Here you are holding onto the chair’s handles to stand. Walking feels like you’re moving the weight of two people instead of one.  The heaviness in your legs makes the boot camp, run or resistance training session sluggish and painful. Tylenol or Advil is waiting for you! But which anti-inflammatory drug is better?

Tylenol will help with the pain while Advil will decrease inflammation and pain. So, Advil is the obvious choice, right? Before we tackle that question, let’s take a step back. Isn’t it odd that while working out will improve your health, but you find yourself reaching for drugs to cope with the pain?

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Actually neither medication is safer than the other since both act differently in the body. Both have several health consequences when taken indiscriminately. Additionally, unless you exceed your muscle-joint capabilities with an injury outcome; some muscle pain will be actually good to bear.

No discrimination

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are among the most prescribed pills to aid with the pain and inflammation.  Two types of NSAIDs are widely sold: selective and non-selective.  Even though both inhibit an important enzyme: cyclooxygenase (COX), selective NSAIDs will block COX-2 while non-selective will inhibit both COX-1 and COX-2.

The ever-so-popular Ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil) will inhibit the two COX enzymes while Celebrex will block one, COX-2. Either way, they both carry significant risk and this is because when tissue is damaged, there is an inflammation response where prostanglandines are released by the cells. NSAIDs help to decrease inflammation by blocking COX which stops prostanglandine secretion.

Heather Gillespie, M.D, M.P.H, UCLA Sports Medicine Physician, explains that while COX-2 plays a larger role in decreasing inflammation; COX-1 is involved in the integrity of the gastrointestinal system and renal tract, platelet function and overall homeostasis regulation (the process that stops bleeding).

Since none of the NSAIDs is absolutely selective for COX-2, the health risks of popping these drugs after your workout are many. Some people have even been known to take these drugs even before lifting any dumbbells or running just as a “preventive” measure.

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The increase risk of GI bleeding, acute renal failure and even have some cardiovascular issues can be very real. “NSAIDs may be associated with slower bone healing. There is a suggestion that COX-2 and prostanglandins are important in the body’s synthesis of collagen, an important soft tissue component,” says Gillespie.

Don’t reach for Tylenol yet!

Have you ever wondered why when you run a marathon, you are advised not to take an ibuprofen? NSAIDs has also been found to be a risk factor in the development of hyponatremia, electrolyte disturbance in where sodium gets below the normal levels after long distance endurance events, according to Gillespie.

Thus is case for Tylenol. “You get a decreased GI effect when taking Tylenol, but there is a liver risk. However, in general, it is a safer medication. People say it doesn’t help as much for the pain – it doesn’t have same anti-inflammatory properties- but it does help with the pain,” says Gillespie.

Embrace the pain

So, if it’s best to avoid these medicines, what’s an alternative way to cope with post-workout pain?

First of all, when you work out there is a process of tissue remodeling which brings in some inflammation but there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, this is the outcome of important exercise adaptations – better aerobic and anaerobic cell muscle capacity.

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Taking a drug or even something as antioxidants pills could actually hinder the physiological exercise benefits. “It was recently reported that the adaptations to up-regulate the antioxidant defense system was inhibited by taking antioxidant vitamins during the training program. In addition, taking antioxidants vitamins was note to prevent training-induced enhanced glucose transport to the cells,” emphasizes Allan H. Goldfarb, Ph.D, FACSM, FNAK, professor at the University of North Carolina.

What’s left out to ease the pain, then?

The answer to this question may be in your kitchen. Food won’t do magic and certainly won’t act as fast as Advil but when eating the right ones on a regular basis, it’ll definitely help. It best to get plenty of antioxidants through a healthy diet when compared to all the other unnatural ingredients found in the little plastic bottle.

This is a quick grocery shopping list:

- Omega 3 fatty acids found in salmon, flaxseeds and walnuts seeds have shown to decrease inflammation in several studies.

- Extra-virgin oil may act as natural NSAIDs according to the University of Pennsylvania. The chemical oleocanthal seems to inhibit both COX enzymes.

- Promegranates contain natural powerful antioxidants that may help to decrease muscle soreness as scientists found in a study from University of Texas.

- The flavonid quercitin, found in apples, tea, broccoli, wine, onions and red grapes has been reported to fight free radical damage.

- Orange, kiwi, sweet pepper, and strawberries should be a staple in your diet. They are rich in vitamin C which is essential for collagen making.

- Dark chocolate and strong Arabica coffee provides plenty of antioxidants to prevent the free radical damage.

- Turmeric and ginger have shown anti-inflammatory properties in healing joints and muscles.

If you definitely need to take NSAIDs, Gillespie recommends using the minimal dose for a minimal duration to limit the side effects. And, regardless, beware of pro-inflammatory food such as sugar and excess omega 6-fatty acids.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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