If you workout, chances are you'll experience pain and tender muscles at some point in your life. As a fitness enthusiast, you push yourself to the limit and thrive on exceeding your own expectations, surpassing your goals and setting new ones. And this enthusiasm will sometimes result in swollen achy joints, tender muscles and fatigue.
What Is Inflammation?
For years we've been told that inflammation is bad and must be controlled to speed healing. NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen) have flown off store shelves for years and cortisone shots have become a quick fix. In our efforts to mask inflammation, so we can get back on our feet and in the gym, we may actually be doing ourselves more harm then good by blunting this essential process.
Like all things in our body - inflammation happens for a reason. It is a necessary component of the healing process. And, a recently published study found out just how important inflammation is to muscle recovery. In this study, scientists took a close look at inflammatory cells called macrophages, cells that bombard the injury site and produce insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 increases the rate of muscle regeneration, which improves muscle injury repair.
Using two groups of mice, one of which was genetically altered so they could not generate an inflammatory response to an acute injury, they induced muscle injury. The first group of mice, the one that couldn't create an inflammatory response, didn't heal, whereas the second group, the one that responded with a normal inflammatory response, produced high levels of IGF-1, which resulted in significant muscle repair.
The scientists leading the study concluded that we need controlled inflammation for wounds to heal. Excess cortisone and anti-inflammatory medication only slows the wound healing process by blunting our body's natural inflammatory response.
So how do you control inflammation so you get some but not too much? Right now it's tough to say and partly depends on the injury, situation (do you have to get back to playing or working asap) and the other modalities you are using to get your body back to healthy. However, becoming a cortisone or NSAID junky probably isn't the best way to go.
How Anti-Inflammatory Foods Helps You Recover Faster:
Food Is A More Natural Approach
Right now you may be wondering what you are left with to treat those nagging aches and pains. Chronic use of NSAIDs and cortisone will mask pain so could possibly injure yourself even more and, even if you lay off exercise they'll blunt your healing progress over time. What's a gym-goer to do? Choose food. The following foods are your best bets for decreasing inflammation without hampering recovery:
Pineapple - pineapple is rich in an enzyme called bromelain*, which produces substances that help fight pain and inflammation. Choose fresh or frozen over canned pineapple (blend the frozen in a shake or add to a variety of recipes).
- Mango - some believe that mango may help with inflammation. Even if it doesn't, mango is fantastic in salsas, fruit salad, blended into protein shakes (it makes them thick and creamy like a frozen dessert), over fish, chicken or tofu and of course, sliced by itself. Mango is also an excellent source of both vitamin A and vitamin C (C for collagen!).
- Blue, red and purple colored fruits and vegetables - contain antioxidant flavonoids that may limit inflammation, limit tissue breakdown, improve circulation and promote a nice strong collagen matrix. Eat eggplant, berries (fresh or buy them frozen) or choose tart cherry juice (not from concentrate though as processing can destroy some antioxidants).
- Ginger - two studies from the University of Georgia show that 2 grams of ginger per day helps reduce exercise-induced muscle pain.
Choose Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are among the best supplements for slowing or halting muscle tissue breakdown. Consume them pre or post-exercise (alone or in BCAA rich whey, eggs or dairy) and you'll blunt the muscle breakdown process that occurs as an immediate result of lifting weights. Could taking BCAAs help heal your injured muscle? Quite possibly. Clearly you need enough total protein with the right amino acids to repair muscle.
Sip On An Energy Drink
Studies from the University of Georgia show that caffeine is an even better ergogenic aid then we previously knew. Taking a nice dose of the stuff after muscle damaging eccentric exercise can decrease delayed onset muscle soreness and pain. Know your limits though since caffeine can send your heart rate up and possibly cause other negative side effects. And, talk to your physician first. Some individuals should avoid caffeine completely (especially those on certain medications for heart disease).
Additional Tips To Control Inflammation While Allowing Healing:
Get A Sports Massage
A good massage therapist, one that knows athletes and athletic injuries, will figure out what areas are tender and tight and work on those parts of your body to facilitate blood and nutrient delivery to the injured areas and loosen areas in your body that, when tight, are contributing to poor biomechanics (movement patterns).
As much as possible and mentally feasible (to lay off exercise), incorporate rest, ice, compression and elevation. Compression garments are a nice bet!
Go To Physical Therapy
Look for physical therapists that not only treat the acute injury but also, more importantly, can figure out why you became injured in the first place. Muscle imbalances, poor biomechanics, muscle tightness, and poor ergonomics at work - all of these things can contribute to injuries. And, if you don't fix the root of the problem and instead just slap a Band-Aid on top, you'll end up with déjà vu - injuring yourself over and over again.
Inflammation is a natural step in the healing process. Though we don't know everything about local or systemic inflammation and, scientists believe that excess inflammation may do more harm then good, we do know that constantly masking inflammation through cortisone shots and NSAIDs will hamper healing over the long term. Therefore, if you are looking for natural solutions, try food, RICE, massage and a good physical therapist. After all, Band-Aids don't last forever.
* Bromelain may slow blood clotting. If you are on a blood thinning medication, talk to your physician about eating pineapple.