7 Ways to Keep Muscle As You Age & Reduce Age-related Muscle Loss
Bad news first, sorry. Age-related muscle loss IS real. It affects every person lucky enough to live to old age.
Now the good news. There are MANY things that you can do to slow down or in some cases even reverse this process and keep muscle as you age.
Muscle loss with age – WHEN does it start?
We actually start losing muscle mass before the age of 40, and this process continues and speeds up after we turn 60.
If you are unlucky, or don’t take care of your body (follow the 7 steps below!), you can lose up to 40% of the muscle mass you had in your 20s by your 80s.
Age-related muscle loss = poor health (and shorter life)
Loss of muscle mass and strength in old age is not just about looks or vitality – research shows that it is closely linked to our overall health and longevity.
In other words the stronger your muscles the longer you are likely to live!
Lack of muscle strength has been linked to higher risk of many health conditions, from dementia and diabetes to heart disease. In people who ALREADY have those diseases, those with more muscle mass have a better chance of living longer.
On the other hand, those of us with the least amounts of muscle are at the greatest risk of dying prematurely from ALL causes.
Terminology – words related muscle loss
Sarcopenia is the medical name for the process of slow, age-related muscle loss.
The word anabolic is positive and relates to building and repair of muscle.
Catabolic means the opposite – breakdown of muscle. For example some hormones in our bodies have anabolic function, where they help grow new muscle, while some hormones are catabolic – their presence will speed up muscle loss.
WHY do we lose muscle as we get older?
Some of the age-related muscle loss is due to biological factors (see below) but some of it is self-inflicted – result of changes we make as we get older.
Although muscle loss is a natural part of ageing, it is made worse by inactivity. Our muscles need signals from our brain and body in order to remain strong and healthy. Physical activity is one of those signals. As we get older, we tend to move less, and so without that signal our muscles don’t ‘feel needed’ and they start to weaken and shrink in size.
Similarly, eating less – consuming less protein or liquids, will also make it harder to maintain muscle after we hit a certain age.
“The evidence…suggests that loss of muscle mass and function are not an inevitable consequence of the ageing process, and that dietary and lifestyle interventions may prevent or delay sarcopenia.” (Daily, 2022)
“The ability to retain muscle mass and strength in the upper decades of life … bodes well for our ability to intervene and prevent the functional declines experienced with sedentary ageing.” (Wroblevski, 2017)
Here are some of the known biological factors that contribute to the decline in elderly muscle mass and strength:
Ageing results in a significant decline in several hormones involved in muscle building and repair. For example, one study observed that the levels of testosterone and growth hormone in older men decline by about 15% in every decade of age.
In women, oestrogen, which plays a role in muscle repair and regeneration, declines after menopause. Anabolic insulin-like growth factor is associated with age in both men and women.
On the other hand our levels of catabolic (muscle breakdown) stress hormones like noradrenaline and cortisol get higher as we get older.
Inflammation (and vitamin D)
Ageing is characterised by the development of low-grade inflammation throughout the body. While a short-lasting inflammation can be very useful – for example as a defence against viruses, long-lasting inflammation can have many negative consequences.
Amongst other things, chronic inflammation can interfere in maintenance of our muscle cells and lead to a slow but progressive loss of muscle.
“We showed that development of Low Grade Inflammation during ageing may be responsible, at least in part, for the defect in muscle protein synthesis…control of Low Grade Inflammation in elderly may improve muscle protein synthesis and consequently slow down sarcopenia.” (Balage, 2010)
Persistent low level inflammation in older people is a result of many factors, and some of those factors are not yet well understood.
But one of those we do know about is the link between inflammation and low levels of Vitamin D (The importance of Vit D for our muscle function and health in general is explained in a later section).
Insulin resistance and glucose
Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas. Its role is to help your cells use glucose for energy and to regulate your blood sugar levels. ‘Insulin resistance’ is when your cells don’t respond properly to the insulin that is being released.
Insulin resistance could be described as a ‘signal failure’ – even though your pancreas is producing insulin and sending signals to the cells, the cells in your body do not respond and do not handle glucose as they should.
We tend to become more insulin resistant as we get older. Those of us who are more insulin-resistant, whose bodies do not handle glucose well, lose muscle at a much faster rate.
