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How Vitamin C and Other Nutrients Can Combat Exercise-Induced Side Effects

Vitamin C

Story at-a-glance -

  • Meta-analysis suggests vitamin C may reduce exercise-induced asthma by nearly 50 percent
  • Higher doses of vitamin C are easier to achieve with liposomal C, compared to traditional C, which can create digestive issues in high amounts
  • Extract of Rhodiola rosea radix has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect and helps protect muscle tissue during exercise. It can also significantly increase time to exhaustion during exercise, and improve neuromotoric fitness
  • A far more common side effect of exercise than exercise-induced asthma is what’s referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). While vitamin C appears ineffective for DOMS, other nutritional factors have been proven useful
  • Nutritional factors that can help resolve DOMS include ginger, curcumin, omega-3, MSM, astaxanthin, cherries, arnica, and carnosine in the form of beta-alanine

By Dr. Mercola

Vitamin C has taken a backseat in recent years with the advent of many newer antioxidants, but that doesn't make it any less important.

Vitamin C is clearly the 'grandfather' of the traditional antioxidants we know of, and its potent health benefits have been clearly established. It's a powerful antioxidant, which helps neutralize cell-damaging free radicals when taken orally.

When used intravenously, the vitamin appears to also directly attack pathogens and has shown promise for treating a wide range of infectious diseases, burns and boosting your immune system.

Most recently, a meta-analysis1 from Finland suggests vitamin C may also reduce bronchoconstriction caused by exercise, also known as exercise-induced asthma, by nearly 50 percent.

Symptoms of exercise-induced asthma include cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. An estimated 10 percent of people are affected. As reported in the featured article2:

"Previously, vitamin C was found to halve the incidence of common cold episodes in people enduring heavy short-term physical stress, which indicated that vitamin C might also have other effects on people under heavy physical exertion.

... [Lead author] Dr. Hemila concludes that given the low cost and safety of vitamin C and the consistency of positive findings in three randomized trials... it seems reasonable for physically active people to test vitamin C on an individual basis if they have respiratory symptoms such as cough associated with exercise."

What You Need to Know About Oral Vitamin C

Vitamin C typically needs to be obtained from external sources. However, a high percentage of it may never reach your cells. 

As far as getting your vitamin C from food, remember that the more colorful your diet, the higher it will be in bioflavonoids and carotenoids. Eating a colorful diet (i.e. plenty of vegetables) not only helps increase your vitamin C levels but also ensures you're naturally getting beneficial phytonutrient synergism needed for maintaining optimal health.

One of the easiest ways to ensure you're getting enough vegetables in your diet is by juicing them. For more information, please see my juicing page. You can also squeeze some fresh lemon or lime juice into some water for a vitamin C-rich beverage.

Rhodiola Rosea Can Also Be Useful Against Exercise-Induced Inflammation

The perennial plant Rhodiola Rosea has also been found to have exercise benefits. It's known as an "adaptogen," which can help your body adapt to physical, chemical, and environmental stress, and is used by many athletes for improving athletic performance3 and shortening recovery time between workouts.

According to a 2004 study4, extracts of Rhodiola rosea radix had an anti-inflammatory effect on healthy untrained volunteers, before and after bouts of exhausting exercise. It also protected muscle tissue during exercise. According to the abstract:

"Professional athletes effectively use Rhodiola rosea ('golden radix') extract as a safe nonsteroid food additive improving endurance and rapid recovery of muscles during several decades.

Rhodiola rosea extract improves muscle work due to mobilization and more economic expenditure of energy resources of muscles. The use of adaptogens including R. rosea improved physical endurance of male athletes, reducing blood lactate level and accelerating recovery after exhausting exercise."

Other studies have similarly found that Rhodiola can significantly increase time to exhaustion during exercise5, reduce C reactive protein levels, and improve neuromotoric fitness. For example, a 2003 animal study6 found that rats given 50 mg/kg of Rhodiola rosea extract along with the same amount of Rhodiola crenulata root, prolonged the duration of exhaustive swimming the rats were capable of by nearly 25 percent.

This improvement was found to be due to the extracts' ability to activate the synthesis or resynthesis of ATP in mitochondria. The extracts also stimulated reparative energy processes that take place post-exercise. Rhodiola rosea was determined to be the most effective of the two extracts for improving physical working capacity.

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What and When You Eat After Your Workout Matters

Since we're on the topic of exercise, recovery, and nutrition, let me remind you that your post-workout meal can influence the overall health effects of exercise, so what you eat after your workout is an important consideration. For example, research has shown that eating fewer carbohydrates after exercise can enhance your insulin sensitivity, compared to simply reducing calorie intake7. Remember, keeping your insulin and leptin levels low by optimizing your insulin and leptin sensitivity is key for maintaining good health.

