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How to Use Post-Workout Inflammation to Your Advantage

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Inflammation is one of the hottest health topics of the year. But until now, the focus has been solely on the damage it causes. (Case in point: these inflammation-causing foods.) As it turns out, that's not the whole story. Researchers have recently discovered that inflammation can actually make us healthier. It has powerful healing effects and is a critical component of the immune system, says Joanne Donoghue, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. You need it to generate muscle, heal from injuries, and even power through a tough day. The way it works is this: "Whenever you strength-train or do cardiovascular exercise, you're creating mini-traumas in your muscles," Donoghue explains. That triggers inflammation, which prompts the release of chemicals and hormones to repair the affected tissue and leads to stronger muscle fibers. Your bones also benefit, says Maria Urso, Ph.D., a human performance consultant with O2X, a wellness education company. The load placed on your bones during strength training creates tiny divots in their weak areas, and inflammation kicks off a process that fills in those spots with new, stronger bone.

Inflammation is also crucial to recovering from an injury. Say you roll your ankle while running. "Within minutes, white blood cells rush to the injury site," says Wajahat Zafar Mehal, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine. They assess the damage and fire up clusters of molecules known as inflammasomes, which activate small proteins that make your ankle turn red and swell. These inflammatory symptoms draw immune cells to the area to begin the healing process, Mehal explains.

Preliminary animal studies show that workout-induced inflammation may even cause the immune system to operate more efficiently. That means inflammation created by exercise could potentially help to fight colds. But, like most health issues, the process is complicated. Inflammation is healthy only in moderation. "When inflammation is at a high level all the time, it creates chronic wear and tear on healthy tissues and organs," says Charles Raison, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health who studies the condition. Carrying excess weight, not getting enough rest, or exercising too much all can cause the good-for-you inflammatory response to veer into the danger zone. The key to reaping the benefits of post-exercise inflammation is to keep it at a balanced level. The following three techniques will help you use its power without allowing it to spiral out of control.

Stretch It Out

Rather than collapsing on the couch after a tough workout, take a walk, do some light yoga, or use a foam roller. After exercise, your muscles leak out a protein called creatine kinase, which your kidneys need to filter from the blood. If you sit still, the damaged proteins accumulate, and this may result in more inflammatory-control cells coming into the area and delaying recovery. "By moving your muscles, you increase blood flow to those areas," Urso explains. "This helps flush out the waste products so your body can repair itself." (And before bed, try these yoga stretches to prevent injury and help you fall asleep faster.)

Embrace the Ache

When the soreness from your boot-camp class is intense, you may be tempted to pop ibuprofen. Don't. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as these prevent normal exercise-induced inflammation from occurring, which could keep your body from building and strengthening your muscles, Urso says. Translation: Your workout is a lot less effective. Taking ibuprofen might even increase your risk of injury, Chinese researchers report. In studies, they found that NSAIDs interfere with bone rebuilding, leaving you vulnerable to stress fractures and osteoporosis. Save the medications for more severe injuries like muscle tears. For regular soreness, try menthol gels like Biofreeze Cold Therapy Pain Relief ($9; amazon.com), which have proven analgesic properties but won't interfere with inflammation. (Or try one of these personal trainer-approved products for relieving sore muscles.)

Take a Break

Follow every super-intense workout with an easy or rest day, suggests Chad Asplund, M.D., the medical director of athletics sports medicine at Georgia Southern University. Exercise creates free radicals, unstable molecules that damage cells. Normally, the body releases antioxidants to neutralize those molecules, but if you keep pushing yourself to the limit day after day, the free radicals overwhelm your body's defenses, creating a condition known as oxidative stress. This causes harmful chronic inflammation, which tears down muscles rather than building them up, Donoghue says. Watch out for symptoms like plummeting endurance, strength, energy, and motivation, as well as irritability, frequent illness, and trouble sleeping. These are all signs that you should take at least two full days off, Donoghue says, then dial back your exercise schedule by 30 to 40 percent for the next two or three weeks in order to recover. (Rest days aren't just for your body either—your mind needs to chill too.)

Put Stress to Work for You

Mental stress, like trying to meet a crazy deadline at work, triggers inflammation the same way workout stress does. "When the brain perceives anxiety or danger, it kicks on inflammation," says Raison. In small doses, your stress response can be good for you, according to Firdaus S. Dhabhar, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Medical Center. It prompts the release of cortisol and other molecules, which deliver a jolt of energy and alertness and enhance the immune function to help you deal with the situation at hand. To keep stress short term and beneficial, and to prevent it from becoming chronic and harmful, try these expert-backed tactics.

Go green.

Getting outside can help you decompress. After taking a walk through nature, study participants were significantly less likely to dwell on negative thoughts than those who strolled through a cityscape, research at Stanford University found. (Better yet, take your yoga practice outside.)

Use the conveyor belt method.

"For a few seconds several times a day, imagine that your stressful thoughts are boxes on a conveyor belt, passing through your awareness," suggests Bruce Hubbard, Ph.D., the director of the Cognitive Health Group in New York City. "This teaches you to let go of the things that worry you."

Eat more yogurt.

Random, but true: Women who received a four-week course of probiotics, which are found in yogurt, ruminated less when they were sad than those who received a placebo, according to a study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. That's because probiotics increase your level of tryptophan, which helps produce serotonin, a hormone that boosts your mood. Eat at least one serving of yogurt a day for the best results. (You're probably also wondering, should I take a probiotic supplement?)