Recommend these 3 anti-inflammatory nutrition remedies for post-exercise relief.
Despite its benefits, exercise often causes muscle aches and soreness. The pain can be frustrating, especially if it limits physical activity. Yet exercise alone may not be to blame—the real culprit could be a person’s diet.
“Muscle pain is very common, especially if people are starting a new activity or if they increase the number of repetitions,” says Christopher Black, PhD, assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Oklahoma. Strenuous exercise can cause microtears in the muscles, triggering inflammation and pain.
Mild inflammation is natural after a heavy workout, but excessive inflammation can block recovery, reduce performance, and lead to injury.
Many people use nonsteroidal anti- inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin to relieve the pain that accompanies inflammation and then continue training. Painkillers may cause side effects, however, including stomach cramps and nausea. Using NSAIDs can also mask a serious injury.
“Multiple studies have been done on anti-inflammatory foods,” says Leslie Bonci, RD, MPH, owner of Active Eating Advice and sports nutrition consultant to Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Ballet. “There is also interest among athletes who want to avoid taking medications.”
Here are three nutritional diet additions that your patients can start with before turning to medicinal relief.
Fishing for solutions
Fish and fish oil are the best sources of inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends two 3.5-ounce servings of fish per week. According to a 2014 study published in Nutrition Journal, however, most people do not consume enough omega 3s.1 A lack of anti- inflammatory omega 3s and an excess of pro-inflammatory omega 6s (found in processed foods) has been linked to inflammation and various diseases.
“A lot of people are choosing to eat chia seeds to get omega 3s into their diet,” Bonci says. The quicker athletes can reduce inflammation; the sooner they can continue to train.
Salmon, sardines, mackerel, and tuna are all rich in omega 3s. Cod liver oil contains omega 3s as well as vitamin D, which helps build strong bones. Good plant sources for omega 3s include walnuts, soybeans, seaweed, and flaxseed oil.
Ginger to spice things up
Ginger has been used for centuries as a traditional remedy and now is gaining recognition in modern medicine. A study co-authored by Black showed that eating two grams of ginger daily can reduce muscle pain by 25 percent.2
“The compounds that give ginger its unique flavor and spiciness can also relieve pain after exercise,” Black says. The results, published in the Journal of Pain, compared supplements containing raw or heat-treated ginger versus placebo. Participants were assessed for muscle pain and inflammation before performing 18 extensions of the elbow flexors with a heavy weight and then for three days afterward.
“Both forms of ginger were equally effective,” Black says. Muscle pain went away within 24 hours in each study group.
In addition to its texture and zest, ginger is also highly versatile. It can be eaten fresh, cooked, crystallized, or as a spice.
Tart cherry juice for sweet relief
Tart cherry juice is another powerful anti-ache remedy. In a study involving 20 London Marathon runners, drinking cherry juice sped the recovery process and reduced inflammation.3 One cup of juice is enough to confer the benefits.
Led by Glyn Howatson, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Northumbria University in the U.K., the study found that competitors who drank tart cherry juice twice daily for five days before running and for two days afterward regained their strength faster than those who received a placebo drink.
“Cherry juice does dual duty because it has anti- inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties,” Bonci says. The anthocyanins in cherries contain enzymes that block the formation of oxidants, which can lead to further damage.
Many people ask whether they should avoid certain foods. Bonci suggests posing the question another way: “Are there more anti-inflammatory or pro- inflammatory foods on my plate?”
Eating more nutritious foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, oils, and nuts can help reverse the imbalance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds.
“Whole wheat, brown rice, and amaranth decrease C-reactive protein, which is one of the markers of inflammation,” Bonci says. “Greens such as spinach, kale, lettuce, and broccoli contain vitamin K, which also reduces inflammatory markers.”
Proactive instead of reactive
You can help patients propel their exercise routine without the limitations that persist with soreness. “Intense pain may prevent people from exercising,”
Black says. “It’s important to limit any discomfort people experience with exercise, so they get the benefits.”
First, encourage patients to remain active. “It sounds counterintuitive, but exercise can actually relieve pain,” Black says. “Physical activity such as walking or jogging leads to a decrease in the pain sensation.”
Stretching is also a powerful pain reliever, though it may hurt in the short-term. Black notes that it can provide 30 to 45 minutes of pain relief afterward.
In addition, encourage patients to take charge of their diet. Bonci emphasizes that an honest assessment of regular eating habits can go a long way toward prevention. “Medications are reactive, and food is proactive,” she says.
As you know and witness firsthand at your practice, change takes time.
With some patients, Bonci says, it may take up to eight weeks to begin noticing a difference in their health.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” she says. “If people feel better, they will train harder, get more out of exercise, and be healthier overall.”
Stephanie Kramer is a freelance writer and translator. Her writing on health, wellness, and the performing arts has appeared in Dermatology News and other publications.
1 Papanikolaou Y, Brooks J, Reider C, Fulgoni VL. U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003–2008. Nutrition Journal. 2014;13:31.
2 Black CD, Herring MP, Hurley DJ, O’Connor PJ. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Reduces Muscle Pain Caused by Eccentric Exercise. J Pain.
3 Howatson G, McHugh MP, Hill JA, et al. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010;20:843-852.