How a handful of herbs helped me recover from muscle injury
On a sunny winter day, you’ll find me sitting at my favourite spot in the garden, enjoying the sun and nature at its entire splendour. For the first time, in many years, I can finally relax and let myself involve in the melody of black birds and blackcaps. By this time, they are already choosing their partners for nesting next spring.
It all started about 15 years ago, when I felt symptoms of muscle ache, first in my shoulder, then in the back until it spread all the way into my legs. Muscles became stiff, especially in the morning and late in the evening, as night approached. Every morning it took me at least one hour until I could start my daily tasks. And if I thought that it couldn’t get any worse, suddenly, one morning it did! I woke up with a nagging pain on my right shoulder and any small movement would make the pain even more intense. A few days later my upper arm was rigid and completely blocked. I had a frozen shoulder!
Physiotherapy proved to be the only way to regain muscle function for me to move my arm again.
The job of a physiotherapist depends mostly on the collaboration of the patient – so I was told! A frozen shoulder is one of the most painful muscle injuries and physiotherapy is thus very tortuous – a friend of mine fainted twice in physiotherapy sessions until she finally quit. I too, was about to quit after the second month of physiotherapy. I couldn’t bear the pain any more!
In the beginning, while repeating all the exercises at home, I used to tell myself: ”no pain, no gain”. Somehow it helped me keep going, but we do have our limits. If only there was a way to exercise the arm with less pain…
One day, after doing my daily exercises, I strolled down my garden for a deep breath. The scent of the aromatic herbs usually helps me relax and feel more invigorated. It was winter time, and among all the other plants and herbs, a few chili plants, in particular my favourite, rocoto, still carried a few fruits. I remembered of how rocoto had helped me in the past in overcoming a stomach inflammation caused by the H. pylori bacteria, and how I also frequently used it to treat bug bites. It suddenly occurred to me that I could try to rub it on my back to ease the pain. Without further ado, I picked up a chilli, cut it in pieces and macerated it in alcohol in a jar. Using a cotton ball I rubbed the chilli lotion on my back, in the injured area. At first, I felt a burning, but then surprise, surprise: it did not only relieve the pain, as it also allowed me to do my exercises with less effort.
The truth is capsaicin, the active substance in chilli peppers, induces the release of endorphins from the brain. These are hormones with a painkiller effect that give a feeling of happiness, euphoria and pleasure. Endorphins are also released when practicing exercise. The phrase ‘runners high’ comes from the euphoric sensation athletes have when they run. Capsaicin is also a muscle stimulant. Scientific studies have demonstrated that it not only improves exercise performance, but also reduces muscle pain after training.
Regardless, when in excessive amounts, chilli causes skin burning. Therefore, to prevent a chilli burn, the first time this lotion is rubbed on the skin it should be first diluted in water. Raise the dose of capsaicin slowly according to the capacity of enduring the heat.
In case this capsaicin preparation is used in excess, here is a first aid remedy to relieve burning:
Add 4 table spoons of sugar to 1/4 cup milk, mix it well, and wash the affected part of the skin several times until the pain subsides. Casein, the milk protein, binds to capsaicin and removes it. But, as capsaicin is spread on the skin in several layers, it is imperative to repeat this procedure a few times to eliminate layer by layer, until the burning stops. Adding some sugar to the milk reduces the intense burning of capsaicin on the skin.
The physical exercises I constantly did at home allowed me to keep going with physiotherapy until I could finally move my arm from top to bottom again.
Although the arm was moving fine, the frozen shoulder had done some damage to muscles in my back. I still had injured muscles hidden under severe calcification. As the pain subsided I stopped worrying. In the meanwhile I started feeling dizziness and a sensation of losing balance. Two years later, it went from bad to worse after I caught a virus (or was it a bacteria?). Symptoms of diarrhea, bowel pain, sore throat, cough and ear inflammation bothered me for a few days. When I thought I was finally getting better, all of a sudden, I felt weakened, my legs became unsteady and a few hours later I couldn’t walk!
