Epsom Salt Baths

Most times of the year, I schedule a workout 5 days a week. This gives me 3 or 4 days of strength training and 1 or 2 days of conditioning. Including a warm-up and cool-down, my workout takes just over one hour.

If I can find an hour everyday to workout, I can certainly find under an hour to go through some recovery techniques.

One recovery method previously discussed is foam rolling. Today, I’ll talk about my other favorite technique – taking an Epsom Salt bath.

Epsom salt consists of magnesium sulfate, a combination of magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen.

The planets water and soils used to contain far more magnesium, but due to overpopulation and unsustainable farming practices, the Earth’s stores have been greatly depleted. This in turn means that we are not consuming nearly as much magnesium as we once did.

Low magnesium levels can cause weakness, cramps, arrhythmias, anxiety, tremors, confusion, depression, hypertension, and seizures. Countless times I have seen clients eliminate foot cramps or difficulty sleeping by simply raising their magnesium levels.

Another cause of these symptoms is our high consumption of dairy and calcium fortified products. Magnesium and calcium work together in the body. Calcium causes muscles to contract while magnesium allows them to relax. Consuming massive amounts of calcium, without properly balancing magnesium levels accordingly, can contribute to tension, muscle tightness, and electrolyte imbalances.

Some choose to consume powdered or tablet forms of supplemental magnesium. Although this is effective for raising magnesium levels, oral bioavailability of magnesium varies greatly and high doses may have a laxative effect.

For this reason, on workout days, I spend a minimum of 15 minutes in a hot bath, with 1 cup of Epsom salt, before bed.

This is the perfect way to relax at the end of a long day. The hot water and magnesium relaxes the muscles while the still nature of the water and peaceful setting can greatly calm the mind.

Epsom salt is inexpensive and causes no dangerous side effects. The worst that may happen with soaking too long, or using excessive amounts of Epsom salt, would be lethargy or a heavy feeling in the limbs.

I have noticed that since I start incorporating this workout technique years ago, I recover from workouts sooner and fall asleep much faster.

Next time you’re at the store, spend a few dollars on a bag of Epsom salt and take a 15-minute bath that day. Let me know if your results are as worthwhile as mine!

Bath

Optimizing Sleep

In my post regarding recovery I mentioned the importance of sleep. With our busy lives, it’s easy to forgo the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. I’m sure many of you will agree that, after enough nights of only 4 to 6 hours of sleep, and enough caffeine, it’s not difficult to survive. But, even if you feel like you can perform just as well, there is no substitute for a full 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis.

Some of the benefits of adequate sleep include: recovery from exercise or injury; release of human growth hormone; improved immune system; healthy brain development; and improved memory function.

Below are some recommendations I find extremely helpful when trying to optimize my sleep quantity and quality.

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Room Darkening Shades – In my bedroom I have typical pull-down shades that are sufficient at blocking out stray car headlights. However, I also have fabric curtains that I draw over the shades to provide an even darker environment. This way, when the sun starts to rise in the early hours of the morning, I don’t wake up too early.

As night falls and the sky darkens, the body naturally starts producing melatonin, a hormone that maintains healthy circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycles) and also acts as an antioxidant. This brings us to the next tactic…

Eliminate Blue Light – Just as darkness will promote the release of melatonin, bright lights, particularly blue/white lights (such as the sun, fluorescent bulbs, or electronic screens), blocks its release in the brain.

The best thing to do is turn off all electronic devices an hour or two before bed. However, I know how difficult it is to get home at 7 or 8 at night and avoid relaxing in front of the television or responding to last minute e-mails. For this reason, I would recommend downloading “f.lux” for computers. This is a program that will adjust the color of the screen according to the time of day. It is free and runs as a benign background program.

Besides this download, I also use candles in my house at night. Not only will this help prepare my mind and body for sleep, it saves on electricity and creates a very comfortable environment.

Wind Down Ritual – This is one tactic that will require some experimentation. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that humans are “creatures of habit”. Just as regular release of melatonin will develop proper wake-sleep cycles, so will other habits or rituals.

Starting at around 8 PM every night, I roll on a foam roller to massage my muscles from the day. I usually listen to a fitness and nutrition podcast during this time as a substitute for watching television. Finally, I take a quick shower and occasionally have a cup of herbal tea (chamomile and mint blends are my favorite) with a teaspoon of magnesium.

By the time 9 or 10 rolls around, there is nothing I want to do more than lay down on my comfy mattress and crawl under my cool sheets.

Reduce Coffee Intake – Key word being “reduce”…I’d never be as bold as to suggest entirely eliminating coffee! I personally start every day with a cup of the darkest roast coffee I can find or a couple shots of espresso.

