We tend to think of muscle in the context of strength and aesthetics, but muscle is an incredibly active organ that has a lot to do with how we age and to a large extent, it determines the quality of life we carry with us throughout the years.
The Importance of Muscle
Muscle plays a regulatory role in several foundational processes in the body such as balancing hormones and keeping blood sugar stable. It is a primary site of fat burning and it plays a role in the metabolism of all macronutrients. This has vast implications on body composition and our baseline energy levels.
A key characteristic of muscle is the support it lends to the physical body- it creates stability and it is what enables us to move fluidly throughout space. A lesser known characteristic of muscle is that muscle is anti-inflammatory. Healthy muscle continually creates and releases anti-inflammatory compounds that have full body benefits and keep our immune system functioning properly.
Due to the characteristics of muscle, it is referred to as the organ of longevity. Building and maintaining muscle is an often overlooked key intervention point for preventing chronic illness and retaining the ability to to perform daily tasks as we get older.
As we age, it’s thought that we inevitably lose muscle. What research and a lot of anecdotal evidence shows us, is that while it can take a bit of extra effort- maintaining and building new muscle well into our 90s is available to us.
A Look at Sarcopenia
Sarcopenia is the term used to describe accelerated muscle loss resulting in loss of function. This condition impacts the ability to balance, is accompanied by reduced mobility and because of the functions of muscle- sarcopenia takes a toll on our overall health.
When someone has sarcopenia, there’s a decline in the ability to perform daily tasks such as sitting down and standing up, carrying groceries, mowing the lawn and getting dressed.
Beyond the loss of muscle, sarcopenia is accompanied by increased inflammation throughout the body, altered fat and carbohydrate metabolism and perhaps the largest concern with sarcopenia, is the negative impact we see on bone health.
Sarcopenia is a clinically diagnosable condition but the symptoms and outcomes associated with sarcopenia are seen in varying degrees with any loss of muscle mass. The less muscle we have, the more we are at risk for bone disorders such as osteoporosis, chronic illness, impaired mobility, inflammation and chronic pain.
Preventing sarcopenia and maintaining healthy muscle mass is one of the best things we can do to age well.
How do We Preserve Muscle Mass and Prevent Sarcopenia?
There are three main pillars when it comes to ensuring the preservation of muscle. They are: adequate protein intake, sufficient antioxidant intake and resistance training.
At the most basic level, muscles are made of protein and protein is needed to continually build muscle. Dietary protein exerts a protective effect on muscles, but we tend to see a downward trend in protein consumption the older a person gets. This coincides with the age at which we start to see pronounced muscle loss.
Protein requirements increase as we age to make up for the muscle tissue that is broken down at an accelerated rate.
The goal is to aim for at least 30g of protein per meal. If this seems like a difficult target to reach, try adding in a zinc supplement or a digestive enzyme. These help to increase the digestibility of protein and support the body in craving and digesting amounts conducive to muscle building.
Examples of good protein sources are: eggs, steak, ground beef, chicken, turkey, beans, lentils, tempeh and fish.
Oxidative stress is a well-known contributing factor to muscle breakdown. When the balance of free radicals to antioxidants becomes impaired we start to see an increased rate in muscle atrophy.
For this reason, research shows us that antioxidants protect muscle tissue and are a key component of restoring and preserving lean mass.
The changes that happen in the body leading to a loss of muscle tissue can be augmented through the management of oxidative stress. We can often see a reversal of muscle degeneration through the use of targeted antioxidant support alone.
There are several nutrients that are shown to prevent loss of lean muscle mass. Some of these include selenium, magnesium, b6 and vitamin c. We can obtain higher levels of these nutrients by choosing foods with high nutritional value, such as fruits and vegetables and quality protein sources.
Two specific nutrients that have profound effects on muscle are L-carnitine and astaxanthin
L-Carnitine is an amino acid found primarily in muscle tissue. It up-regulates muscle protein synthesis by triggering the creation of new muscle cells and it is well known that supplementing L-carnitine can help muscle cells regenerate, improving both muscle tone and physical function.
There are several studies on L-carnitine and muscle function. The most pertinent one is a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study that found 1.5mg of L-carnitine increased grip strength – the gold standard used to measure muscle strength.
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Next we have Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a nutrient that has been well documented in many facets of aging such as in reducing cholesterol, improving cardiovascular markers and preserving eyesight.
One clinical trial showed that the addition of astaxanthin to a customized walking routine that rotated through inclines in an elderly population increased muscle size, function and strength compared to the group who only walked.
Overall, research shows us that when it comes to muscle health astaxanthin helps to:
- Improves neuromuscular function, increasing the capacity for exercise
- It supports muscle growth and strength
- Suppresses the rate of muscle cell death
- Reduces free radicals in muscle tissue and improves mitochondrial function- a characteristic of healthy muscles
As mentioned, the third pillar of muscle health is resistance training. Resistance training on its own has been shown to have favorable effects on muscle health. When combined with adequate protein, L-carnitine and astaxanthin- the benefits of resistance training are potentiated.
Muscle is a dynamic tissue that in large part, determines how we are able to physically move through the world. It’s an often neglected organ because awareness of its many functions isn’t proficiently taught. Taking steps to increase and preserve lean muscle mass encourages health throughout the span, it reduces the risk of chronic disease and it markedly improves quality of life- now and into the future!
Author: Lisa Kowaly, CNP, B.Kin
Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended as medical device, too diagnose or treat. All supplements, dietary and lifestyle changes should be checked with your family physician.