The Central Nervous System and Recovery, Part 2: Nutrition
The most overlooked, misunderstood, and undervalued aspect of weight training, recovery, and performance is nutrition. What and when you eat play a huge role in your performance in the gym and the quality of your recovery following injury or surgery. The choices you make throughout your day highly impact these variables, and I will explain why.
As a weightlifting coach, clients often ask me for some complicated answer as to why the weight they squat isn’t going up. The squat itself is simple. Once I get their mechanics in order it’s up to them to prepare their body to access the strength they already have. Of course, there is a lot to be said about proper coaching and good programming, but my best lifters are those who have their recovery and nutrition dialed in. This same concept holds true for my patients as a physical therapist. The ones who pay attention to these other important aspects of their life often heal faster following surgery and injury.
Nutrition and Your CNS
Our CNS has a role in everything the body does, including recovery, and nutrition intimately influences our central nervous system and how prepared it is to coordinate muscular contractions. It also regulates your glycogen stores and hormone balance. As I stated in my last post, there are a variety of variables that lead to CNS fatigue. Frequent stress, poor sleep, and overtraining do a number on the CNS and can negate the effects of any healthy diet. How we manage stress, regulate our sleep, and periodize our training goes hand in hand with controlling our food choices in a way that restores, rather than destroys, the human body.
When my patients or athletes aren’t recovering adequately, it is a sign to me that their health and performance is suffering. Three very common indicators are low energy, poor motivation, and an overall sensation of lethargy. If we were to dig deeper with blood work, we would find biomarkers of systemic inflammation present within the body. High and consistent levels of inflammation impair connective tissue healing and decrease the production of anabolic hormones and the happy feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. The biggest biomarker that causes problems is cortisol. This is a catabolic hormone that, in high levels, can wreak havoc in the body. Let me explain…
How to Destroy Your CNS
- Caffeine Abuse
- When consumed, caffeine speeds up nerve activity through increased adrenal secretions of cortisol. In the short term caffeine is great, especially prior to strength training and endurance activities like running. It has the ability to limit sensations of fatigue and improve focus. However, when the body becomes reliant on this substance (ie. all day consumption: coffee, tea, pre-workout drinks, energy shots) it leads to adrenal burnout and impairs your ability to react to sympathetic fight or flight situations.
- Life Stressors
- Ambitious career goals, relationships, finances, and home life can all increase sympathetic activity which boosts cortisol and adrenaline, leading to burn out.
Our “all or nothing” lifestyles and need to get more accomplished in a shorter amount of time can result in:
- Poor blood sugar management and insulin resistance
- Depression, sleep disruption, and carbohydrate craving
- Decreased thyroid hormone output and a reduced metabolism
- Altered sex hormone activity
- Amino acid loss from muscle
I could write a thesis on all of the factors that go into CNS fatigue and recovery, but for this post I would like to focus on nutrition. When it comes to nutrition there is one rule that stands above them all: eat real food! Food, in its unprocessed form will give your body the nutrients it needs. Consuming the right whole foods along with herbs and spices can help to moderate inflammation, assisting in recovery. The body needs basic building blocks for repair. Adequate protein and fat in the form of wild caught fish, grass fed meats, avocados, coconut, and eggs is a great place to start. Carbohydrates are also essential, but differ in that the quantity needed. Each person’s intake is highly individualized based on lifestyle and activity level. In essence, you need to “earn” your carbohydrates.
However, three chemicals in particular have been cited and studied heavily in connection with CNS function and regeneration: Serotonin (5-HT), Tyrosine (amino acid), and Choline (precursor of Acetylcholine,).
- Serotonin: Ingesting carbohydrates cause your body to release Serotonin. Serotonin will allow you to sleep more soundly and release more IGF (insulin-like growth factor) throughout the night, allowing you to wake up more rested and recovered. This is why I consume most of my carbs in the evening before bed. The amount depends on whether or not I am training early the next morning.
- Tyrosine has also been implicated in a number of studies as a major player in CNS function/regeneration. Tyrosine is a precursor to noradrenaline and dopamine and is shown to increase the amount of neurotransmitters released from the adrenal and pituitary glands. This is important because dopamine (feel good hormone) improves mood and motivation, making it likelier for you to exercise or rehabilitate. Foods heavy in tyrosine are eggs, salmon, red meat, and shrimp.
- Choline is required to create Acetylcholine (ACh), the most essential neurotransmitter needed to create muscular force and allow for proper neuromuscular signaling. Eggs contain a high amount of choline within the yoke; so eating eggs, including the yoke should be a priority.
Avoid lowering calories below 1500 per day when training more than 7 hours each week. This will send the body into starvation mode by creating an extreme energy deficit. The body reacts as though this was another life stressor, causing you to store more energy in the form of fat in preparation for what it thinks is famine.
Appetite is a huge indicator of how well you are recovering. The two extremes of barely eating a handful of almonds, to unconsciously gorging yourself each day on pizza and ice cream is a marker that you may be overtraining. The key is to listen to your body. It will tell you how much energy you need on any given day.
Please don’t neglect hydration. Plenty of fluids are important for proper lymphatic function. However, many of my hard charging athletes often take this to extremes and end up diluting their vital minerals of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous. I usually make sure these individuals aren’t afraid of salting their food and often recommend an electrolyte supplement such as nuun prior to exercise.
Supplements after training can enhance the recovery process, but they should not replace whole foods in the diet. These include carbohydrates, protein, and BCAAs (branch chain amino acids). If recovery supplements or a nutrient dense meal aren’t in place after workouts, the regeneration process can be delayed. This is because exercise creates a catabolic (think high cortisol) environment in the body. Consuming a meal rich in carbohydrate and protein following a training session halts the catabolic process. Glutamine and creatine are heavily researched and debated among in the medical and fitness communities. However, studies show they might also be of use for recovery with no side effects (unless you already have kidney or liver disease) as they improve hydration in the muscles, help turn over ATP, and aid in clearing lactic acid via the lactate shuttle system.
Research is continually developing possible connections between nutrition, brain neurochemistry, and fatigue. For athletes and patients to achieve optimal exercise performance and /or rehabilitation the physical therapist and coach needs to be proactive in planning recovery into any training or rehab program. Be sure to constantly observe every patient and athlete. Watch out for any indications that exercise performance or recovery is deteriorating and adjust accordingly. In addition, educate your patients and athletes about the importance of proper nutrition (along with other recovery strategies) in order to empower them to take control and make the necessary lifestyle changes.