Devo, the trail-blazing nerd-rock group out of Akron, released Be Stiff in 1978. I spent a wild night seeing them perform this and other tracks in the Amsterdam Carre in 1980. Their music and dance moves were suffused by a pseudo-Parkinsonian cog-wheel rigidity, but their ideas and rhythms were tight and wildly creative. Their take on Satisfaction leaves the Stones’ version in the dust – all of which brings us to the New Year.
Every New Year births a host of New Year’s resolutions to be fitter, thinner, better. This often transcribes as gym memberships, exercise bicycles, rowing machines and running shoes. After a week or so the majority of these are put away, and left to gather dust in the nation’s attics and basements.
That’s why New Year gym memberships are so cheap; crafty gym owners know that the majority of their cut-price new members will disappear before the end of January.
The reason so many aspiring go-getter-fitters bite the dust is the stiffness and pain they feel after that first day on the machines / running track. Cramp and buyer’s remorse set in, ambitions wither, non-compliance soars.
Logic, and my personal experience, tells me that most and perhaps all of this is completely avoidable.
Animals running around in the wild doing their best to eat or not be eaten, do not suffer from post-exercise pain and stiffness. And if you cast your mind back 100,000 years or so, when proto-humans were doing the same thing, it is blazingly if teleologically obvious that we didn’t either. ‘Sorry darling, I think I strained a hammy last night chasing after that wildebeest. I’ll be absolutely useless on the hunt today. Can you pop out and gather some berries? Oh – and if that cave bear shows up again, would you point him in the direction of those awful Neanderthals round the next bluff? Thanks babe.’
I don’t think so. And if I’m right, then today’s post-exercise problems are not natural at all but another adverse effect of today’s industrial, junk food universe. Here is my reasoning …
Exercise causes a degree of micro-damage to the muscle(s) being exercised. The heavier and more novel the exercise, the greater the damage and subsequent pain, which typically becomes apparent the day after exercise.
This is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS typically fades by day 3, and becomes less with training. The exercised muscles adapt to use and become fitter and / or stronger, depending on the type of exercise and to some extent on dietary inputs. On the surface, performance improves. Under the surface there is a complex series of changes in the architecture and chemistry of the muscle, which makes it all possible.
Any exercise involves both concentric and eccentric muscle activity, typically at the start and end of a movement. In concentric work the muscle actively contracts as it shortens, and this is what most people think of as exercise. But at the end of any movement the muscle must work in a different way, contracting as it is being lengthened to slow and stop the movement. Think, for example, of how the leg muscles work when walking downhill. It is this type of eccentric action that causes the most muscle damage; which in turn causes DOMS (in untrained muscle) and leads to the processes of repair and regeneration that translate into training gains and performance enhancement (1, 2).
The above sequence is generally recognised – but from here on, the path is a little less travelled.
Humans (and animals in general) need to be able to adapt to challenges, and getting fit and strong enough to be able to meet them, is a part of that. A degree of muscle damage is essential for triggering this increase in muscular fitness. But at the same time, the evolutionary process ensured that when we exercised, the inflammatory response would not be so great as to impair our ability to move and work to the point where we became unfit to survive. So, we have a number of anti-inflammatory systems in the body that operate to prevent excessive inflammation.
One of these is a cytokine that is produced by exercised muscle, called interleukin-6 (IL-6). This messenger compound triggers the breakdown and utilisation of stored fat, and exerts potent anti-inflammatory effects in the muscle and elsewhere. Another is palmitoyl ethanolamide (PEA), an endo-cannabinoid that is not only an anti-inflammatory but also an analgesic. This compound is produced by the micro-damage that occurs in exercised muscle, so it is released in exactly the right tissues and at the right time to prevent any potential problems from developing.
These are obviously intrinsic anti-inflammatory mechanisms, but in hominids and humans eating a healthy diet there are a number of extrinsic anti-inflammatory factors which also play a role. If we take the long, evolutionary view, it seems very probable that the effectiveness of the intrinsic mechanisms was set at a level that took into account the background level of extrinsic, dietary factors. And here is where the problems start ..
Key anti-inflammatory dietary factors include the omega-3 fatty acids, the pluripotent polyphenols and the prebiotic fibers.
In our uncritical and unseemly haste to be modern, the last 4 generations of humans have moved at an accelerating pace from natural foods to industrial fodder. As our diet mutated, the average dietary ratio of omega-6 to -3 has increased from around 2.5 to 1 (as recently as the mid-19th century) to an average of 15:1 today in Europe and 25:1 in North America (3, 4). At the same time, our intake of polyphenols has declined by around 90% (4 – 7); while the prebiotic fibers in our diet have fallen by an estimated 75-85% (4, 8, 9). In an unfortunate parallel, levels of pro-inflammatory compounds in today’s diet have spiralled; including AGE and ALE compounds (10), LPS (11, 12,) and of course sugar (13).
These highly pro-inflammatory dietary shifts have changed the balance of anti- and pro-inflammatory vectors in our bodies, as manifest in today’s multiple pandemics of chronic degenerative (inflammatory) disease. But it is also manifest in DOMS.
As a former athlete, I recollect experiencing mild DOMS at the start of the rugby and rowing seasons which never lasted for more than a day, and did not affect performance in any significant way. Any stiffness or discomfort after the first game or race would work itself out in the first 5 minutes of the next event; very unlike the protracted and much more pronounced DOMS I see in today’s young aspiring athletes and gym bunnies.
