We have come to appreciate muscle soreness as a humbling reward for a good workout. If you are out of shape, starting a new fitness program or just an occasional jock, you are probably well versed in the morning after hobble. Stiff legs, an achy back and arms that cannot lift the phone are the not so subtle reminders of yesterday’s enthusiasm, or not. Is soreness still the price we have to pay to feel and look good?
No pain, no gain may well have been the fitness credo of our past, but is it destined to be a part of our future? When a muscle contracts, a waste product called lactic acid is released at the contraction site. Under normal circumstances the lactic acid is reconverted into glycogen and reused for energy. If the exercise demands are excessive, the body will be unable to reconvert the lactic acid fast enough and direct it into the blood stream for removal. The problem is that much of the lactic acid is left in the muscle. This lactic acid build up can do much more damage than just a little muscle soreness, particularly if the experience is repetitive.
If the muscle is congested with waste products, then it will not be able to get the proper fuel supply necessary for normal function. Muscles use blood for fuel and if the spigot is off, the body will be forced to manufacture a kind of tissue that does not use blood for fuel. This is commonly called scar tissue. Scar tissue in the muscles is technically called myofibrositis and will change how a muscle functions. Normally muscles are elastic and attach around a joint leaving it supple with ample blood supply and mobility. When scar tissue is laid down in a muscle, it loses its elasticity and becomes rope-like, pulling rigidly on a joint compromising its blood supply and natural range of motion. In this scenario, the muscles and joints will get stiff.
Tendonitis, which is an inflammation at the muscle-joint junction, and bursitis, which is an inflammation around the joint, or even arthritis, which is when the joint itself is inflamed, are all caused by a progressive accumulation of scar tissue in the muscles and joints. What’s worse is that the body has a difficult time removing all the accumulated lactic acid and in time, scar tissue can build up in many of the body’s muscles and render the whole body stiff and even painful. We have come to accept this as a part of the aging process but we do not realize that when the body loses blood supply, not only do we get stiff, but this is the first step in the disease process.
There are many treatments for the accumulation of blood lactate in the muscles and resultant pain and stiffness. First I would like to discuss how we can prevent this accumulation during exercise with a simple breathing technique. When the muscle is unable to reconvert lactic acid on the muscle site and shunts it into the blood stream for removal, the body will respond to this process as an emergency and start to breathe faster. This happens to all of us when we get out of breath – huffing and puffing as we walk up a hill. When we are forced into more vigorous exercise, it is normal to open our mouths and take deep fast mouths breaths as an attempt to remove carbon dioxide waste from the body.
When we breathe this way, the body is activating stress receptors in the upper lobes of the lungs, indicating the body is in an emergency state due to this exertion. It is much like if you saw a bear in the woods you would take a quick, gasping mouth breath, which would trigger and emergency chemical response that would save your life. In emergencies, anything goes. Degenerative stress fighting hormones are released with disease producing free radicals as waste products. We easily recover from such events, but with a stressful life that produces the same chemistry and cumulative exercise stress that causes lactic acid build up the body is soon the break down.
In the lower lobes of the lungs we find nerves receptors exactly opposite the str s receptors of the upper lobes. Calming and repairing parasympathetic receptors predominate in the lower lobes of the lungs, with an average of sixty to eighty percent more blood supply there as well. Clearly, activating these lobes during exercise would remove more waste more efficiently without triggering a degenerative emergency response. With a little practice, this can be accomplished with nose breathing (nasal breathing).
The nose is designed first and foremost as a breathing apparatus with turbines called turbinates that turbo-charge the breath and drive it deep into the lower lobes of the lungs. Although breathing through your nose during exercise takes a little getting used to, once the rib cage opens from deep nose breathing, the body learns how to handle higher and higher levels of stress during exercise without the upper chest stress response that causes soreness and degenerative chemistry in the body.
Use the comfortable rhythm of nose breathing – inhaling and exhaling deeply through the nose, as a monitor during exercise of how much exercise is good for you and how much more is potentially harmful. As soon as you have to breathe through your mouth during exercise, the body is under stress, and lactic acid waste products are accumulating in the muscles and blood. The result is fast breathing and muscle soreness. It might take some time to get used to nose breathing (nasal breathing) during exercise but the benefits are worth waiting for. In the end, you are going to breathe 28,000 times everyday for the rest of your life. Quite simply, how you breathe will either send a message to your body that your life and exercise are a disease producing emergency that you have to recover from or a rejuvenating experience that makes each day better than the next.
Exercise Tip: Go for a walk and breathe through your nose both during the inhale and exhale. Count how many steps you take for one complete cycle of inhale and exhale. Maybe you will take four steps on the in breath and five steps on the out breath. This is a total of eleven. Keep trying to breathe deeper, longer and slower as you walk and breathe through your nose. Your steps per nasal breath goal (exhale steps + inhale steps) is twenty-one.
Each day you try this you will see improvement, and soon what you could not do when you started nose breathing, you will do effortlessly. Your exercise will now remove and convert lactic acid efficiently without out the age old muscle stiffness. Also as you learn to breathe efficiently, you will be able to exercise at a higher level, but again as long as you are breathing through your nose, you will not be breaking your body down in the name of building it up. It is also well understood that when the body is not responding to the exertion as an emergency it will burn non-emergency fuel – fat – rather than sugar more efficiently.
Currently there are many nutritional supplements that can prevent lactic acid build up and muscle soreness. My favorite for this is botanical medicine called Boswellia serrata. Boswellia is a gummy tree in mountainous India. The bark and gum are used in a wide variety of conditions, however primarily used as an anti-inflammatory associated with muscle and joint pain.
The boswellic acids in the tree resin counteract the effects of leukotrienes that are responsible for free radical damage, auto immune responses, and inflammation. It is a clinically proven alternative to anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic drugs without the common side effects: high blood pressure, gastric irritation, heart palpitations and ulcers.
Another botanical medicine that is indicated for exercise stress and muscle soreness is called ashwaganda or Winter Cherry. Ashwaganda is a small evergreen shrub that grows to 1.5 meters tall. It is found in dry areas of India and as far west a Israel and is now being cultivated in the United States. The word ashwaganda literally means “the sweat of a horse,” indicating that one who takes it would have the strength and sexual vitality of a horse. It is a well known adaptogen that tones and normalizes bodily functions and renders the body more resistant to stress. The established active constituent is a number of steroidal lactones that are together called withanolides. The withanolides will affect the function of both the nervous system and musculoskeletal systems ability to handle exercise stress.
Some reports have shown that taking boswellia together with ashwaganda and ginger can enhance its effects for fighting muscle and joint stiffness and soreness. In one study at the Government Medical College in Jammmu, India, nearly 70% of arthritic patients experienced good to excellent results against stiffness and pain.
MSM, or methylsulfonylmethane, is probably the hottest nutrient on the market today for muscle soreness. It is a substance than occurs naturally in the body and in small amounts, the food we eat. MSM was created in the wake of years of DMSO research. It is the non toxic cousin that penetrates the cell wall and enhances blood supply deep in the bodily tissues. Its toxicity is very low, similar to that of water and salt. It is a sulfur derivative and the only reported complaints were with people who are allergic to sulfa drugs. Otherwise it well tolerated at high doses of 1000 to 6000 mg per day depending on the severity of the condition. In some cases at high doses it can cause diarrhea and some sleeplessness if taken at night. So start with 1000 mg per day and build up. It is effective for moving blood lactate and scar tissue out of the muscles and relieving muscle soreness. It is also a very effective anti-inflammatory and pain reliever that helps by not masking pain but by reinstating the lost blood flow which is in many cases the cause of muscle soreness and pain.