I had lost strength in my legs! To walk a few steps I needed to hold on to my husband’s arm otherwise I could fall.
I felt disoriented with problems keeping balance. After consulting several doctors, who told me nothing was wrong with me, I decided to visit my physiotherapist again. It took me 2 years until muscles in my legs got stronger. However I still had difficulty keeping balance, the most frightening symptom I was experiencing. Falling asleep at night was a nightmare. I felt a pressure in my head, that seemed like my brain was going to burst, followed by breathing difficulties that felt as if I had a rope tied to my neck and it was getting tighter and tighter, choking me slowly. All this was very difficult to handle to the point of despair!
Not knowing what to do I managed to control inflammation by chewing a little piece of orange peel at night, when symptoms were more persistent. Using an ice pad on my neck helped to reduce inflammation. Orange peel had helped already some years ago to treat severe heartburn symptoms caused by inflammation in the esophagus. Again, orange peel was my SOS aid. Belching was the only side effect of chewing orange peel but it lasted for a short period of time. A few minutes later inflammation stopped and I felt better. A little piece, with the size of a table spoon, was enough to stop the inflammation.
Limonene, the main chemical component in oranges, is more concentrated in the peel. It has the capacity to stop inflammation in minutes and it further speeds the process of regenerating damaged tissues. Besides being a powerful anti-inflammatory, limonene is also a sedative acting in a similar way as benzodiazepines, on GABA receptors. In addition, limonene stimulates liver enzymes that eliminate toxins from the body, a characteristic that makes this oil one of the fastest tools to reduce symptoms of intoxication, caused by toxins produced in the process of inflammation.
One night, as I was watching TV, I started to feel inflammation coming into my head. Instinctively I stretched my neck to the left side and, for my surprise, I felt relieve for a short while.
Would it be that this inflammation was caused by my shoulder injuries? I did have some stiffness in the right side of the neck!
My physiotherapist confirmed my suspicion. And again, I started a long process of physiotherapy that needed a lot of hard work.
Last time I was in the gym with my physiotherapist doing exercises for the frozen shoulder, I had noticed that when muscles got loose it happened in a sort of a sequence, one after the other. As soon as one muscle got loose and flexible, I started feeling another inflammation which was caused by next muscle to treat. It seemed as if as soon one muscle loosens it stimulates the other on the line, in a certain order.
Depending on the muscle I was exercising I felt different sensations; some muscles were at first very rigid, I had to exercise slowly and very careful. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain for a few seconds only, but as soon as the muscle started to loosen and move normally, I felt an incredible sensation of relieve. Other muscles seemed like they were getting loose a little piece at a time, just like when we slowly rip off a bandage from the skin; it felt as if it was very tied and difficult to unglue. When muscles atrophied, they collapsed one over the other. I realized that to recover full function, I had to act as if I was playing Mikado, the pickup-sticks game, exercising one muscle at a time from top to bottom.
As night falls muscle inflammation gets worse and more painful. Inflamed muscles caused discomfort, as if something was constricting my back. This is also the time when muscles loosen more easily and regenerate. Most nights I had to exercise muscles until they became flexible and only then inflammation subsided and I could fall asleep.
In the meanwhile, I tried to get all the information I could to help me get better quicker.
– Muscles need glucose to function. Insulin is indispensable to carry glucose into muscles.
Taking that into account I used to make my daily exercises after the main meals in the day, when insulin is higher and glucose from food is more available. I attained much faster results.
I chose the right time to exercise, improved my diet, but still muscles were very stiff, just like rust on iron. It was taking too long to achieve my goal. If only there was a ‘WD-40’ ‘rust remover’-like lotion I could use to spread on muscles to reduce rigidity!
Maybe there is!
As we age muscle cells get resistant to insulin and, although our blood has plenty of glucose, it struggles to carry it into muscles. Herbs provide us with essential oils with the capacity of stimulating enzymes that induce the transport of glucose into muscles, instead of accumulating in the blood causing damage.
