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Optimizing Inflammation: The unsung key to muscular growth and performance

Inflammation is how our body responds to any harmful stimuli. Be it a bump on your head, clogged sinuses from a cold, redness around a splinter, allergies, or even stress; all of these cause inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s way of healing and warding off illnesses, repairing wounds, eliminating toxins, repairing damaged muscle cells and much more. Without inflammation, wounds would never heal, a common cold would never go away and we would ultimately die. While inflammation is critical to healing and keeps us out of plastic bubbles, conversely, it can often go awry and do more harm than good. Occasionally our bodies’ inflammatory response can be a gross over-reaction to harmless substances, such examples are common allergies, food allergies, celiac disease and others. These are well-intended processes gone wrong as the body misinterprets the intruder and essentially brings a gun to a knife fight; these are allergies. At a high-school wrestling match years ago I witnessed the father of one of the wrestlers run from the stands onto the mat and violently pry the opponent off of his son as they wrestled. He wrongly thought his son was being asphyxiated, he was not; rather; the father had an excessive inflammatory response and an allergic reaction to the wrestling match. Sometimes your body does the same thing.

There are two kinds of inflammation; acute inflammation, which is a cause and effect short-term or localized reaction and is generally a healthy and necessary process. Then there is chronic inflammation, which is a long-lasting and damaging inflammation that is present in a multitude of conditions from stress, cardiovascular disease, cancer, appendicitis and more. In fact, in virtually every disease, every ailment, every sickness or anything that can possibly go wrong to your health; chronic inflammation is there. Chronic inflammation is never good and is the root cause of all things bad health-wise. It is the bodies’ inability to correct a perceived threat and its inability to stop trying, which results in deadly and destructive health consequences. A microcosm is a running toilet, the toilet it trying to refill, but as the result of a leak or faulty valve it cannot do so, so it runs incessantly and to no avail, thus causing more problems than if it just stopped trying to refill itself.

Inflammation is also solely responsible for muscle growth and adaptation to exercise. As previously stated, without inflammation, wounds would not heal. Similarly, without inflammation, our muscles would not have the ability to repair and adapt to exercise. Our muscles would not grow, would not get stronger, and we would never improve our muscular endurance. Inflammation is the muscle-building process. With that said, this inflammatory response is far from perfect. Too little of a response will lead to impeded muscle growth and improvement, too much or chronic inflammation will blunt muscle growth and ancillary effects on the body that cause other problems. We can, however, take steps to optimize this process. Optimizing this inflammatory response can result in some huge muscle and performance gains. Above and beyond proper nutrition, ample protein, and adequate rest, below are ways to optimize your bodies inflammatory to training and yield some huge results:

- Avoid NSAID’s – Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen, Naproxen, acetaminophen, and aspirin are well-known to, as their name says, inhibit inflammation. They are helpful for the inflammation that causes physical pain, however inflammation is a healing process, and blunting it impedes the process and results in decreased muscle repair and regeneration.

- Avoid chronic inflammation at all costs – Chronic Inflammation, regardless of its cause, impedes muscle growth (not to mention leads to the ultimate breakdown of the body). It has been shown that chronic inflammation negatively alters the signaling processes that are necessary in rebuilding and repairing muscles. Chronic inflammation is detrimental to every process and function in our body, particularly healing, including healing muscles. Stress plays a key role in propagating chronic inflammation. While it would be pompous and naïve to tell you to reduce your overall stress, I will tell you that less stress will reduce chronic inflammation and the less chronic inflammation you have, the more muscular and athletic potential you will have. Eating fresh healthy foods, avoiding alcohol and drugs and staying rested are also good ways to keep chronic stress to a minimum.

- Don’t take training too far – Also called overtraining, it has long been known to be detrimental, however the details as to why were elusive. It has to do with your inflammatory response. A single over-intense training session will result in extreme inflammation, which ultimately is the same thing as an allergic reaction and is an overload of the process that leads to proper healing. It will disrupt the healing process and also quickly result in chronic inflammation. Similarly, training too hard, too often will cause chronic inflammation and reduced gains. Chronic inflammation increases the bodies’ level of myostatin, which is the protein that tells the body to stop growing muscles, and also initiates muscle catabolism. Taking days off is not only a mental break, but is paramount to optimizing the inflammatory response and avoiding chronic inflammation. Since exercise-induced markers of inflammation and recovery often last not a few hours, but a few days, it is actually best to take more than a day off at a time to allow the body to reduce these markers to a level that with both impede chronic inflammation as well as keep the inflammatory response healthy and keep it optimal at the next training session.

- Moderate cardio for better growth – Exercise causes muscles to release cytokines. Cytokines are cell-signaling protein molecules that initiate a healthy inflammatory response and begin the healing and growth process of the damaged muscle. As cytokine levels increase, their evil antithesis, myostatin correlating decreases. Following a resistance-training session, cytokines will begin to be produced approximately four hours after exercise and begin to taper off for the following 20 hours. On the other hand, moderate intensity cardiovascular training produces a much more delayed cytokines production that initiates in the 12-24 hour range. So it can be highly advantageous for the recovery process to add a moderate cardio training session around the same time as your weight training session. By doing so, you can greatly extend the time of ultra-high cytokine levels and low myostatin levels; which may very well lead to extended and greatly accelerated muscle growth.

- Add in low-intensity training – It has been demonstrated in many studies that low-intensity training, such as walking, will reduce resting chronic inflammatory markers. Essentially, mild exercise (that which does not elicit a large inflammatory response on its own) will reduce chronic inflammation; and the less chronic inflammation you have, the more your muscles and performance will improve. On your off days, add in a mild walking session or similar to make a solid impact on chronic inflammation.

The inflammatory response to training is perhaps the most over-looked and under-researched aspect of improving human athletic performance. It is all-encompassing and absolute, yet scarcely is any emphasis placed upon it. Many training, and recovery protocols used by athletes have a lot to do with optimum inflammation response, however it is always in a round-a-bout way and doesn’t relate the idea to its effect on the muscle recovery inflammation process directly. Without the inflammation process, we could not improve muscular performance. Since the inflammatory response is so ubiquitous and important, and so easily manipulated, more research and focus on it could yield big advancements not only in athletics, but also in treating diseases and improving overall quality of life.

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