And there is worse!
Most of the glucose you get from food – mainly from carbohydrates and sugar – is deposited in your muscle. But if you already have low muscle tone, are not physically active and/or if you are insulin resistant (meaning your muscle cells don’t respond to insulin signals and don’t absorb the glucose that is now circulating in your blood), all this glucose gets converted into fat.
The good news is that the opposite is also true, as good glycemic (blood sugar) control in the elderly was shown to protect from muscle loss.
More than just about muscle size – quality matters too
As we get older our muscles also start to weaken for another reason: losing connection with the nervous system.
In order to function our muscles are ‘innervated’ – permeated by thousands of nerves that carry out instructions from the brain and the spinal cord. Those neurons tend to shorten and die off as we get older.
As fewer nerves are now running through our muscles, they can no longer give clear instructions.
So even if the muscles are large in size, unless they are ‘innervated’ and kept active through daily use, they will not be as strong and coordinated because they don’t get fully instructed by the nerves to carry out the tasks – how and when to move, or how strong to push.
Therefore, keeping our muscles strong, flexible and fully functional as we age is about more than ‘pumping’ them with volume.
So what can be done about it? What can you do to reduce age-related muscle loss and stay strong?
HOW To Keep Muscle As You Age – 7 Essential rules for muscle growth for seniors
Muscle loss can be avoided, or at least slowed down, if you are ready to make changes in lifestyle habits and the foods you eat. The key is to not only make the changes but to actually stick to them and make these new things part of your everyday life.
So here goes:
Number 1: Use it or Lose It
As mentioned previously if your muscles are not used they’ll get the message that they are ‘not needed’ and will start to shrink and weaken. So use them or lose them.
Resistance exercise, also called resistance training or strength training, is one of the best ways of preventing and reducing age-related muscle loss.
“Regular exercise is prophylactic against age-related functional decline, as exercise at any age stimulates protein synthesis and increased muscle mass and strength.” (Wroblewski, 2017)
Resistance training describes types of exercise where you use your muscles against resistance to build strength. The resistance can be provided by weights, elastic resistance bands, exercise bars or strength training machines.
Pushing against hard surfaces such as walls or the floor for example by doing squats, would also belong to resistance exercise.
There is now lots of clinical evidence that strength training improves muscle growth in senior people, even in the very old. One study investigated the effects of strength training in 8 women and 3 men who were aged 85 to 97!
“It is suggested that even the muscles of very elderly people can adapt to progressive resistance training and that, under conditions of full activation, the knee extensor muscles of elderly people might be able to approach the force-generating potential per unit of muscle achieved by young people.” (Harridge, 1999)
After 12 weeks of training the muscle volume and the amount of weight that could be lifted increased dramatically, as illustrated by the MRI images of a 92 year old male study participant, taken pre and post the training period:
This image shows the MRI images taken at the mid thigh region of a 92 year old man before and after 12 weeks of training. Quadriceps area increased by 44%
While many of these exercises can be learned online and can be done at home we recommend joining a gym, a local class, even getting a personal trainer (if you can afford one) for one simple reason: MOTIVATION.
Very few of us are able to self-motivate day after day, week after week.
If you are not one of those lucky few, get yourself in an environment where you will be pushed and motivated by others, and use home-based exercises for top up sessions only.
“Muscle strength improved with resistance training by 78% in the elderly to a similar extent as in the young participants (83.5%) and returned to baseline in both groups after eight weeks of not training. In conclusion, the capacity to gain muscle strength with resistance exercise training in elderly was not impaired, highlighting this as a potent tool to combat age-related loss of muscle function.” (Fritzen, 2020)
Best type of resistance training for ageing muscle? Weight lifting!
Lifting heavy weights is not just for bodybuilders.
Weight lifting can not only help grow muscle mass (as well as strengthen bones and tendons!) but new studies show that heavy weight training improves the connections between nerves and muscles in the elderly men and women, and protects the neurons in their spinal cord. Spinal cord is, of course, absolutely essential for a well-functioning body.