Limonene and menthol are two oils, extracted from oranges and peppermint respectively, that we can use to speed recovery. They work in synergy, potentiating in several times the effect of exercising, reducing inflammation at the same time.
– With a kitchen scraper I grated an orange and placed the rind in a jar with alcohol. With the help of a cotton ball, I rubbed this lotion on my right upper back, on injured muscles. For my surprise I woke up during the night feeling a sensation of discomfort on my back that dissipated as soon as I started moving my arm. Some muscles had suddenly got loose!
– I poured 2 drops of menthol, into two table spoons of alcohol and applied to the injured muscles. Immediately, I felt relieve from inflammation followed by a refreshing cooling sensation. Using this lotion before exercising made it easier and quicker for muscles to recover.
The fresh sensation we feel when we wash our teeth with a peppermint based tooth paste, is due to the stimulation of cold receptors in the body by menthol, the oil of peppermint. Menthol mimics the exposure of our skin to cold and makes the body react accordingly by inducing enzymes that stimulate blood flow to muscles to prevent damage from cold exposure. Applying menthol diluted in alcohol as a lotion to the skin relaxes blood vessels and more blood flows to muscles helping them recover from injury. Cold also reduces inflammation which makes this lotion a good choice to speed muscle damage recovery.
Both menthol and limonene applied alternately to the damaged muscles should be used before exercising muscles to prevent soreness and fatigue after exercise.
With time I got quite good at this ‘game’. First I rubbed my ‘WD-40’-like lotion (limonene and menthol), alternately on muscles, then I waited until I felt a tingling like sensation on my back, which allowed me to recognize the next muscle ‘on the line’ to loosen. This sensation is due to inflammation that always goes along with muscle regeneration. Sometimes before I could feel the muscle I felt first a pressure on my head that only subsided after I managed to gain plain flexibility of the affected muscle.
Exercising muscles one by one, making them more flexible, was my ‘homework’ which allowed me to continue with physiotherapy, facilitating the job of my physiotherapist and, as muscles were already flexible, I could go all the way until complete recovery, without feeling neither pain nor sore muscles.
In the process of healing my back I was curious to find out why this happened to me.
In my family, there is a history of arthritis with skeletal muscle calcification. Symptoms of muscle stiffness are worse at night and early in the morning. During the day inflammation slows down. I assumed that I too probably had arthritis, more precisely Ankylosing spondylitis which corresponds to all my symptoms.
In 90% of the cases in Ankylosing spondylitis, inflammation is caused by the gut bacteria, klebsiella pneumonia. Although this bacteria performs an important job in our bowel, in certain situations, when allowed to overgrow, it can be dangerous and cause serious diseases, affecting several organs such as lungs, muscles and kidneys.
In order to fight the bacteria I tried to know it better so I could prepare a strategy.
Klebsiella affects the liver by reducing its capacity to detoxify. People develop sensitivity to medicines and foods containing substances which become difficult for the liver to handle.
This explains why taking medicines always made me sick, with symptoms of intoxication.
klebsiella is an opportunistic bacteria that takes advantage of situations of stress. Stress disturbs digestion and some nutrients go undigested to the bowel were they feed bacteria. Sugars and starch in particular, are important food sources for gut bacteria such as klebsiella pneumoniae. The overgrown bacteria passes the gut barrier and spreads to other parts of the body.
Instinctively I avoided foods rich in starch such as potatoes and bread. Nevertheless I could eat some foods with starch if they were seasoned with garlic or butter, or both together, spread on bread, or as a sauce for potatoes. Butter and garlic both act on the bowel preventing the growth of klebsiella pneumoniae without affecting other gut bacteria.
Learning how herbs interact with food, helps us choose the right seasoning to face all kinds of disease. As seasonings, herbs have the power to change the way we metabolize carbohydrates, proteins and fat. Some seasonings can either facilitate the feeding of gut bacteria or inhibit them from using sugars.
