Inflammation is an unavoidable part of life. Much of the food you eat, training and playing rugby, and even breathing trigger an inflammatory reaction within your body.
Low-level inflammation usually goes unnoticed but intense exercise and the bruising sport we love to play means ruggers suffer more than their fair share of swelling and soreness. Show me a rugger who doesn’t ache almost all the time, and I’ll show you a rugger who isn’t trying hard enough!
Inflammation has many causes, from big hits during a game to working hard in the gym. Certain foods, such as those high in sugar and trans fats, can also trigger inflammation, and so too does stress. Even breathing triggers inflammation, and atmospheric and dietary pollutants are responsible for inflammation too.
In simple terms, inflammation is the reddening and swelling of tissue that may or may not cause pain. If you scratch your skin, you will probably see your skin redden and it may swell to form a welt – that is inflammation.
Inflammation can affect every part of your body, from your nerves to your brain to your muscles to your internal organs. Inflammation is not all bad – it’s one of the triggers for muscle growth and increased fitness. However, in excess, inflammation will delay your recovery from training, and is linked to a range of diseases. In fact, there is a theory that inflammation is the cause of many chronic illnesses.
While the causes of inflammation are many, the mechanism that triggers it can be narrowed down to one thing – free radicals, also known as Reactive Oxygen Species, or ROS for short.
Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron in their outer shells. Like a soccer hooligan, they careen around your body causing chaos and disruption wherever they go. In an effort to restore their missing electron, free radicals rob other molecules and take their electrons. This creates more free radicals and a chain reaction that can last for several days.
Your body has a defense against free radicals – antioxidant enzymes. The main antioxidant enzymes are glutathione reductase, catalase, and superoxide dismutase. These enzymes move in like a police force to arrest the action of free radicals. Unfortunately, modern life (and rugby) can mean that your antioxidant enzymes just can’t keep pace with the free radicals and levels of inflammation are constantly elevated.
That’s why a lot of ruggers are constantly sore; they are always inflamed. For some, this is a badge of honor but, the reality is that constant inflammation is not good for you and could lead to serious illness in the not-too-distant future.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are common in rugby and players use them to treat inflammation and pain. Unfortunately, while NSAIDs do work, like most medicines, they also have a lot of side effects.
To quote the article by Ruck Science’s own Tim Howard…
“Recent studies have shown that the long-term use of (anti-inflammatory) drugs like ibuprofen can have a range of associated risks. These risks include damage to internal organs, over-reliance on the drug, negative effects on muscular hypertrophy, and allowing for return to play before full recovery resulting in re-injury.”
Thankfully, there is a safer way to reduce inflammation – anti-inflammatory nutrients. Like antioxidant enzymes, anti-inflammatory nutrients stop free radicals in their tracks. Most anti-inflammatory nutrients are vitamins and minerals and are present in a range of foods.
According to Rugby World, the ten best anti-inflammatory foods are:
While many of these foods are so-called “superfoods”, they are not exactly exotic and are widely available in most grocery stores. Your diet should already contain at least some of these foods and if it doesn’t, chances are it’s time to start adding them.
Your body tends to do its best anti-inflammatory work while you sleep. With fewer functions to maintain, it has the energy, time, and resources to neutralize free radicals. That’s why you often wake up feeling less sore – your body has done some healing overnight.
Because sleep is such a big part of controlling inflammation, it’s important that all hard-charging ruggers strive to get around eight hours of sleep per night. Insufficient sleep can have a big impact on recovery, fatigue, and performance.
For more recovery-boosting strategies, check out this FREE guide – 10 Programs for Post-rugby Recovery.
One substance that can help you sleep and has also been shown to reduce inflammation is melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that is also available in supplement form. Melatonin’s main job is to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Darkness causes the body to produce more melatonin, which signals the body to prepare for sleep. Light decreases melatonin production and signals the body to prepare for being awake. Supplemental melatonin readies your body for and can help prolong and deepen sleep.
Melatonin has also been revealed as an effective anti-oxidant in its own right. In studies, melatonin has been shown to increases levels of anti-oxidant enzymes and reduce biological markers of inflammation.
And the best news? Melatonin supplements are deemed to be very safe with few if any significant side effects. That definitely cannot be said about NSAIDs like the rugger’s friend, ibuprofen.
In the aforementioned study, the dosage used was 5mg taken before sleep, however, doses from 2g to 12g per day have also been used. If you decide to try melatonin, start on a low dose and increase gradually until you achieve the desired effect.
Rugby is tough enough without having to contend with severe inflammation too. Clean up your diet and include more anti-oxidant nutrients in your meals and consider adding melatonin to your supplement regimen. If nothing else, longer, deeper sleep will have a big impact on your recovery and performance.