You just sprained your ankle, tore your meniscus, trained at the gym way too hard, or got beat up by your manual therapist using Graston Technique. Whatever your story, you know your body is hurt. Your soft tissue structures (muscles, tendons, ligaments, connective tissue, fascia, etc.) are pretty good at communicating with you when you are injured through pain, soreness, achiness, redness, swelling, and even bruising.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Your body has an amazing capacity to heal; it’s far incredible than you give it credit for. You can support the healing process and show your body some love by facilitating the chemistry working hard behind the scenes to get you better. Whether you are healing from an accidental soft tissue injury or just trying to keep up with the deliberate increase in tissue breakdown that is currently part of your treatment protocol, here are some basic nutrition tips to get you started.
1 – Essential Fatty Acids (Omega-3s)
Essential Fatty Acids are fatty acids that your body is not able to make on its own, so you need to consume them in your diet. They are VERY important for a plethora of functions in your body, from hormonal balance to brain function. They are also possibly the most important and most well-research supplement for directing inflammation modulation. If you have any pain or inflammatory condition, you need these (and more of them than usual). Acute inflammation is a normal part of the healing process, we just want to support balance and keep it in check.
2 – Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin (although there are fat-soluble compounds available, but not relevant to this post). It is crucial for connective tissue repair and energy metabolism. Your hormonal stress response system (the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis or HPA Axis for short) is responsible for secreting cortisol (among other hormones) which will directly increase your oxidative stress load (read: inflammation). When your HPA axis is revving high (whether caused by physical, chemical, or emotional stress), your vitamin C requirements increase. When you have damaged tissue, your vitamin C requirements increase. Get what I’m saying? The nice thing is that vitamin C is water-soluble and has been studied at phenomenally high doses, so it is very safe. You can essentially gradually taper your dose up to “bowel tolerance” (meaning your stool gets loose).
3 – Magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral that is used as a muscle and nervous system relaxant. Low grade magnesium deficiencies are very common and fairly generic symptoms like headaches, muscle spasms, tightness, constipation, and mood irritability. It is supportive of healing soft-tissue injuries by facilitating good muscle tone and working as a co-factor for many important enzymes.
4 – Protein
Straight up. Protein is broken down into amino acids, which are the basic building blocks for all of the structures in your body. You need these building blocks in order to maintain and repair all of your tissues. Your body is not able to make certain amino acids on its own. These essential amino acids, just like your essential fatty acids, must be consumed in your diet for you to have them to work with. I recommend having regular protein throughout the day (as opposed to one big steak at dinner); this will help stabilize your blood sugar (which is also a factor in inflammation levels) and encourage you to include different protein sources. Protein at breakfast is most important in my books, followed by after workout protein as runner-up.
5 – Proteolytic Enzymes and Herbal Anti-Inflamatories
I could (and should probably at some point) write an entire blog just on why our traditional over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications are detrimental to the soft tissue healing process and not your best support. We used to think that just taming down the inflammation at whatever cost would improve healing, so a lot of people would even pop an NSAID prophylactically before a long a run. Now we know that stopping a specific chemical process in its mid-way point may be effective at reducing pain, but it actually delays soft tissue healing and increases tissue degeneration. Not good. The good news is that I am not in any way masochistic and I don’t think that you just need to suffer through the pain. There are alternatives that work through different pathways that can actually improve healing time and reduce pain (in some studies just as effectively as your NSAIDs). My favourites in this category include protrypsin, Wobenzyme, and Kaprex by Metagenics. There are many others out there, but be sure to read the label as most of them will require that you take them away from food.
I would be amiss as a clinical nutritionist if I did not clearly communicate with you that no magic supplement is going to do all the work for you. No pill or supplement will ever over-ride the impact of an overall crappy diet. You should absolutely pair your nutritional supplementation routine with an anti-inflammatory diet to support optimal health and healing.
Soft tissue injuries take somewhere between 12 to 16 weeks to heal on average, even though the pain doesn’t always last that long. If you want to make sure that you are doing everything you can to get back into the game quickly and to stay in the game long term (rather than continuously feed the cycle of compensatory injuries), I strongly recommend that you pair your new nutrition knowledge with a visit with one of our fabulous sports docs.