“Previously, researchers have been unable to prove that weight training can strengthen the connection between the motor neurons and the muscles. Our study is the first to present findings suggesting that this is indeed the case…The study shows that even though you begin late in life, you can still make a difference…. It is never too late – even if you are 65 or 70 years old. Your body can still benefit from heavy weight training” (Søndenbroe, 2022)
Weight training can help make sure your nerves and muscles continue to work together, and it is never too late to get started.
Distance running, cycling, swimming, nordic walking…any long duration physical activity will help with muscle strength and flexibility. But keep in mind endurance activities have been shown to NOT directly increase muscle volume in older people – when long distance running was compared to resistance exercise regime, resistance training won hands down in terms of increasing muscle SIZE in the elderly.
That is not to say that endurance exercise does not have a place in your fitness regime, or that it does not help strengthen and innervate muscles (see above). It certainly does.
Just make sure to combine endurance with strength training if your goal is to preserve and/or build muscle volume.
Other – yoga, tai chi, dance
Some types of yoga are physically demanding and will strengthen and build muscle. Even a lighter kind of yoga practice will be beneficial for building flexibility and balance.
Tai chi is an old Chinese non-competitive martial art that combines gentle physical movements with deep breathing and mindfulness. It is known for its health benefits, including developing muscle coordination and balance – for example one study has shown the benefits of tai chi practice for older age adults to be comparable, and in some ways even superior, to more rigorous zumba exercises. And when practised for a long time and at a higher level tai chi will help develop muscle strength too.
Another thing that is very effective at helping you maintain muscle and motor coordination is dance. Classical, modern, zumba, jazz dancing, or just moving around your house to your favourite tunes.
Besides being good for your body, dancing does great things to your mind too – a wonderful way to enjoy yourself and lower cortisol (see below).
“Ageing muscle is thus capable of not only getting stronger with short-term interventions initiated in the upper decades, but is able to maintain its strength and integrity across the lifespan with chronic exercise.” (Wroblewski, 2017)
Rule Number 2: Mind your diet – ‘More steak, less cake’
The battle of protein vs carbs
There are two main principles to follow here. The first one is that the older we are, the more protein we need. So make more space on your plate for protein packed foods.
The richest sources of protein are meat (especially red meat!), eggs, fish, cheese and yoghurt, followed by plant sources like quinoa, grains and pulses and nuts.
Recommended amounts of dietary protein per day vary from country to country but expert consensus groups state that older adults should consume AT LEAST 1.0–1.2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight.
For a person weighing 70 kg (or 11 stone/155 pounds) this comes to around 80g of protein per day. But if you weigh 82 kilos (approx 13 stone, or 180 pounds) you’ll need to consume 90g or more of protein per day.
“Our findings suggest that maintaining adequate protein intake with age may help preserve muscle mass and strength in adult men and women.” (Sahni, 2015)
“This study provides evidence that higher intakes of a variety of animal protein-source foods, and higher levels of physical activity were associated with higher levels of skeletal muscle mass…” (Bradlee, 2017)
To give you an idea of how this translates to everyday foods, an average-sized egg contains about 6–7 grams of protein, whereas a medium size steak will provide around 50-60 grams.
The second rule is that the older we are, the less our bodies need (or can cope with) carbohydrates, especially highly processed carbs like white bread, pasta and white rice.
In normal circumstances your body converts those carbohydrates you eat into glucose, and your muscles use that glucose for energy. But there is a catch. The older you are the more chance there is that your body cannot utilise that glucose very well for muscle energy, and will instead turn it into FAT. (see Insulin Resistance section above).
So make those carb portions smaller and whenever you can replace them with a small portion of potatoes or other starchy root vegetables (but NOT the deep fried kind!).
if you wish to maintain muscle mass and strength as you get older eat more meat and less wheat. More roasts, less toasts (love those rhymes!).
And stay away from foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats 👇
Sugar is NOT your friend
When it comes to sugar…while sugar is not good for anyone, it becomes your body’s enemy number one in older age.
The reasons for this are manyfold – from insulin resistance (again, see section above) and wreaking havoc with your glucose energy metabolism, to increasing chronic inflammation, to feeding no-so-friendly gut bacteria, you name it.
“Some of the metabolic alterations that are more prevalent during ageing could be related more with nutritional habits than to intrinsic ageing…high chronic intake of added sugars interacts with the ageing process, accelerates the accumulation of metabolic alterations, and that it should be avoided.” (Gatineau, 2017)
So remember the rhyme: more steak, less cake.
