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Dietary supplements against sore muscles? Curcumin, quercetin, sour cherry, etc - top or flop?

Richard Staudner
Richard Staudner

The Optimizer

Sore muscles are somehow a part of life for sports fans, aren't they? Sometimes it is a joyful confirmation to have trained properly and given the body a reason to grow.

But sometimes it is just uncomfortable and annoying, sometimes it really hurts. In fact, the pain has a cause and it can also weaken our performance in the following trainings and/or in competitions. We should definitely avoid that.

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What actually happens during muscle soreness?

Muscle soreness is triggered by training stimuli to which one is not yet accustomed. That is, particularly strenuous, particularly long-lasting and new loads. The mechanical stress of exercise triggers small micro-injuries and this in turn leads to an inflammatory reaction. Reactive oxygen molecules (the ROS) and cytokines (the messenger substances in the body) then increase as a result, either by being produced more frequently or by being released directly from the stores by cells of the immune system.

On the one hand, ROS and the inflammatory response are important for muscle development and regeneration. On the other hand, an uncontrolled inflammatory response is a stress for the body in the long run and can lead to tissue and muscle damage, according to the authors of a new review.

This research article has taken on the task of systematically compiling the latest results on supplements against muscle soreness. Specifically, the group of anti-inflammatory supplements was examined, these are responsible for buffering or limiting the inflammatory response, so that the muscle pain can be reduced. I would like to share the results with you here, so that you can get a better grip on the topic of muscle soreness and thus optimize your training and competition preparation.

Which supplements actually help with sore muscles?

Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, the spice from underground parts of the plant. The already long-standing use in medicine has the advantage that it has been studied longer compared to other supplements. There are some studies on the mode of action and tolerability. The authors summarize that curcumin has anti-inflammatory effects in many studies, both after endurance and strength training. For this effect, you should take the supplement at least 2 days before exercise. The antioxidant effect, on the other hand, is not so clear.

Curcumin also has a direct analgesic effect on sore muscles by blocking specific pain receptors. For top athletes, however, this effect may be somewhat weaker. For this, the supplement should be taken in any case for a few days after exercise.

The effects described above are then also seen in performance tests (maximum tension, jump test, sprint), where the group with curcumin supplementation scored consistently better than the placebo group.

The bioavailability is important, i.e. how much of the ingested curcumin the body can absorb. This is increased, for example, if the supplements contain piperidine (an active ingredient from pepper and chili). So, curcumin is a hot tip to positively influence the athletic performance.

Sour cherry juice (more specifically, the Montmorency variety) contains a variety of phytochemicals with high antioxidant potential. Among other things, these are supposed to inhibit enzymes that promote inflammation. Unfortunately, the studies show mixed results: On the muscle soreness pain itself, as well as the tissue injury, the juice seems to have no effect, although positive effects were seen in some performance tests.

The dose should be 250-300ml 2x daily for 4-5 days, even before the competition. However, there are also concentrates where you need less.

Red beet juice is considered a functional food because it contains some biologically active substances: Nitrates, betalain, vitamin C, carotenoids, and antioxidants. The juice can help with hypertension, vascular function and kidney health due to its vasodilator effect. It is also said to have positive effects on mitochondria, sugar metabolism, and endurance performance!

Studies in humans unfortunately again show very little antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects based on blood samples. Results on tissue injury are also mixed. However, again some studies found positive effects in performance tests (sprinting, jumping, maximal tension, endurance tests, maximal oxygen capacity).

The dose here is unclear; positive results apparently showed up when the juice was consumed just 90 minutes before exercise.

Quercetin is found in green tea, onions, apples, peppers, blueberries and dark green vegetables, among others. This substance also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in laboratory tests, but these effects have not yet been demonstrated in human studies. Nevertheless, the substance can reduce muscle damage and, in one study, muscle pain.

However, by acting on mitochondria and adenosine receptors, quercetin can improve endurance performance and anaerobic capacity This, however, is only indirectly related to muscle soreness.

For quercetin, the question of bioavailability is important but unresolved. There are some approaches to increase, but no clear answer yet.

Isothiocyanate is a newly emerging supplement that contains sulfur. The substance is found in vegetables, including collard greens. In laboratory tests it seems to have a lot of potential as a possible supplement against muscle soreness, but without the human studies it is not yet possible to make any recommendations.

So overall, you can say that some supplements have the potential to help with sore muscles. Curcumin, sour cherry juice and red beet juice can be helpful. Curcumin in particular is highly recommended. I see quercetin as more relevant in the area of endurance enhancement. At the end of the day, this question, like many others, is individualized and you should just try it out. Take one supplement at a time and try to find out its effect on you.

The research paper for this newsflash can be found here:

Tanabe, Y., Fujii, N. and Suzuki, K. (2021) 'Dietary Supplementation for Attenuating Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness in Humans', Nutrients, 14(1), p. 70. doi:10.3390/nu14010070.

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