products like protein powder to increase muscle growth or sports drinks for recovery. But some athletes have recently been turning to the spice rack and reaching for turmeric for its many health benefits. Turmeric is traditionally used in Indian dishes, like curry, for a boost of flavor of warm and peppery notes. Although it has been around for thousands of years, turmeric only recently became mainstream in the US; you can now find turmeric teas and lattes, golden milk, and turmeric shots at your grocery store or coffee shop.

Here’s what you need to know about turmeric’s health benefits and how they can affect your athletic performance!

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Turmeric and Inflammation

What exactly is inflammation and how does it affect athletic performance?

Inflammation is your body’s response to stress, including physical stress like strains or over-worked muscles, food allergies, and exposure to pollutants, or emotional stress. This response is part of your body’s natural healing process and isn’t always negative; after a tough workout, inflammation responds by healing the “damage” to the tissues you just worked. This is a good thing, since working out causes micro-tears in your muscles, and the healing that inflammation provides is what causes muscle growth!

However, repetitive physical stress, like working out without taking a day off, tough practices, or long hours spent in the gym can lead to the release of free radicals. Free radicals can cause damage to your cells and DNA, along with exhaustion, muscle degradation, being more prone to injuries, and even aggravate diseases like arthritis.

So where does turmeric play into all of this? Curcumin, the active compound of turmeric, can reduce the repetitive trauma, inflammation, and pain that training can cause.

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Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant, and antioxidants help to remove those damaging free radicals. Several studies have shown just how beneficial turmeric can be for athletes. One study found that muscle soreness and damage was reduced after an intense exercise session when subjects took curcumin. This means faster recovery from hard workouts, which leads to more consistent training and higher intensity levels, leading to increased performance.

Another study also confirmed curcumin supplementation can decrease exercise-induced oxidative stress. Researchers even found a reduction in psychological stress during exercise when taking curcumin supplements, with participants saying they felt less stressed during training days even though their Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) was the same as the placebo group.

How Much Turmeric Do You Need to See Results?

Studies have found that taking 1 gram of curcumin daily for 8 to 12 weeks reduced arthritis symptoms as well as taking ibuprofen. This is about ¼ cup of turmeric daily, which is more than you would get in foods that have turmeric in them, like curry. But even 180 mg/day (about ½ tbsp turmeric) reduced pain in people with knee arthritis in less than 8 weeks. Most of these studies have looked at the effects of supplemental curcumin that has been extracted from turmeric, rather than consuming turmeric with foods. 

You can still reap the benefits of turmeric when including it in foods and drinks, but if you're looking for long-term anti-inflammation, taking a supplement is your best bet. Turmeric is also not well absorbed by the body, and requires a helper to be absorbed; either black pepper or a fat, such as coconut oil or butter. I recommend taking a turmeric supplement that has both, like this one or this one, both taken with food twice a day.

For long training cycles, I always make sure I'm getting my turmeric supplement daily so that I reduce muscle soreness, joint stiffness, and can bounce back faster. I've personally found that when I don't take turmeric, the areas where I'm most sore or have joint issues (always the right knee!) take longer to recover and I often have to ice or stretch more. When I take turmeric consistently, my knee pain is significantly reduced, which is a huge plus in my book!

Including Turmeric in Your Diet

Turmeric is easy to find in the spice aisle of your grocery store and might already be a key ingredient in some of your favorite Asian dishes, such as Indian recipes like dal or tikka masala. Recently, turmeric is cropping up in drinks in the form of shots or golden milk lattes! Golden milk has been part of Eastern medicine tradition for years and can now be found in your local coffee shop or supermarket.

You’ll often see golden milk and turmeric lattes with fat added, such as coconut oil, to increase the absorption of turmeric in your system. This is just like with the supplement form; the fat is necessary for it to reduce inflammation. In teas or shots, you’ll find that pepper has been added for increased absorption. Adding black pepper to tea or a smoothie might sound gross, but you don't need to add a ton to improve absorption, and it adds a nice kick!

Turmeric Pina Colada Smoothie

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Golden milk is having a moment, but if you're looking for a cool summer treat, whip up this easy smoothie to beat inflammation and pretend you're on the beach post-workout! This smoothie has both healthy fats and black pepper to amp up the absorption. 

Ready in: 5 minutes   Serves: 1

Ingredients

  • 1 frozen banana

  • 1 cup frozen pineapple

  • 1 cup canned coconut milk (not coconut cream!)

  • ½-1 tsp ground turmeric, depending on taste preference

  • 1/8 tsp ground black pepper

  • 1/4-1/2 cup water if too thick

  • 1 scoop protein powder (optional, but I added Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides for some extra post-workout recovery)

  1. Add all ingredients to high-powered blender and blend until smooth. Top with extra turmeric and a pineapple wedge, drink up and if you're feeling feisty, add a splash of rum to your anti-inflammatory smoothie!

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Are you struggling with recurring injuries or exhaustion? It's time to look at your nutrition and see how that is affecting your goals. Contact me for more information about how nutrition can help you get out of the injury cycle!