Inflammation is necessary for muscle growth 💪
After a particularly grueling workout session, for instance, inflammatory cells (e.g., interleukin 6) initiate a whole cascade of biological responses that starts healing the “injured” muscle tissues – and promoting training adaptations necessary for the development of bigger, stronger muscles.
So, inflammation = good for your muscle gains … right? But, as often happens in life, too much of a good thing can be bad.
In this article, we’ll explore why you should be wary of chronic inflammation, plus share actionable tips on how you could protect your muscles from its potent catabolic effects.
How does chronic inflammation hurt muscle gains?
The first thing you need to know is this: "net" muscle synthesis results from a complex, coordinated network of pathways regulated by hormones and cytokines.
On the one hand, anabolic signals ("muscle-building") are activated by insulin, IGF-1, growth hormone (GH), and androgens. And on the other, catabolism is stimulated by various pro-inflammatory cytokines, including glucocorticoids and reactive oxygen species (ROS).
Chronic inflammation – marked by an elevated level of inflammatory cells for prolonged periods in the absence of “outside danger” – thus disrupts this delicate balance by:
- Reducing rates of protein synthesis AND
2. Enhancing protein breakdown
The result? An inevitable loss in muscle mass. Bye, bulking dreams.
Signs of chronic inflammation
Okay, so we've established that chronic inflammation spells terrible news for your gains. Is it time to worry yet? Well, you may want to keep a lookout for the following common symptoms of chronic inflammation:
- Body pain
- Depression or anxiety
- Gastrointestinal complications (e.g., diarrhea or constipation)
- Unexplained weight gain or loss
- Persistent infections
Suspect you have chronic inflammation? Don't go self-diagnosing yourself. The only sure way to know if your muscles are under attack by chronic inflammation is to visit your healthcare provider – and request a blood test.
More specifically, they’ll test your blood for levels of a protein produced by your liver known as the C-reactive protein (CRP), which rises in response to inflammation.
A CRP level between 1-3 mg/L of blood often signals a low yet chronic level of inflammation.
Ways to manage chronic inflammation
Here’s the thing. Chronic inflammation isn’t only bad for your gains.
Research shows that when inflammation gets turned up too high and lingers for a long time, your immune system may end up mistakenly attacking healthy cells, tissues, and organs.
This, in turn, explains the link between chronic inflammation and various health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease).
Imaginably, lowering your inflammation levels (note: when you indeed have chronic inflammation) will be in your best interest. But how? Well, there are a few things you could do.
#1: Lifestyle changes
The first course of action medical professionals would typically have you do to make lifestyle changes. Examples include:
- Staying physically active: Um, exercise to lower inflammation levels? As surprising as that may be, it turns out that physical activity exerts a strong anti-inflammatory response by reducing the body's levels of a pro-inflammatory protein called TNF alpha and inhibiting the signaling effects of interleukin 1 beta – a protein that triggers inflammation. Psst: a 2017 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that just 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Making dietary changes: Eating a low glycemic diet, avoiding processed foods, and reducing saturated fat intake have been shown to help lower inflammation. In addition, focusing on foods high in antioxidants can also help combat inflammation. Examples include plums, cherries, green tea, turmeric, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.
- Losing fat: What does your body fat have to do with inflammation? Everything. That's because fat tissue itself secretes pro-inflammatory cytokines. Meaning? The higher your body fat percentage, the higher your inflammation levels. So, if you are indeed carrying excess fat, do relook your calorie intake (including macronutrient breakdown) – and find ways to transit into a deficit.
#2: Nutritional supplements
Note that nutritional supplements aren't a "must-have" – especially if you're already eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.
However, for those who require a little more help (because eating healthy all the time is challenging, for whatever reasons), then perhaps nutritional supplements are a good fit.
And as for which supplements you should consider? Here are a few:
- Fish oil: A 2019 study published in Circulation Research found that fish oil supplements helped reduce inflammation by increasing the concentration of special molecule “mediators” that regulate vascular inflammation.
- Alpha-lipoic acid: An organic compound that acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body; it’s been shown to lower several markers of inflammation – including the C-reactive protein (CRP).
- Curcumin: The active ingredient found in turmeric. It’s been shown to lower inflammation levels – potentially benefiting several inflammatory conditions, including heart disease and cancer. Note: you shouldn't take curcumin by itself because of its poor bioavailability. But instead, you should take it with piperine, which is associated with a 2,000% increase in curcumin’s bioavailability.
Depending on your diagnosis, your healthcare provider may also prescribe you various nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – like aspirin and ibuprofen – and steroids. That said, both are associated with various side effects, so do weigh the benefits and risks carefully.
A word of advice: don’t needlessly suppress inflammation
Chronic inflammation is bad for your muscle gains and health. But there’s no need to overdo lowering your inflammation levels – particularly when you haven’t been diagnosed with it.
The misuse of antioxidants or anti-inflammatory drugs could end up blunting the inflammatory signal for muscle repair, which, in turn, reduces muscle growth and performance gains.
Bottom line? You don’t want too little or too much inflammation. There’s a sweet spot to be had.
At this point, it should have become clear to you that optimal muscle growth doesn't only occur while you're in the gym. It also has to do with what you do outside of working out; it's a whole lifestyle. While we can't help with how you eat, we can help you out with one piece of the puzzle: the staying physically active part.
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