In terms of sleep, studies show that one cup of coffee consumed at noontime results in heightened cortisol at 10 PM. High levels of cortisol can have negative effects on the brain and body. An important note is that this study was conducted with decaffeinated coffee! This would suggest that it is not the caffeine content of the coffee that raises cortisol. Due to this fact, I’d recommend finishing your coffee with breakfast and switching to tea for the rest of the day (many teas contain compounds that actually lower stress).

White Noise – Finally, you can buy an inexpensive white noise machine or run a fan while you’re sleeping. This ambient noise will help block out disturbing sounds that may prevent you from falling asleep.  Just don’t forget to blackout any lights that these electronics may give off!

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There are plenty more things you could try, including meditation or melatonin supplementation, but these are the specific tactics I found most useful when developing healthy sleeping patterns. If you want any more methods tailored to your lifestyle, don’t hesitate to contact me directly!

Supplements

In last week’s post I touched upon the use of supplements to aid in recovery. I thought it may be helpful to discuss my professional opinion on certain supplements.

I always like to optimize my health and performance in the most natural ways possible – tinkering with diet, training, and recovery. However, I think some supplements are almost necessary due to our lifestyles and modern environment. There are other supplements that can push us beyond our genetic potential. Finally, there are supplements that are useless and sometimes dangerous.

Vitamin D – I believe this is necessary for anyone not living near the equator and spending 8 hours in the sun a day. Vitamin D appears to increase bone mineral density; decrease mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease; improve immune function; prevent multiple sclerosis; decrease inflammation; and play a role in almost every bodily function.

Have your vitamin D levels checked and supplement with 5,000-10,000 IU’s a day until your blood levels are above 60 nanograms per milliliter. At that point, maybe take 2,000 on the days you spend a significant time in the sun and 5,000 on the days you do not.

I recommend the NOW Foods brand. Vitamin D is fat-soluble meaning it must be suspended in oil. NOW Foods uses olive oil while most other brands use soy or corn oil (rather ironic considering the detrimental effects of these cheaper oils).

Magnesium – The Earths soil and waters have been depleted of magnesium over time, due in part to unsustainable agricultural practices. Also, calcium supplementation and fortification has skyrocketed over the past century, particularly in the United States. Calcium and magnesium interact to control blood pressure, muscle contraction and relaxation, and maintain healthy tissue (including bones). Most Americans now consume over 2 times as much calcium as magnesium when it should be the exact opposite.

The best sources of magnesium are green leafy vegetables, bone broth/chicken soup, small fish that still contain bones, and nuts. However, I have experienced such positive effects from a magnesium bath or teaspoon of Natural Calm before bed that I plan to continue supplementing. The only risk is, if you haven’t used it before, and consume too much, it will have a laxative effect.

Fish Oil – This has come under a great deal of fire recently. Fish is the best source of essential omega 3 counteract out the detrimental effects of a diet high in omega 6. We now know this is not the case.

If you recall my post about fats, omega 3 may be anti-inflammatory and essential for life but it is an unstable polyunsaturated fat. This means heating, transportation, storage, and exposure to light will risk oxidization and rancidity. For this reason, I consider fish oil a short-term option while people perfect their diet. I personally consume one teaspoon of Nordic Naturals fish oil on the days I don’t eat wild-caught fish and consume omega 6 rich nuts.

Digestive Enzymes – This is one supplement I still am on the fence about. The idea behind digestive enzymes is that they break down carbs, fats, and proteins. However, the breakdown of foods does not always increase assimilation.

People with legitimate digestive issues (GERD, gastroparesis, etc) may benefit from hydrochloric acid in digestive enzymes. I have not done enough research to recommend them for all, but I would suggest people with any issues review the anecdotal successes others have had.

On the days I am consuming excess calories, particularly from starches, I take NOW Foods Super Enzymes and have noticed far less bloating, gas, and trips to the bathroom.

Whey Protein Powder – The consumption of whey by athletes, particularly weightlifters, goes back decades. There are still debates regarding efficacy but, it is more insulinogenic and bioavailable than any whole food. This is useful for shuttling amino acids to fatigued muscles post workout. However, consuming anything that significantly spikes insulin on a regular basis is never a good idea.

For these reasons, I use one scoop of Optimum Nutrition whey after my workouts only during the months of the year I am trying to gain weight. The rest of the year, a meal of solid food, such as chicken and sweet potatoes, is perfect.

Creatine – This is another common “bodybuilder” supplement. Creatine is in every living animal and helps muscles function, particularly during short bursts of high intensity activity. It is formed in the body from 3 different amino acids and is also present, in small amounts, in raw meat.

Supplementing with creatine appears to increase power, strength, recovery, and intramuscular water retention. I am not using it at the moment because I want to get closer to my genetic potential first. But, this would be another sensible supplement to utilize in cycles.

There are some concerns amongst physicians regarding creatine but there are no proven risks associated with a 5 gram dose a day (except among those with renal impairment).

Amino Acids – These fall in the same category as creatine and whey protein powder. Amino acids are the foundation of protein and aid in muscle repair, neurotransmission, stimulation and relaxation, as well as many other functions.