Generally speaking, after exercise your body is nitrogen-poor and your muscles have been broken down. Providing your body with the correct nutrients after your workout is therefore crucial to stop the catabolic process in your muscle and shift the recycling process toward repair and growth. If you fail to feed your muscle at the right time after exercise, the catabolic process will go too far and can potentially damage your muscle. Amino acids from high quality animal proteins, along with carbohydrates from vegetables (not grains) are essential for this process. High-quality sources of animal protein include:

  • Whey protein (minimally processed, and derived from organic, grass-fed, non-hormonally treated cows). Three ounces of high-quality whey protein will provide you with the recommended eight grams of leucine, which increases protein synthesis and builds muscle 
  • Humanely raised, free-range pastured chicken
  • Organic eggs from pastured hens
  • Grass-fed beef

Beneficial sources of carbohydrates include:

  • Virtually any non-starchy vegetable (limiting carrots and beets, which are high in sugar). Sunflower seeds sprouts are one of the best and pack nearly 30X the nutrient density of most vegetables.
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale or Swiss chard
  • Low fructose fruits like lemon, limes, passion fruit, apricots, plums, cantaloupe, and raspberries. Avoid high fructose fruits like apples, watermelons and pears

It's important to combine a quality protein with a veggie-type carb in every meal, no matter whether it's a resistance training day, an interval cardio day, or a non-workout day. However, after strength training (as opposed to cardio training), your body tends to need more rapidly absorbed nutrients and a higher glycemic (fast released, starchy) carbohydrate. Another slight difference between interval cardio and strength training days is the timing of your meal.

  • After cardio, you want to wait 45-60 minutes, and then consume a high-quality protein (whole food) and vegetable-type carbohydrate. (An example would be a spinach salad and some chicken, or high-quality whey protein).
  • After a resistance workout (muscle-building day), the ideal time to consume your post-workout meal is 15-30 minutes after finishing your session, in order to help repair your damaged muscles.

Nutritional Support for Other Exercise-Induced Side Effects

A far more common side effect of exercise than exercise-induced asthma is what's referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, i.e. the muscle soreness you may experience one to two days after exercise. This is caused by inflammation stemming from microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, or more specifically, microtears between your muscles and their surrounding tissues.

This most often occurs when you start a new exercise program, change it in some way, or resume exercising after a period of inactivity. Eccentric contractions seem to cause the most soreness, meaning movements that cause your muscle to forcefully contract while lengthening, such as the downward motion of squats or pushups. These damaged muscles release chemical irritants that trigger mild inflammation, which awakens your pain receptors. Other theories about DOMS attribute the phenomenon to changes in osmotic pressure, muscle spasms, or differences in how your muscle cells regulate calcium.

In the case of DOMS, most of the research has come up negative for the use of vitamin C. However, many other nutritional factors have been proven useful by science in preventing and resolving DOMS:

1. Ginger: A natural pain reliever with a long history of medicinal uses, ginger (both raw and heat-treated) has been shown to reduce muscular pain by about 24 percent.
2. Curcumin: Studies have shown curcumin (the pigment that gives the spice turmeric its vibrant yellow-orange color) is effective in relieving pain, increasing mobility, and reducing inflammation.
3. Omega-3 fats: These beneficial fats are highly anti-inflammatory, as well as very beneficial for your heart. My favorite omega-3 fat is krill oil, which has unparalleled ability to quell pain and inflammation.
4. Sulfur/MSM: MSM, which is 34 percent sulfur, is well known for its joint health benefits, improving metabolism, and reducing inflammation. MSM also appears to improve cell wall permeability, so it is useful in helping deliver other active ingredients. Sulfur also plays a critical role in detoxification and is the primary component in your body's most important native antioxidant — glutathione.
5. Astaxanthin: This naturally-occurring supernutrient is a powerful antioxidant boasting an encyclopedia of health benefits, including decreased post-exertion soreness and faster recovery time. It even increases your body's ability to metabolize fat! In a 2007 study, mice given astaxanthin showed heightened body fat reduction when given astaxanthin with exercise, compared to exercise alone.
6. Cherries: Cherries are a proven anti-inflammatory, as well as reducing your uric acid level. Cherries have been scientifically shown to help with things like arthritis and gout, and may have some usefulness for general muscle soreness. One study8 involving a group of long distance runners found that tart cherry juice significantly reduced post-exertion pain.
7. Arnica: Homeopathic arnica was demonstrated to reduce muscle soreness among marathon runners in a 2007 study9.
8. Carnosine (which consists of two amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine) is an antioxidant that helps reduce muscle soreness by buffering acids in your muscle tissue, thereby reducing localized inflammation. Carnosine appears to be important for high-intensity anaerobic muscle performance.

Most studies find that if you want to increase athletic performance with carnosine, your best bet is to take beta-alanine instead, since beta-alanine appears to be the rate-limiting amino acid in the formation of carnosine. As your muscles accumulate hydrogen ions, their pH falls, making them more acidic. The theory is that by improving your carnosine levels, you can counteract the detrimental effect of these hydrogen ions, thereby enabling you to sustain high-intensity muscle contractions for longer periods of time.

Nutrition Can Help You Make the Most of Your Fitness Regimen

As you can see, there are plenty of alternatives available in terms of nutrients that can significantly help improve your performance, reduce recovery time between workouts, and specifically target various side effects of exercise.

If you're one of the 10 percent of people who struggle with exercise-induced asthma, for example, it wouldn't hurt to try some vitamin C, considering several studies have shown it can reduce bronchoconstriction associated with exercise by nearly 50 percent. If you use a supplement, consider using liposomal vitamin C as it is clearly the best supplemental vitamin C on the market.

For overall fitness, extract of Rhodiola rosea radix is a strong contender, as it's been shown to reduce inflammation, protect muscle tissue, signicantly increase time to exhaustion during exercise, and improve neuromotoric fitness. And if DOMS is taking its toll, there are at least eight different nutritional factors (listed above) that can help.