In later life I have used a fish oil / olive polyphenol combination and blended prebiotic fibers to damp chronic inflammation, and found that this reduced DOMS very significantly.
To this I have added more polyphenols, and PEA, both in highly bioavailable formats. When used together, I have found this to prevent DOMS altogether, making training much easier. But this is not just my own story.
A top tier rugby club in the UK has been using a very similar approach based on the high-bioavailability forms of PEA and curcuminoids, Levagen Plus and HydroCurc. For those unfamiliar with the game of rugby it is a macho version of NFL football, played by ruffians unprotected by body armour, for a total of 80 minutes per match with no commercial breaks.
This particular team of ruffians has been using a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic anti-inflammatory agents not to treat DOMS, but to alleviate injury. During the 2018 season the 28 players in the team recorded a total of 216 injuries comprising 9 injuries to bone, 30 injuries to ligaments, 35 to joints, 88 to muscle and a further 55 composite. Due to the small squad size most players played with ongoing pain and injury, which not only raises the prospect of long-term damage but also impairs performance.
The team recorded stellar results with Levagen Plus and HydroCurc. Although the data is still being tabulated, I am allowed to reproduce here a representative selection of the players’ responses.
Player 1. ‘I recover so much faster from injury.’
Player 2. ‘I went from constant pain of 4 to a constant pain of 1.’
Player 3. ‘This nutritional combo has become a critical part of my regime.’
Player 4. ‘It improved my sleep quality and duration.’
With relevance to Player 4, PEA is a fascinating molecule. It not only acts as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, it also enhances sleep and reduces anxiety (14 16).
We are now in the run-up to the New Year. If you intend to take up exercise in 2020 I suggest you resolve to prepare for your New Year’s resolution by starting an anti-inflammatory regime now. In this way you will minimise or avoid DOMS, even at that first crucial episode, and be far more likely to enjoy the long-term benefits of a healthier and more active life-style.
- Franchi MV, Reeves ND, Narici MV. Skeletal Muscle Remodeling in Response to Eccentric vs. Concentric Loading: Morphological, Molecular, and Metabolic Adaptations. Front Physiol. 2017; 8():447.
- Geremia JM, Baroni BM, Bini RR, Lanferdini FJ, de Lima AR, Herzog W, Vaz MA. Triceps Surae Muscle Architecture Adaptations to Eccentric Training. Front Physiol. 2019 Nov 26;10:1456.
- Leaf A, Weber PC. A new era for science in nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 1987 May;45(5 Suppl):1048-53.
- Clayton P, Rowbotham J. How the mid-Victorians worked, ate and died. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009 Mar;6(3):1235-53.
- Grosso G, Stepaniak U, Topor-Mądry R, Szafraniec K, Pająk A. Estimated dietary intake and major food sources of polyphenols in the Polish arm of the HAPIEE study. Nutrition. 2014 Nov-Dec;30(11-12):1398-403.
- Scalbert A, Williamson G. Dietary intake and bioavailability of polyphenols. J Nutr. 2000 Aug;130(8S Suppl):2073S-85S.
- Ovaskainen ML, Törrönen R, Koponen JM, Sinkko H, Hellström J, Reinivuo H, Mattila P. Dietary intake and major food sources of polyphenols in Finnish adults. J Nutr. 2008 Mar;138(3):562-6.
- Moshfegh AJ, Friday JE, Goldman JP, Ahuja JK. Presence of inulin and oligofructose in the diets of Americans. J Nutr. 1999 Jul;129(7 Suppl):1407S-11S.
- Reynolds A, Mann J, Cummings J, Winter N, Mete E, Te Morenga L. Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Lancet. 2019 Feb 2;393(10170):434-445.
- Bengmark S. Advanced glycation and lipoxidation end products–amplifiers of inflammation: the role of food. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 2007 Sep-Oct;31(5):430-40.
- Spreadbury I. Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2012;5:175-89.
- Erridge C. Stimulants of Toll-like receptor (TLR)-2 and TLR-4 are abundant in certain minimally-processed vegetables. Food Chem Toxicol. 2011 Jun;49(6):1464-7.
- Gross LS, Li L, Ford ES, Liu S. Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: an ecologic assessment. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 May;79(5):774-9.
- Chiurchiù V, Leuti A, Smoum R, Mechoulam R, Maccarrone M. Bioactive lipids ALIAmides differentially modulate inflammatory responses of distinct subsets of primary human T lymphocytes. FASEB J. 2018 Oct;32(10):5716-5723.
- Passavanti MB, Alfieri A, Pace MC, Pota V, Sansone P, Piccinno G, Barbarisi M, Aurilio C, Fiore M. Clinical applications of palmitoylethanolamide in pain management: protocol for a scoping review. Syst Rev. 2019 Jan 8;8(1):9.
- De Gregorio D, Manchia M, Carpiniello B, Valtorta F, Nobile M, Gobbi G, Comai S. Role of palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) in depression: Translational evidence: Special Section on “Translational and Neuroscience Studies in Affective Disorders”. Section Editor, Maria Nobile MD, PhD. This Section of JAD focuses on the relevance of translational and neuroscience studies in providing a better understanding of the neural basis of affective disorders. The main aim is to briefly summaries relevant research findings in clinical neuroscience with particular regards to specific innovative topics in mood and anxiety disorders. J Affect Disord. 2019 Aug 1;255. pii: S0165-0327(18)31599-4.