co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
While we quickly associate muscle fatigue with exercise, many medical conditions are associated with muscle weakness as well.
Conditions leading to muscle fatigue include—but are not limited to—chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, infection (e.g. the flu, infectious mononucleosis, etc.), hypothyroidism, depression, electrolyte imbalance, neurological conditions, diabetes, some medication.…the list goes on. So how do we prevent muscle fatigue? Read on!
Why we suffer from muscle fatigue?
Muscle fatigue is what we identify with anytime our muscles cramp up after a vigorous workout—regardless of whether we sprinted for 30 seconds or workout for over an hour. In technical language, muscle fatigue (also physical fatigue) is what we experience when our muscles cannot generate enough force to do work (i.e. to produce an action or execute a task). The muscles don’t contract fully and this may be due to nerve conduction, and/or metabolic interference that prevents the muscle fibres from contracting. A thorough investigation is usually necessary when the origin of the muscle fatigue is unknown and/or it’s persistent. If you suspect an underlying illness, speak with a qualified healthcare provider right away.
What is happening in our body?
The concept of lactic acid accumulation leading to muscle fatigue is now questionable. This is because while there is a slight drop in the pH (due to higher levels of acid as a byproduct of metabolism), the force generated by the muscle does not seem to be affected. In other words, lactic acid build up isn’t preventing the muscle from doing work. It appears that a different biochemical pathway is responsible for the metabolic cause of muscle fatigue.
The physiology behind this is fairy complex, so I will spare you the headache. The traditional view of muscle fatigue has been replaced by a newer multifactorial concept that takes into account the metabolic, structural, and sensory elements affecting muscle fatigue, which could also explain the direct association between certain diseases and physical fatigue.
What can we do to prevent muscle fatigue?
I will take a liberty here and say that, in the absence of a disease, proper nutrition, sleep, breathing, and proper exercise all play a role. This is really a no-brainer. But now, think of athletes and how they train. While the average person does not undergo such rigorous training, the concept is pretty much the same. The more you train your muscles, the more they get used to the task. Along the way they will become sore, so you must allow them to recover. To do this you must allow for rest (e.g. sleep!). But in order to recover muscles also need nutrients to rebuild their building blocks, so :
- Protein both animal and plant—variety is key
- Vitamins – e.g. B complex, C, D and E, and
- Essential minerals – e.g. zinc, selenium, magnesium are important.
A well rounded diet is all you need. When lifestyle gets in the way, it may be OK to reach for your supplements, but be very careful about the source and quality.
Solutions for muscle fatigue
Let’s face it, fatigued muscles isn’t a pleasant feeling; especially when the aching and lack of energy gets in the way of your daily activities. The first step in combatting this is knowing what you are dealing with. If you have a medical condition, speak with a licensed naturopathic doctor before trying any natural remedies—the last thing you want is an exacerbation of an adverse reaction.
Some people hit the pharmacy in search of NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen), acetaminophen, and creams. These options can provide immediate, yet temporary symptomatic relief when used in appropriately and in the short term. However, misuse and long-term use can lead to a variety of side-effects that can be worse than the muscle fatigue you started with in the first place! When in doubt about use, consult with your local pharmacist.
So what natural solutions are there? When it comes to alleviating the soreness herbs can provide relief similarly to conventional medication. Some of these herbs are said to have an “anodyne” (i.e. without pain) effect. Traditionally, Arnica montana has been a favourite for muscle-related complaints—and it is applied topically (toxic if ingested).
Topical applications of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) and even castor oil (Ricinis communis) could relief pain. Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) has anti-inflammatory properties, and the same is true of Curcumin, Boswellia, Pineapple, and Willow (where aspirin was extracted from).
Other non-herbal options include hydrotherapy (i.e. applications of various water-based therapies), massage therapy, and acupuncture (this one is quite effective!). For more information on these therapeutic choices speak with a licensed naturopathic doctor. Be well!