3: Good hydration is essential for muscle function!
Dehydration speeds up muscle loss, reduces benefits of exercise
Dehydration, or the lack of adequate amounts of water in our body, can negatively affect our health and fitness levels. It can lead to loss of physical strength, muscle injury and breakdown of muscle mass.
This is known to happen even in young athletes – one study observed that when trained and fit young men engaged in resistance exercise without being properly hydrated their workout didn’t trigger the normal hormonal response – the hormones that are used to grow muscle were not increased, as they usually would be. On the other hand the levels of catabolic (muscle wasting) hormones like cortisol DID increase.
“The prevalence of sarcopenia (muscle loss) in the elderly population was related to inadequate dietary water intake…Adequate water intake in the elderly should be recommended to prevent dehydration-related complications, including muscle loss.” (Yoo, 2018)
If you exercise in a dehydrated state you will not get the full benefits of the exercise, and your muscles will take much longer to recover.
Your body may be dehydrated even if YOU don’t FEEL thirsty
Our body sends us clues and signals that help us remain hydrated and regulate our temperature, such as feeling thirsty, hot or sweaty.
Unfortunately those signals may get blunted as we age, so even though our body may NEED water, we just might not FEEL like drinking.
This is true even when exercising and training hard – studies have shown that even when training in the heat older adults will not sweat as much, or get thirsty as much.
Hydration is not just about drinking water – mind your electrolytes too!
Electrolytes are minerals in our body – sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, chromium, phosphate, bicarbonate, that play an important role in many processes, including helping us to regulate the levels of water in the cells.
We get electrolytes through food and drink, and lose them through sweat and other bodily fluids – for example one of the main health dangers of vomiting or diarrhoea is the loss of electrolytes! Fasting or following certain types of diets, for example very low carbohydrate or ketogenic diets, will also lead to faster loss of electrolytes from the body.
Our body gets less efficient in maintaining electrolyte balance with time and so older people are at higher risk of having too little, or even too much, of some minerals. Sodium and magnesium deficiency are common in old age, but some people will have too much sodium, or too much potassium.
Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance include muscle cramps, nausea, headache, confusion, loss of balance, heart palpitations, diarrhoea or constipation, fatigue or weakness.
(If you suspect your electrolytes might be out of balance, ask your GP for an electrolyte test). The fastest way to replenish low levels of electrolytes is by increasing intake through specific foods – for example eating several bananas per day in cases of low potassium, or by taking electrolyte supplements.
4: Get good quality sleep
One of the changes we undergo as we get older is the change in the circadian rhythm – our internal body clock.
The amount and quality of our sleep influences many other things in our bodies, including the muscle!
A direct link between poor sleep quality and age-related muscle loss has been confirmed by many studies. This is hardly surprising – when you sleep, our bodies go into repair mode, and so a large chunk of repair and synthesis of muscle tissue happens during sleep.
“The sleep pattern is significantly associated with sarcopenia (muscle loss) risks in ageing adults. Improving inappropriate sleep behaviours in older adults is suggested to prevent a decline in muscle function and promote healthy ageing. (Huang, 2022)
”In older age, when regular sleep patterns are not attained, anabolic signalling pathways in skeletal muscle are down-regulated, contributing to a loss of lean mass and a predisposition to sarcopenia.” (Morrison, 2022)
5: Reduce stress and anxiety (high cortisol is another nasty enemy)
Cortisol is a hormone that we produce in response to stress and anxiety. While it is essential for a smooth functioning of our body, having too much cortisol, and over a longer period of time is bad for our health.
One of the negative consequences of high cortisol in older age is that it triggers and speeds up muscle loss – in the presence of cortisol, muscle cells ‘decrease their uptake and usage of glucose’ (in simple language this means less energy and strength in your muscles) and increase protein degradation (meaning more muscle breakdown).
Meditation, yoga, qi gong and deep breathing exercises are some of the things that are known to reduce stress and cortisol levels.
Taking long walks, if possible in the sun (see below) will not only help to reduce your stress cortisol and boost overall mood, but may also improve your sleep and appetite.
