We’ve all done it: Popped a few ibuprofen after tweaking a muscle. Or maybe you take an Aleve to get some relief from the serious DOMS that hits after a killer squat session.
Anti-inflammatory drugs (often called NSAIDS for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) have become so ubiquitous that people don’t think twice about taking them for both acute and long-term chronic pain. This is a dangerous approach.
Although NSAIDs are a good alternative to morphine in children for the treatment of the severe pain following fractures or surgeries (1), they aren’t a great choice for garden variety pain due to a number of harmful side effects:
Reduced Healing From Fracture: Contrary to the widespread belief that NSAIDs accelerate healing, some studies show that NSAIDs can slow the healing of broken bones, ligaments, and other tissue (2, 3).
Complications Following Surgery: One study found that patients who used NSAIDs after surgery were twice as likely to experience complications, such as non-union of fractures or infection (4).
Damage To The GI Tract When Combined With Exercise: Due to the redistribution of blood from the gut to the muscles, heart, and lungs during exercise, NSAID use harms the gut lining, which inhibits absorption of nutrients and allows toxins to pass into the blood stream (5).
Reduced Muscle Development: NSAID use suppresses protein synthesis and is thought to reduce the muscle growth response to exercise—animal studies show a reduction in hypertrophy of 50 to 75 percent in animals (5).
For longer term, chronic inflammation, NSAID use is not a solution either:
Frequent use of NSAIDs is linked with kidney, stomach, and heart problems, including greater risk of heart-related deaths. Safer, natural solutions to inflammation are necessary. Fortunately, there are a number of supplements that have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect without the side effects of drugs. Here are ten nutrients with research to back them up.
Quercetin is a great choice if you have a history of taking NSAIDs because it counters chronic inflammation and has a protective effect on the liver (6), which takes a beating during NSAID or acetaminophen use. Found in various foods including apples, berries, and tea, quercetin has anti-cancer effects and protects brain neurons from the degeneration that leads to dementia and other cognitive diseases (7,8).
Curcumin is a compound found in the spice turmeric. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects by eradicating reactive oxygen species and supporting the body’s internal antioxidant system that is powered by the compound glutathione. Curcumin can counter the inflammatory response associated with a number of diseases including diabetes (9), cancer (10), and osteoarthritis (11).
It also reduces pain associated with inflammation including DOMS muscle pain and pain suffered during the healing of burns and wounds (12, 13). Curcumin can be taken in capsule form or applied to painful or inflamed body parts in a cream. It is poorly absorbed and needs to be taken with piperine, which is found in black pepper (14).
Chondroitin is a component of human connective tissue. Supplementing with a form that is derived from animals has anti-inflammatory and pain reducing effects in the body. Chondroitin is most effective when combined with glucosamine and can reduce pain in arthritis sufferers (16). When subjects with joint pain took glucosamine and chondroitin for 3 months, NSAID use was reduced by 37 percent, which coincided with a decrease in pain (15).
MSM is an organic sulfur compound that is in every cell in the body, with particularly high concentrations in nerve tissue, skin, and joints. It has anti-inflammatory and pain killing effects, working synergistically with chondroitin and glucosamine to support joint health. New research shows MSM may be a treatment for metabolic disease and obesity: A rodent study found that MSM supplementation in mice led to better blood sugar management, lower inflammation associated with obesity, and a increased sensitivity to insulin (17).
#5: Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha lipoic acid has antioxidant, cell protecting properties, while also playing a role in metabolism and energy production. It helps the body eradicate inflammation and calms the central nervous system. ALA also sensitizes cells to insulin, helping to load nutrients like creatine and carnitine in to muscle (18). Further, it protects against oxidative damage to the endothelium (a part of blood vessels) that is the result of high blood sugar (19) making it a go-to supplement for anyone with diabetes or insulin resistance.
Boswellia is a plant extract that has powerful anti-inflammatory actions in the body. It has repeatedly been shown to reduce pain sensations in healthy people and those with chronic pain due to arthritis or other joint dysfunction (20, 21).
One trial found that individuals with osteoarthritis who took boswellia reduced pain and symptoms of osteoarthritis allowing for better quality of life and higher physical activity. Notably, boswellia has a protective effect on the gut and liver, lowering oxidative stress. It’s also thought to be protective against cancer and has applications for reducing symptoms of all inflammatory conditions.
#7: Fish Oil
Fish oil is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA that have both antioxidant (reducing cytokines and interleukins) and anti-inflammatory activity by targeting the same pathways as most NSAIDs (Cox 1 and COX 2). Fish oil has application for pain management, cancer and heart disease prevention, and improved insulin sensitivity (24, 25). Fish oil may be especially effective for fighting inflammation during times of stress, whether it’s physical stress of heavy training in difficult conditions or psychological stress of an injury or illness (26).
Melatonin is known as the sleep hormone and it is released from the pineal gland in response to darkness to help you get restful sleep. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects, eradicating reactive oxygen species and protecting DNA from damage (27-29). Research is only in the early stages of investigating anti-inflammatory benefits of melatonin but it appears to be especially protective of brain cells and the GI tract. There’s also evidence that melatonin is a target for cells in bone, muscle, and fat tissue, improving bone mineral density, lean mass, and reducing body fat (30).
Ginger root contains anti-inflammatory compounds that reduce kidney damage, cancer, and colitis. It also has metabolic benefits, preventing obesity in response to a high-fat diet in rodents (31), and improving insulin sensitivity in diabetics (32). Ginger may also accelerate recovery from intense strength training and lower the pain associated with DOMS muscle soreness (33).
Spirulina is a nutrient-rich form of blue-green algae that has significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In addition to essential fatty acids, abundant vitamins, and amino acids, spirulina contains chlorophyll, which increases immunity, improves muscle strength, and may helps cells communicate properly (6). Spirulina is also thought to have anti-cancer effects and improves blood pressure and vascular function in overweight patients with hypertension (34).