Are you feeling weak and in pain? Do you feel pain after exercising and have a hard time recovering from exercise? Maybe you don’t even exercise anymore because it causes too much pain and now you’re gaining weight. No matter how much you exercise you just can’t increase your strength? Do you keep getting recurrent lower back pain on your right side and can’t bend over? You can’t play your favourite sport anymore or pick up your kids. You’re depressed and anxious about what you’re future holds. In this article I will discuss inflammation as a major cause of muscle weakness, it’s link with chronic pain, and solutions to reduce your inflammation and get you stronger.
Strong muscles are necessary to move and support your body properly. Strong, well coordinated muscles move your body and joints smoothly and give you good posture and alignment. If your muscles become weak, the movement of your body and joints become unstable, and you develop poor posture and alignment. At some point, muscle weakness will cause chronic recurrent pain.
Could inflammation (swelling) be the cause of your weakness and chronic pain?
After years of muscle testing patients I have observed that many chronic pain patients also have weak muscles throughout their whole body. I have even observed this kind of weakness with people who are physically active. Some of these patients have chronic or recurrent pain and some don’t. Why would someone who exercises regularly have muscle weakness? It doesn’t make sense does it? If you use a muscle regularly it should get stronger. So what’s causing the weakness then? What I suspect is that at least some of these patients have underlying inflammation.
Why do I suspect that inflammation causes muscle weakness?
- When patients with a known food intolerance eliminate the food that causes inflammation, all of their muscles get stronger and their pain gets better.
- When patients do an elimination/anti-inflammatory diet their muscles get stronger.
Now this is all observational. This means I can’t prove with absolute certainty that chronic inflammation will create weakness in everyone. Nor can I prove that reducing inflammation in everyone’s body will make them stronger. But I think my observations have some value. We know for certain that inflammation is one of the main sources of chronic disease. Chronic inflammation has a negative impact on all tissues in the body. (1) On the flip side, reducing chronic inflammation in the body has a positive impact on the body by restoring proper function. So would it not make sense that inflammation would also have an effect on muscle function and strength?
There is some research showing that systemic inflammation is associated with muscle weakness. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) Again, it’s important to point out that association does not necessarily mean causation. In saying that, the research does suggest that inflammation is an important aspect to look at when determining why someone would develop muscle weakness. And if you know the potential underlying cause you can at least provide a treatment that may be effective.
Solutions to decrease your inflammation
Step 1 – Identify Food Intolerances
The first step I would recommend for you is to identify foods you are intolerant or sensitive to that may be causing inflammation. I also wrote about this in the following articles : Anti-inflammatory Diet to Solve Your Low Back Pain? and Foods that Cause Inflammation: 3 Food Toxins You Should Avoid
The three most common food toxins that cause inflammation are refined flours (bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, crackers), refined sugars (candy, soda pop, table sugar), and vegetable and industrial seed oils (canola, corn, cottonseed, soybean, safflower, sunflower, sesame). So at the very least, I would experiment with eliminating these foods for even a couple of weeks to see if you feel stronger and your pain decreases.
However, the proper and most effective way to determine if food intolerances are causing your weakness and pain would be to do a 30 day elimination diet where you eliminate the following foods: refined flours, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, processed foods, industrial seed and vegetable oils, and alcohol. After the 30 days you start to eat the foods you eliminated again one food at a time for 3 days. For example, when you bring back dairy you would start with adding butter for 3 days, then kefir for the next 3 days, yogurt, cheese, cream, sour cream and so on. You can keep a diary to see if you have more pain, feel weak, or develop any other symptoms.
If the 30 day elimination diet seems to daunting for you, then I would suggest you order Cyrex Array lab tests from a functional medicine or functional nutrition practitioner. These blood tests are done to check if the immune system is reacting to foods (IgA and IgG antibodies). I’ve had to order these tests for patients who find it too difficult to go through the elimination diet process and want fast results.
Step 2 – Identify “leaky gut” and hidden gut problems
Your gut is a hollow tube that runs from your mouth to your anus. If it works properly, it’s supposed to break food into nutrients, which are then absorbed to provide us with energy. It’s also supposed to keep toxins from getting into the blood to prevent an immune response, inflammation, and ultimately illness. When you have a hidden gut condition, your gut won’t work properly. You won’t absorb nutrients well, and toxins can “leak” into your blood and create numerous symptoms such as weakness, pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, headaches, and skin conditions.
An imbalance between good and bad bacteria in your colon (intestinal dysbiosis) is a common gut problem which would create “leaky gut”. By the way, you don’t have to have major gut symptoms to have “leaky gut”. You would have to get detailed gut testing done (stool, breath, and urine tests) in order to determine if you have an underlying gut problem.
In the meantime, you can start to improve the function of your gut in the following ways:
Eat more fermentable fiber
Bacteria in your gut (gut microbiota) consist of over a trillion bacteria and have three main roles:
- They improve your metabolism by breaking down nutrients and creating nutrients
- They produce short-chain fatty acids from breaking down carbohydrates to help with the growth and repair of your gut lining.
- This helps heal the gut and prevent “leaky” gut thereby protecting you from an immune reaction and inflammation.
Eating more fermentable fiber helps build your good bacteria (gut microbiota) back up. This would include eating a variety of starchy carbohydrates, non-starchy carbohydrates, and resistant starch.
- starchy tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams)
- winter squash
- summer squash
- yuca or cassava root
- taro or dasheen
- plantains (fruit)
- green leafy vegetables
- bok choy
- bell peppers
- green beans
- sugar snap peas and whole peas
- brussel sprouts
- kernel corn
- cooked and cooled potatoes, lentils, green plantains and green bananas
- supplement with two to four tablespoons per day of Bob’s Red Mill Unmodified Potato Starch (start with 1/4 teaspoon per day and build up slowly)
Eat more bone broth
Bone broth is soothing on the gut and contains glycine and gelatin which are important nutrients for gut health. Have a half a cup to a cup of broth daily in the form of soups, stews, teas, or sauces.
Eat more fermented foods
Fermented foods contain good bacteria that help improve gut health. Fermented vegetables in the form of raw sauerkraut and kimchi are easier to digest. Have 1-2 tablespoons with each meal. Other fermented foods and drinks like komboucha, plain yogurt, and beet kvass can also be consumed.
Step 3 – Identify Stress Hormone Imbalances
Your body and mind are designed to adapt to stress. However, when the stress exceeds your ability to adapt, you will break down physically and mentally. Sometimes this is called Adrenal Fatigue but it is more accurately called HPA Axis Dysregulation (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Dysregulation or HPA-D for short). HPA-D involves the inability of your brain and nervous system to control and balance your levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol is involved with shutting down inflammation. When cortisol goes out of balance chronic inflammation occurs. The best way to measure cortisol levels, at the time of this writing, is the DUTCH Plus test from Precision Analytical. This test uses dry urine and saliva samples. The DUTCH Plus test can be ordered through a functional medicine or functional nutrition practitioner.
There are many things you can start doing to treat HPA-D. Here’s a starting list for you:
- manage your stress
- control light exposure
- get enough quality sleep
- eat a nutrient dense diet that controls your blood sugar levels
- optimize physical activity
- spend time outdoors
- play more
- do more activities that give you joy and pleasure
Remember there’s always a “why” behind every symptom. You just have to dig deeper to find the underlying cause of the problem. What if your chronic pain and weakness isn’t getting better with chiropractic care or any other type of physical therapy? Are you just going to give up? I hope not. Consider cleaning up your diet, fix your gut, and get your stress hormones back into balance. You’re bound to get stronger and live pain free.