“Our findings suggest that three sessions of walking per week at either moderate or vigorous-intensity effectively alleviate depressive symptoms in older adults with insomnia.” (Chin, 2022)
6: Fresh Air and Sunshine – Vitamin D
The importance of vitamin D for our health and our muscles cannot be overstated, especially later in life.
Most of the vitamin D, almost 90%, is produced by our skin when we are exposed to sunlight and the rest of it we get from the diet. Unfortunately as we get older our skin is not as efficient at producing this vitamin as it once was. In addition to that, we tend to spend less time outside in the sun.
Vitamin D is crucial in so many processes in our body, including the synthesis of muscle proteins. It influences the building and breaking down of our muscles in many indirect ways too – low levels of Vitamin D will result in more inflammation in the body as well as shorter sleep and poorer sleep quality, since the production of sleep hormone melatonin relies on this vitamin.
So try to spend time in the sun as often as you can.
Other ways of boosting your vitamin D is by taking supplements and eating more of vitD rich foods, especially oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines.
7: Supplements & Vitamins for age-related muscle loss
Some do so in a direct way, by acting as anabolic muscle protein boosters, and some help in a more indirect way, for example by improving metabolism, lowering inflammation and levels of stress hormones.
We’ve divided them into several categories, but keep in mind that:
- Most of the supplements have more than one mode of action, meaning there is more than one way in which each one of them could work in your body – from protecting your muscle to improving the way your body handles glucose (muscle energy)
- Everyone is different, and reacts to things differently. What works well for one person may not work for the next, and the other way round
- When starting to take any supplements (or anything else!) for the first time, start one thing at a time. Otherwise you’ll never be sure what things work for you
- All of the supplements listed below have very good safety profiles and have been used by humans for decades or centuries, but always check with your doctor first if you have any medical condition or take long-term meds
- Always start low and slow – even with supplements that require initial high dose ‘loading phase’, such as creatine. It is always a good idea to take a smaller amount for the first few days, in case of intolerances or hidden allergies
Group 1. – Protein powder supplements
Not really supplements in the narrow meaning of the word, protein powders – or protein bars, chews etc, can help achieve your daily protein requirements.
Of all the different types of protein powders on the market, whey protein has the most complete profile of amino acids, which are the building blocks your body uses to make and repair muscle.
“Higher physical activity and lower body mass index were both independently associated with less functional decline in senior subjects…The greatest risk reductions were found among those with higher protein intakes combined with higher physical activity…This study demonstrates that high dietary protein intakes may slow functional decline in older adults.” (Mustafa, 2018)
That is not to say that other types of protein powders, such as soy, peat, casein and others, don’t have value too. It is just that you have to be mindful of what those other proteins might be missing, and possibly rotate them to achieve better balance.
The main advantages of whey protein alternatives is that they are more affordable than whey, which tends to be pricey, and that most of them are suitable for vegetarians.
Group 2. – Supplements that directly support ageing muscle
There are several supplements that can help repair and maintain muscle in seniors when taken alongside resistance exercise. Some of those belong to the category of amino acids, and some are herbal or plant extracts.
Two supplements with the strongest scientific evidence for boosting muscle effects of exercise in older people are creatine and HMB – in fact some studies have observed increases in muscle strength and mass when those were taken without training. (But don’t count on it!!! And besides, exercise is great for you in many other ways, not just keeping muscle.)
CREATINE: research shows that taking a creatine supplement can help increases muscle mass and strength in both younger and older individuals.
“Creatine-supplemented groups had significantly greater increases in lean tissue mass (p<0.00001), chest press strength (p=0.0002), and leg press strength (p=0.01) compared with placebo…Creatine might enhance energy stores…to allow better buffering of ATP during intense exercise…Creatine supplementation might enhance protein synthesis…reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. These mechanisms could explain the superior adaptation to resistance training when creatine is supplemented in older adults” (Chilibeck , 2017)
“Physicians should strongly consider advising older adults to supplement with creatine and to begin a resistance training regime in an effort to enhance skeletal muscle strength…resulting in enhanced quality of life.” (Dalbo, 2009)
Apart from helping fight muscle loss, other possible anti-aging benefits of creatine include improving memory and brain function, and lowering blood sugar.
Creatine may also help improve bone density in older people and reduce the risk of bone fractures.
