A serious workout can leave anyone who exercises sore and can even lead to muscle damage. Fortunately, certain antioxidants can be key players in post-exercise recovery.
Exercise Generates Free Radicals
Exercise is associated with so many health benefits, but surprisingly enough there is one undesirable thing about exercise. Exercise increases the production of free radicals, which damage important parts of our body’s cells, such as DNA. Once our cells are damaged, they become dysfunctional.
Antioxidants Combat Free Radicals
Antioxidants are critical for removing these damaging free radicals, but when a surge of free radicals is created during exercise, an imbalance between free radicals and the antioxidants that eliminate them occurs. This disturbance is called oxidative stress.
The body has antioxidant systems located throughout it, and exercise does indeed improve those systems, but not enough to offset the free radical production during exercise.
Even though free radical production during exercise is inevitable, science has investigated whether various antioxidant vitamins and minerals have the potential to improve the situation.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that works as an antioxidant by deactivating the free radicals that commonly travel throughout our cells. While little research supports the notion that increases in vitamin C will improve performance, these studies have shown increasing vitamin C levels decrease the production of various by-products reflective of free radical production and the damage they create.
Some foods high in vitamin C include oranges, grapefruit, bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, kale, kiwi, guavas, pineapple, mango, and papaya.
Like vitamin C, research on vitamin E does not support its ability to increase or improve athletic performance, but it has repeatedly been shown to help minimize damage to cell membranes from free radicals. Any strategy that can enhance the body’s ability to effectively resolve free radical production can potentially serve to assist with recovery from intense and damaging exercise.
Some foods high in vitamin E include almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, apricots, squash, pumpkin, shrimp, and spinach.
Vitamin C and E Together Optimize Recovery
Research has suggested when combining vitamins C and E, their ability to offset the production of free radicals and prevent oxidative stress is even greater than when acting alone inside the cell. While vitamins C and E may do little to improve exercise performance, their ability to help modulate free radical production and oxidative stress makes them a strong consideration for individuals who need to optimize their recovery from exercise.
Exercise does a world of good for both mind and body. Nutrition is a cornerstone for sufficient recovery—adequate calories, carbohydrates, and protein intake are the most important initial considerations. In addition, antioxidants are helpful to reduce free radical damage and optimize the body’s recovery after intense exercise. Including plenty of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis is certainly a great start.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
Childs A, Jacobs C, Kaminski T, et al. Supplementation with vitamin C and N-acetyl-cysteine increases oxidative stress in humans after an acute muscle injury induced by eccentric exercise. Free Radic Biol Med. 2001;31(6):745–753.
Bryant RJ, Ryder J, Martino P, et al. Effects of vitamin E and C supplementation either alone or in combination on exercise-induced lipid peroxidation in trained cyclists. J Strength Cond Res. 2003;17(4):792-800.