Dr. William Wong, ND, PhD.
Most of us in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine during the 1970’s and 80’s had supposed that the monumental achievements of the totalitarian Communist countries in Olympic sport had been solely the result of their widespread use of drugs, anti inflammatory cortico steroids, growth enhancing drugs such as Human Growth Hormone, Thyroid hormone, IGF 1 hormone and muscle building anabolic steroids. (1). And indeed the uses of these drugs and other medical techniques to improve performance, such as blood doping, was standard practice in the Eastern Block sports institutes.
But some pieces of information were missing. It was no wonder that a country as vast as the Soviet Union could field extensive sports teams with star athletes in most every different sport. The old Soviet Union had over 100 nationalities in their country and enough genetic diversity that a gene type (body type) could be found to fit into most any sport. But what was puzzling was the ability of small countries like East Germany and Romania, with their limited genetic variations, to field powerhouse teams that could steamroll the best of what the rest of the world had to offer in certain events. How did they do it?
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism many of the eastern European and Russian sports scientists, sports physicians, exercise physiologists and coaches came out of the cold and went to the greener pastures of the West, bringing with them their tried and true training techniques and telling of the constant experimentation done with drugs and nutritional supplements in the persistent effort to improve performance and reactions to training.
During the first year of German reunification a business luncheon was given by the government where West German nutritional and pharmaceutical manufacturers were introduced to their counterparts and physicians from the old East Germany. It was there that Dr. Karl Ransberger; owner of an enzyme pharmaceutical company near Munich met a man who claimed to be one of the leading doctors in the East German Sports program. On hearing who Dr. Ransberger represented, the sports doctor commenced to tell the West Germans a story. The tale ran something like this: Tired with the performance deteriorating side effects of the cortico steroid drugs they used to control training induced inflammation in their athletes East German and Russian sports docs were looking for a way to naturally control inflammation that was 1) non toxic, 2) had none of the side effects of the cortisone or the kidney and liver killing effects of the aspirin and ibuprofen.
They heard of research that had been done fighting inflammation with the use of proteolytic systemic (body wide) enzyme product Dr. Ransberger was making and arranged to surreptitiously purchase lots of the product for testing. To the delight of the Communist docs the enzymes worked to not only lower inflammation with out side effect, they also increased the rate of healing and recovery from the injury, the enzymes ate away at restrictive scar tissue from previous injuries or from the accumulation of micro trauma. But the effect that knocked their socks off was the effect of increasing muscle density and strength in their athletes. They figured out the effect was caused by something called protein sparing.
Protein sparing means that muscle mass loss is curtailed. Severe training, as the eastern block athletes did 8 hours + per day in conditioning and skills, 5 or more days per week created catabolism, a break down of muscle and increased inflammation which elicits a response by the body in an attempt to lower inflammation. In this response the adrenal glands release the natural anti inflammation hormone cortisol. Cortisol like it’s drug cousin cortisone eats away at muscle mass. This protein sparing effect was first noted by West German oncologists when enzymes were used to improve the effects of chemotherapy. Patients taking chemo usually waste away. Those chemo patients who were treated with the enzymes, (to reduce the side effects of the chemo and strip away the fibrous outer layer of the cancer allowing the chemo to enter the sick cells better), were found to not lose as much weight and retained their strength better thorough out the course of the chemo therapy. (2,3,4).
In both the case of the cancer patient and the hard training athlete the enzymes prevented the loss of much muscle tissue. An added plus was found from the enzymes. The enzymes greatly improved digestion and absorption of nutrients from food which also preserved muscle mass in the cancer patient while in athletes accelerated the rate of muscle growth.
The East German physician reminded Dr. Ransberger that in 1973 the International Olympic committee banned completely the use of cortisone drugs in amateur athletics. The Eastern Block, he said, didn’t miss a beat; they had already forsaken the damaging cortico steroids drugs for the enzymes. Their athletes were not only healthier for it they were stronger. So much so that the doctors were able to lower the amount of anabolic steroids administered to the athletes. That and the development of testosterone producing Androstene by the East Germans by 1975 allowed for an even further lowered use of anabolic drugs but that’s for another story.
What does this story mean for us? In the process of Catabolism (the opposite of Anabolism) the body breaks down muscle. This break down happens from micro trauma, which occurs from all the stress of all physical training. Secondary to this, the inflammation created by training causes the body to release cortisol in an attempt to reduce the inflammation. Cortisol, it is widely recognized, eats away at muscle and creates body fat. We can’t do a thing about the micro trauma caused by exercise, that’s part of the stimulus / response mechanism from training. If you’re not creating some micro trauma during training you’re not training hard enough. The body adapts and gets stronger in response to the stimulus of the training and the inability of the muscles at that point to cope with the breakdown and micro trauma. The response is for the body to build a larger denser muscle that can deal with the stress placed upon it. That’s when we increase the stress (resistance) and start the process anew in a continuous cycle.
While we can’t do a thing about the micro trauma, we can do something to lower post training inflammation and our body’s cortisol response to that inflammation. By harnessing the well known and recognized anti inflammatory effect (5,6,7), of the enzymes the cortisol response of the body can be lowered or eliminated altogether and with it eliminating is eliminated the catabolic effect of cortisol.
A word is needed here about sport / exercise based inflammation. Most of us think of inflammation in terms of joints and muscles. Until the late 1990’s. It was then that a large number of “30 and 40 something’s”, who were hard charging business types and hard charging exercise fanatics, dropped stone cold dead from dry strokes or heart attacks. They did not have a lick of arterial plaque; they all had wonderful cholesterol readings, all worked out and ran several times per week. By the medical standards of the early 90’s these men were as strong and fit as racehorses and would live forever. But they didn’t. Turns out that the stress of business and the stress of exercise both create inflammation not so much in the joints but in the blood vessels and heart. Inflammation that shut down the blood vessels as surely or better than arterial plaque could. Today’s understanding of heart and vascular disease holds inflammation to be the #1 cause of strokes and heart attacks as well as being the causative precursor to such things as diabetes, Alzheimers and cancer!
Fighting inflammation with the usual array of Cox 1 (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen etc and Cox 2 (Vioxx and Celebrex) creates life-threatening problems of their own. According to the July 1999 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine these drugs kill on average 20,000 Americans a year and if listed as it own classification would be the 20th leading cause of death in the country! (8). According to the April 19, 1999 Wall Street Journal, these drugs not only kill the mentioned 20,000 but land another 100,000 in the hospital with the side effects of those drugs: liver damage, kidney damage and intestinal hemorrhage. As the East Germans, Russian and lately the NBA with Alonzo Mourning found, these drugs are definitely not the way to go for long term anti inflammation.
So it turns out one of the drug secrets of the old Iron Curtain powerhouses wasn’t a drug at all! It was a mixture of natural protein cleaving enzymes, the use of which actually allowed for lowered drug use in terms of anti-inflammatory drugs and of anabolic steroids. Today most every European Olympic team uses systemic proteolytic enzymes, as do most all of the European sports teams. In
the US several NBA, NFL, and individual professional athletes have switched to systemic enzymes as their primary anti inflammatory and the other benefits are a plus. Worth a try don’t you think?
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