In one study done in animals creatine was found to reduce the levels of a molecule called lipofuscin, a marker of the ageing process. The mice who had creatine added to their food lived almost 10% longer than the mice who were fed their normal food! This would translate to adding 7 years to human life!
HMB, full name beta hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate, is a substance produced by the body from dietary protein. However, our ability to make HMB from food declines with age.
Professional athletes have been supplementing HMB for decades to improve strength and fitness. Recently, it has been clinically proven to help non-athletes too, including older adults.
Similar to creatine, HMB was also shown in many studies to boost the effects of exercise for reducing age-related muscle loss. In addition to protecting the muscle, when used alongside strength training HMB was also observed to help reduce the amount of belly fat in older men.
“The findings of the present study indicate that HMB enhances strength and muscle quality in elderly men and women, thereby supporting its potential as a nutritional intervention to prevent muscle loss and its associated functional decline in people as they age.” (Stout, 2013)
“HMB supplementation has shown anti-catabolic effects along with increased strength, power and aerobic performance. Consumption of HMB resulted in the acute increase of muscle protein synthesis and suppressing muscle protein breakdown. The supplementation of HMB was also beneficial in preventing muscle loss…” (Kuriyan, 2016)
Several studies looked at the effects of HMB and creatine taken at the same time. The results suggest that they work well together and may boost each other’s effects.
Some of the other promising supplements with possible anabolic action in older age are: l-glutamine, l-arginine, l-carnitine, carnosine, N-acetyl cysteine NAC, and plant root extracts like maca, turmeric (curcumin) and ashwagandha.
Group 3. – Supplement and vitamins to lower stress & inflammation, improve sleep
MAGNESIUM: low levels of magnesium are commonly found in older people, and have been linked to low-grade inflammation and muscle dysfunction. Magnesium deficiency is also associated with glucose intolerance and insulin resistance (see previous sections).
Taking magnesium supplements can improve insulin sensitivity and calm systemic inflammation, and several studies have shown that magnesium can help improve sleep in older individuals.
One study in older women showed that magnesium supplementation alongside exercise resulted in better muscle and physical performance.
“Our results suggest that magnesium partially reverses sleep EEG and nocturnal neuroendocrine changes occurring during ageing..Magnesium supplementation brought about statistically significant increases in sleep time, sleep efficiency, concentration of serum melatonin, and also resulted in significant decrease in cortisol concentration.” (Held, 2022)
ASHWAGANDHA is a medicinal plant that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for many centuries. It has confirmed anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-stress effects.
“ The present study was carried out to observe the impact of Ashwagandha supplementation in the elderly population in augmenting better sleep and rejuvenation. The outcome…suggests significant improvement of sleep condition, mental alertness, and quality of life in participants who received Ashwagandha root extract in comparison to those who took a placebo.” (Kelgane, 2020)
Ashwagandha is also popular amongst athletes for its benefits in post workout muscle recovery and boosting cardiovascular fitness.
When researchers looked at the effects of ashwagandha on muscle deterioration in an animal study, they found that a very high protein diet enriched with ashwagandha was able to completely stop muscle loss in older animals.
“In this study, Ashwagandha decreased blood glucose levels and improved glucose tolerance … The best results in maintaining muscle mass and strength of the ageing muscle were elicited by Ashwagandha + Protein, probably due to the anabolic and adaptogenic effect of Ashwagandha, and the protein cocktail being complete in all nutrients required to power the muscle.” (Panda, 2021)
OMEGA 3 AND FISH OILS have strong anti-inflammatory action and have been shown in preliminary studies to have positive effects on muscle mass, muscle strength and muscle performance in seniors. These supplements also often contain vitamin D (see above on the importance of this vitamin).
MELATONIN is a sleep-controlling hormone that has shown benefits in animal studies for improving muscle tone and reducing fat in older animals. Melatonin is prescription-only medicine in the UK, but there are supplements that contain natural melatonin from plant sources.
“Nutritional interventions that reduce oxidation or inflammation in conjunction with higher protein intakes…may enhance the muscle protein synthesis..and either increase muscle mass or attenuate loss. In preliminary studies, antioxidant vitamins and amino acids with antioxidant or anti-inflammatory properties show potential to restore the anabolic response associated with protein ingestion.” (Cholewa, 2017)
Some of the other supplements and vitamins to help lower age-related inflammation: green tea extract, turmeric (curcumin), tart cherry extract, ginseng, resveratrol, quercetin.