I am currently relying on whole foods for amino acids but, certain combination of amino acids, particularly branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), seem to be beneficial for recovery and maintenance of muscle mass during periods of fasting.

This is by no means a complete list of available supplements…these are the ones I’ve experimented with and benefited from. There are many other things (high dose B vitamins, stimulant concoctions like Jack3d, and “mass gainers”) that are, at the best, a waste of money, and at the worst, very dangerous. If you have questions about a specific product, please post a comment or e-mail me requesting further evaluation.

In closing, I’ll quote a knowledgeable trainer I work with: “If one single element of your training or diet affects your performance a few percent, each single supplement will have a tenth of a percent affect.”

Recovery

Since the last few posts have been about nutrition, let’s switch gears and get back to the fitness side of things…specifically, recovery techniques.

If I could spend 2-3 hours a day, in the gym, lifting weights, I would. However, I’ve learned the body doesn’t make its progress in the gym. It’s the recovery…the rest and eventual return to a greater stimulus…that helps us reach health and fitness goals.

My favorite recovery techniques are as follows.

Walking – I believe walking is the best form of aerobic activity (swimming may be better but not always as convenient). The benefits of walking are too numerous to list but it certainly helps stretch, and increase blood flow, to recently trained muscles. Depending on your surroundings, you may benefit from the tranquility of nature and avoidance of the over-stimulation of modern life.

Stretching – Recent studies suggest “static” stretching (holding and gently pulling on or pushing against a muscle) does not increase flexibility or recovery and may even increase the risk of injury if done before a workout. However, I’ve experienced nothing but positive results when stretching after a workout or hot shower.

Mobility Work – Before working out, I use “dynamic” warm-up routines. These involve active motions, performed with little to no weight, engaging the same muscles as the exercises I’ll be performing that day. I do about 10 movements, for 5-10 reps, focused on upper or lower body. Some examples would be arm swings, bodyweight squats, or torso twists. On my recovery days, I do closer to 20 movements working all the major muscle groups of the body. I find this helps me feel agile and flexible for the day.

Foam Rolling – This may be one of my favorite recovery techniques…well, besides deep-tissue massage which is far more expensive. Most fitness stores have a variety of foam tubes that you can roll on to help massage your muscles. Start with something soft and work up to more firm tubes or PVC pipes. I recently bought a TriggerPoint that is made of metal. It is filled with water so it can be frozen to provide an ice-bath affect while massaging sore muscles.

Alternating Water Temperature – For centuries, athletes have used ice-baths to help recover from workouts. The science behind this is still uncertain but I swear by a shower alternating between progressively hotter and colder water. This seems to wake me up in the morning, relax and cool me off at bed, and make my muscles feel infinitely better.

Protein – That 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight will provide adequate amino acids for the muscles to rebuild after training. Try to consume a complete protein source within 30 minutes of your training session to jump-start the recovery process. Experiment with different intake levels but, keep in mind, if you are consuming more protein than your body can assimilate on a regular basis, it will be converted to carbs and start registering as a fuel rather than a nutrient for rebuilding.

Omega 3 – Remember all that talk about the anti-inflammatory nature of Omega 3’s and the inflammation caused by Omega 6’s? For that reason, try to maximize your intake of things like wild-caught fish and grass-fed beef while minimizing your intake of modern vegetable oils and nuts.

Carbs – Some carbs, like grains and legumes, are very inflammatory while others, like sweet potatoes and fruits, may be anti-inflammatory. Opt for higher quality carbs and consume enough to sustain your training. If you are doing high-intensity work, training multiple times a day, or trying to gain weight, more carbs, particularly starch, will be essential to recovery. Finally, try to consume the majority of your carbs post-workout. The muscles will be primed to absorb glucose and the carbs help transport amino acids and other nutrients post-workout.

Magnesium – I’ll eventually do an entire post about the use of dietary supplements but, to stay on recovery, I’ll just mention magnesium briefly. Magnesium helps the muscles relax and efficiently utilize glucose. To incorporate two recovery methods at once, take a hot bath with 1 cup of Epsom Salt (magnesium) for 15-30 minutes, and then rinse with cold water.

Sleep – This may be the most important yet overlooked aspect in recovery. It is during the first few hours of sleep that the greatest release of human growth hormone occurs. Try shutting down all electronics an hour or two before bed, use room-darkening shades, and set up a source of white noise such as a fan. Shoot for 8-10 hours of sleep a night. You may feel fine with 6 but try for a minimum of 8 and see how your body and mind performs.

These are the tactics I use on a regular basis. I think professional massages and meditation sessions are very valuable but haven’t had time to incorporate them into my daily routine.

Hopefully this post provides you with new ideas for optimizing your recovery. As always, contact me to let me know what did or did not work well for you, or if you want more specifics about these techniques.

Now make some time for rest & relaxation!