Does Curcumin Work on DOMS?

Recently, there were a few more studies that looked into how curcumin supplementation affects both exercise-induced muscle damage and post-exercise muscle soreness. And, not surprisingly, the results were mixed.

I say “not surprisingly” because, if you keep an eye on these studies and actually look at the results and data, the conclusions the actual researchers reach is generally far from as clear cut as the headlines written about the studies would have you believe. Coffee is not entirely bad for you and red wine is not entirely good for you. It all falls on a spectrum. And the results of this study are no different.

For this study, the researchers took 220 people, mostly under 40 years old males, both trained and untrained, who engaged in both aerobic and resistance exercise were included. The researchers gave these 40-something dudes a variety of curcumin formulations, with a median daily dose of 400 mg for a maximum duration of 56 days.

After the 56 days, It was observed that the supplementation had “modest beneficial effects on muscle damage and soreness.” These effects were mostly seen in untrained participants undergoing resistance exercise – so the people who were most likely to get pretty sore after their workouts.

DOMS

Adapted from: Szymanski. Strength Con J. 2001 Aug. DOI: 10.1519/00126548-200108000-00001.

Exercise, especially in untrained individuals who suddenly start lifting weights, may result in muscle pain that typically appears 12–24 hours after the workout, peaks between 24 and 72 hours, and progressively subsides during the next 5–7 days.

This pain is referred to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and while it is not entirely clear how exercise causes DOMS, several mechanisms may contribute, including mechanical damage to the muscle fibres and connective tissues, and increased levels of inflammation and oxidative stress.

Curcumin (a yellow polyphenolic pigment) may reduce DOMS due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. BUT (and this is a big but) while several trials have examined these claims, their results have been inconsistent.

The two problems being that muscle soreness is assessed, reported and felt differently between individuals. And measuring a biomarker of muscle damage (creatine kinase) is a bit tricky too as biology and genetics of the study participants have a heavy influence on how much is created in the first place.

So we basically have two unreliable factors to go with.

Conclusion

While the results of the study suggest that curcumin supplementation improves exercise-induced muscle damage and soreness (to a modest degree), these results are based on “heterogeneous studies with an unclear or high risk of selection, performance, and detection bias.”

More Complications

In another study at the University of Guelph involved 21 volunteers running downhill for 40 minutes at a 12-percent grade. Not surprisingly, they were sore in the following days. Then, seven days later, they repeated the downhill run. In between, half of them took 200 milligrams of curcumin per day.

Pro: Curcumin succeeded in lowering levels of creatine kinase, the marker of muscle damage, over the course of seven days.

Con: After the second run, the runners who had taken curcumin after the first run actually felt more sore.

It appears that speeding up muscle recovery after one hard workout cost the participants some of the adaptations that would protect them from the next hard workout.

The Upshot?

As much as we would like them to be all knowing, sport scientists just don’t quite understand the complex factors of how our muscles recover. We’ve seen this same result with post exercise ice baths. They may help in the short-term but they may also hinder long-term muscle growth and strength. The issue seems to be that whenever we try to alter one factor, there’s no guarantee that we won’t also alter another factor in a negative way.

So my advise, give it a try and see how if it helps you. If it isn’t life changing, you can probably safely spend that money somewhere else … instead of creating expensive pee 😉

But mainly, if your workouts are leaving you so sore that you feel the need to pop a pill (albeit a delicious spice) then you may want to just back off on the intensity of your workouts. If you workout so hard that you aren’t able to workout again for a week, you likely won’t get the benefits you are after anyway.

Consistency will beat intensity pretty much every time.

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