8: (Bonus) Mind your gut!
WHAT has my gut to do with my muscles, we hear you ask. The answer will surprise you.
On gut bacteria, muscle loss and ‘gut–muscle axis’
Your gut is a host to millions of different types of bacteria, collectively called ‘gut microbiome’. Microbiome coexists with the rest of our body and is essential for your health. Any large disturbances in the balance, or amounts, of different types of gut bacteria will have big consequences for the rest of the body (including the brain!).
In recent years it has become obvious that one of the things that is strongly influenced by gut microbiome are our muscles!
This gut-muscle axis is becoming the ‘next big thing’ in sports sciences, as pro athletes and their trainers are realising that maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome is essential for athletic performance. And it works in reverse too, where physical activity influences the state of our gut:
“Several studies have confirmed a strong association between exercise and fitness and a healthy robust microbiome, suggesting that exercise may stimulate the growth of healthy gut microbes in addition to muscle” (Daily, 2022)
Unfortunately as we get older our microbiome tends to get ‘skewed’ out of balance, where we start to have very low levels of some of the good gut bacteria, and at the same time the amounts of some of the not so great bugs tend to increase.
Such alterations in the gut microbiome composition and function have been observed among older individuals with progressive muscle decline.
But HOW can this be, we hear you ask. Simple: all things are interconnected.
Muscle loss is linked to insulin resistance and inflammation. Inflammation, on the other hand, is associated with the lack of balance of gut bacteria and dysregulation of stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn worsens insulin resistance and muscle loss.
It also affects the way our body accumulates fat, so the worse (meaning less diverse and balanced) our microbiome the weaker and fatter we may get.
“A greater abundance of specific gut bacteria associated with increased protein synthesis, and overall metabolic health may be driven by protein and fibre consumption. This could counteract the development of sarcopenia and obesity.” (Prokopidis, 2020
“Intestinal permeability was associated with the loss of skeletal muscle strength…results indicated the importance of intestinal integrity in maintaining skeletal muscle strength in middle-aged and older adults.” (Li, 2022)
Gut microbiome is also closely involved in how we produce and use Vitamin D in the body, which in turn determines the production of sleep hormone melatonin. So if our gut is out of balance it will affect our sleep too!
Things that can help maintain healthy and balanced gut bacteria as we age:
- varied diet rich in fibre and protein, low in sugar and saturated fats
- exercise, sleep, and stress-lowering activities
- anti-inflammatory supplements (see above)
- fermented foods and drinks
- quality prebiotics and probiotics*
*Supplementation with some probiotics and prebiotics shows very promising results for stopping age-related muscle deterioration in animal studies, but we still don’t know if this is the same in humans, and no details exist on the best types of probiotics or dosages. But watch this space!
While muscle loss is a natural part of biological ageing, some of it is self-inflicted – as we get older we tend to use our muscles less, which speeds up their decline. We also tend to eat and drink less which leads to more muscle loss and weakness as our bodies will divert those few calories and fluids that we do consume to our vital organs to keep them going – organs like heart or liver. Muscles take the back seat.
Main takeaway points:
- Maintaining muscle in old age is NOT JUST ABOUT LOOKS – both muscle strength and volume are directly linked to your overall health and mortality – research has shown that individuals with less muscle mass and strength tend to die sooner
- There is A LOT YOU CAN DO to reduce, stop or even reverse age-related muscle loss and keep your strength as you age. And this is not just wishful thinking, but has been proven by scientific research over and over
- All things are INTERCONNECTED, and everything you do or eat will have an effect on more than one thing – better diet and regular exercise should improve sleep quality…better sleep in turn will influence your mood, appetite and energy levels, leading to improved motivation…better diet will influence your gut microbiome, which in turn will help you produce more vitamin D, which in turn will lower inflammation and stress and will help you produce more melatonin for better sleep etc…all of which will help you retain and build muscle strength
- Start small and start one thing at the time, but START TODAY, stay positive, and most important of all, do not give up.
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