In my researches I found out that klebsiella pneumoniae ‘steals’ choline from the body to use it as a protection against dehydration. With less choline there are many functions in the body that will slow down. Choline is the raw material for the body to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter necessary for muscles to contract and move increasing energy levels in muscles.
No wonder I was craving any sort of cakes with egg yolk frosting – beer, peanuts and in general, foods rich in choline. Finally I had found something that could help me and give pleasure at the same time. I realized my food cravings were just a way my body used to replace the missing nutrients.
Little by little, I was finding the missing pieces of this puzzle. Nevertheless there was another matter I had to have in consideration. I have learned, with my experience in the past with H. pylori, that when we attempt to fight bacteria we must expect it to fight back. The die-off symptoms can become more dangerous and frightening than before the death of the bacteria. In the case of klebsiella the die-off symptoms could damage the liver, kidneys and colon.
I will never forget inflammation from H. pylori die-off symptoms that resulted in severe damage and inflammation to my esophagus. This time, I was prepared!
Among a wide choice of medicinal herbs Artichoke caught my attention. It was the perfect herb to complement the action of limonene and menthol to regenerate muscles and fight klebsiella pneumonia at the same time.
Artichoke leaf is a rich source of cynaropicrin, a sesquiterpene lactone responsible for most of the bitter flavor of the herb. This component allows regeneration of tissues, hence it’s recognized as an anti-aging substance. As an anti-inflammatory, it reduces inflammation in the bowel caused by klebsiella, that otherwise would result in Colitis. In addition, artichoke activates enzymes in the body that allow the immune system to fight the bacteria more efficiently. It is also effective in reducing toxins in the blood that otherwise would cause liver and kidney damage. These toxins also cause high blood pressure and reduce blood flow to muscles, reducing energy levels and muscle regeneration.
What makes artichoke the perfect choice to handle klebsiella pneumonia toxins is that, besides helping the immune system to fight the bacteria, it further helps muscles recover by facilitating blood flow to them, boosts energy and overall prevents damage caused by toxins.
Artichoke leaf tea acts in synergy with menthol and limonene by reducing the excessive production of collagen characteristic of this type of arthritis.
To protect itself from the immune system klebsiella pneumonia produces a capsule that involves the bacteria, defending it from the action of the immune system, making useless the effort of the immune system to try destroying the bacteria. The capsule from klebsiella is formed of hyaluronic acid, a sticky substance our body uses on joints to keep them flexible, lubricate and make it easy for locomotion. In order to have hyaluronic acid available for protection, klebsiella stimulates enzymes that produce this acid. This causes excessive concentration of hyaluronic acid in the joints. Studies in people with ankylosing spondylitis show that hyaluronic acid is excessive in the joints and is the main cause of stiff muscles.
Along with muscle calcification, rosacea is another illness that I inherited from my family. Reading about skin inflammation due to rosacea, I learned that the inflammatory substances in rosacea reduce the accumulation of Hyaluronic acid. Maybe rosacea inflammation is a way the body tries to fight the bacteria, to keep it under control. Inhibiting inflammation in rosacea as a means to treat this disease is perhaps not a good idea. It is probably better to fight the bacteria first and then certainly the skin inflammation will also subside. One thing is certain: people with rosacea also suffer from muscle stiffness and lack of energy. In fact, making the minimum effort made me feel exhausted!
Now with 55 years of age, my head is clear, no more dizziness, no more brain fog and confusion. Having a chat with a friend or listening to music, before now, was very stressful for my dizzy and confusing mind. Most of the time, I was confined to my home. Little by little, with the help of my physiotherapist, my back muscles started regaining their full flexibility. Now I can work in my garden at ease without worrying about muscle soreness at the end of the day.
At the last stage of this whole process, I felt like a butterfly getting out of its pupa. Once outside, the new born butterfly needs to stay for a few hours in the sun until its wings unfold and straighten, gaining strength and flexibility; only then the butterfly finally flutters its wings and explores the world for the first time.