As we get older, our immune systems begin to malfunction, leading to inflammaging:
This condition is characterized by increased production of inflammatory cytokines, as well as lower immune function. Cortisol is produced to counteract the inflammation, and this has deleterious consequences as well.
Inflammaging and sarcopenia — loss of muscle mass — are closely linked:
It turns out that a number of things can be done to counteract sarcopenia. A recent study found, for instance, that old rats given ibuprofen had their anabolic resistance abolished, and restored their muscle mass to levels seen in younger rats. Their levels of muscle protein synthesis rose by 25%. The authors of the study make clear the connection between inflammation and anabolic resistance, noting that “inflammatory markers and cytokines levels were significantly improved in treated old rats”.
That may all be well and good, but does this work in humans? In Influence of acetaminophen and ibuprofen on skeletal muscle adaptations to resistance exercise in older adults, the researchers put older adults (mid sixties) on a resistance training program, and gave two groups of them either acetaminophen or ibuprofen. What happened next will shock you: those on the anti-inflammatory drugs gained more muscle and more strength than controls.
That did in fact shock me, because I’d read previously that anti-inflammatories reduced or eliminated the body’s response to resistance training — no pain, no gain.
In Faster, Higher, Stronger, Mark McClusky has more to say about NSAIDs:
Athletes love these drugs. A study of players in the 2002 and 2006 soccer World Cup found that more than half of them took an NSAID during the tournament. Ten percent of players overall were taking them before every match — on one squad, twenty-two of the twenty-three players were doing so. In endurance sports, ibuprofen use is so prevalent — up to half of competitors in one popular ultramarathon race took ibuprofen during the run — that it’s often known as “vitamin I.”
There are a couple of problems with this type of widespread use. The first is that taking ibuprofen before an event doesn’t help with performance. In fact, there have been studies that have shown that cyclists perform about 4.2 percent worse in a ten-mile time trial when they’ve taken ibuprofen before the effort as compared to a placebo. Furthermore, animal studies have shown that taking ibuprofen during training can lead to a reduction in the benefits you get from it — even if you increase your training volume, you don’t get the same results as you would without the ibuprofen. Ibuprofen seems to, paradoxically, increase the amount of inflammation seen in the body during exercise. And then there are the problems that chronic ibuprofen use can cause with the liver and gastrointestinal system.
Acetaminophen might be a different story, however. First of all, the drug operates differently than ibuprofen and other NSAIDs. It isn’t a strong anti-inflammatory, so it doesn’t have the same negative effects on training adaptation that ibuprofen does. More interesting, however, are the possible effects that acetaminophen might have if you take it before you exercise.
A study at the University of Exeter took a group of thirteen well-trained cyclists, gave them either a placebo or 1,500 mg of acetaminophen, and asked them to ride a ten-mile time trial. After taking the drug, riders were 2 percent faster than those who had gotten the placebo. But that’s not all. When the riders had taken acetaminophen, they rode at a higher heart rate and produced more lactate, but had the same perception of effort as when they took the placebo. That’s to say, the rode harder, but it didn’t feel like it.
The lab, led by Alexis Mauger, has gone on to show that acetaminophen also provided a group of recreational cyclists with an increase in sprint performance on the order of 5 percent, mostly because repeated sprints didn’t suffer as large a drop in performance as without the drug. And they have also shown that acetaminophen increases performance in hot (86 degrees Fahrenheit) conditions, by helping keep the riders’ core temperatures lower due to the drug’s antipyretic effects. The riders didn’t just feel cooler as they exercised; their bodies actually stayed cooler during the effort.