Recovery is of vital importance when looking to optimize the physical and mental performance of an individual. Just as some ingredients have been scientifically shown to help enhance acute performance—such as caffeine for alertness—ingredients that enhance recovery are also relevant and must be studied.
Recovery ingredients are a critical part of the equation for athletes to be able to perform in their subsequent workouts. In the context of a competition, sufficient energy intake (carbohydrate and protein), sleep and ice baths are the usual areas practitioners examine when looking to speed the recovery of an athlete. However, when wanting to gain that 1% advantage over the competition, additional strategies can be recommended to further support an athlete’s recovery, such as nutrient timing (chrono-nutrition) or the use of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant ingredients.
According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) consensus, one of the reasons athletes often consume supplements is to gain a performance improvement indirectly from better recovery, optimizing composition, reducing risks of injury and illness, or to tolerate pain and soreness.1 Beyond popular supplements such as creatine and omega-3s, curcumin has also been utilized for its anti-inflammatory benefits during the recovery process.2
Curcumin has also been researched for its reduction of symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS),3-6 which is associated with muscle pain, decreased range of motion, decreased strength and acute tissue damage; each of which contributes to an impairment in future athletic performance and/or predisposes an individual to injury.7 Nutritional intervention with curcumin is one therapeutic way to address DOMS, helping individuals to feel less sore and recover faster after an intense exercise bout. However, until recently, curcumin’s diverse pharmacology has failed to transfer to clinical results, due to its poor bioavailability.8 Increasing the bioavailability of curcumin provides great potential for its application in sports recovery. For example, HydroCurc from Gencor utilizes Pharmako Biotechnologies’ unique LipiSperse technology, a cold-water dispersible delivery technology that increases bioavailability and functionality of lipophilic ingredients.9 A single dose of 750 mg HydroCurc containing 85% curcuminoids produced peak plasma levels of 807 ng/ml. This is well within the therapeutic range where curcuminoids can exert multiple anti-inflammatory effects.10 A study published in 2020 also showed promising results for curcumin and sports recovery, demonstrating a significant reduction in DOMS and thigh circumference (i.e., swelling) when supplementing with 500 mg of a bioavailable curcumin.6 In addition, the curcumin extract demonstrated an increase in the rise of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) levels, which is associated with muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and skeletal muscle mass—both imperative for active lifestyles. Moreover, the findings indicated the bioavailable curcumin may also allow for a quicker return to exercise training or a return to exercise training at higher thresholds.
CBD has gained a lot of traction in recent years, particularly for its potential to reduce pain and inflammation, and enhance sleep. However, CBD may come with risks,11-14 which is why many are looking to CBD alternatives such as palmitoylethanolamide (PEA). Naturally produced in the body as a direct response to stress, PEA works on the same pathway as CBD.15 Demonstrating important neuroprotective, anti‐inflammatory and analgesic actions, PEA can be used as a potential agent to support exercise recovery.16
As with curcumin, PEA’s poor bioavailability has largely prevented this potentially therapeutically important molecule from achieving clinical significance. However, a pharmacokinetic study demonstrated Levagen+ (from Gencor, with Lipisperse) to be 1.75 times more bioavailable than standard PEA.16
Other published studies on Levagen+ have supported its ability to help athletes and active consumers with quicker recovery16 and support of joint health.17 The findings from this research indicated a reduction of muscle damage with improved performance for study participants. The ingredient makes a different group of anti-inflammatory mechanisms in the body accessible, which include peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPAR-alpha) and various mechanisms influencing the endocannabinoid system; these are involved in mediating pain and decreasing the output of inflammatory mediators.18 A degree of overlap occurs between curcumin and PEA pharmacology, but differences also exist which should allow for anti-inflammatory synergy within a uniquely synergistic recovery formula.
When translating science into practical applications, it’s important to work with athletes from various elite sports to gain insight on how curcumin and PEA can be used as part of an athlete’s recovery-based protocols. Gencor has examined how curcumin can be consumed to manage soreness and any ligament/joint damage.6 Sports such as rugby and cricket have been a focus because they are high-impact and often lead to muscle and joint injuries. The company is working on a case study of PEA use in rugby players to help manage pain and inflammation, specifically for those players with tendinopathy. Players who suffer from poor sleep patterns have also found PEA to help enhance sleep quality, likely due to its actions on the endocannabinoid system, reducing pain19 and promoting relaxation.20
Most interestingly, the use of PEA has helped reduce the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs),17 which are often heavily relied upon in sports. Longstanding evidence indicates NSAIDS produce adverse effects and cause gastric upsets,21 creating the need for a safer alternative. A recently completed study under peer review pre-publishing demonstrated PEA to be equivalent to ibuprofen in reducing headaches. In the study, PEA was in fact faster than ibuprofen when resolving severe headaches, indicating its potential as an alternative to help with recovery and enhance performance.
Curcumin and PEA are generating interesting data for the sports recovery market. Given their wide therapeutic indices and different mechanisms of action, these two nutrients offer attractive options for sports nutrition recovery formulations.
With knowledge in the field of exercise and nutrition, and further experience as a research fellow from the University of Oxford in England, Mariko Hill is responsible for new product development and business development at Gencor. As an international athlete, she has particular interest in the impact of nutrition on performance and recovery.
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