Life Extension Magazine January 2007
By Will Brink
Nutritional Strategies for Optimizing Muscle Mass
Several nutrients, including creatine, vitamin D, and whey protein, have shown great promise in combating sarcopenia.
Creatine. The muscle atrophy commonly seen in older adults comes mainly from a loss of fast-twitch (Type II) muscle fibers that are recruited during high-intensity movements, such as weight lifting and sprinting. These are the fibers most profoundly affected by the dietary supplement creatine. Various studies have found that when creatine is given to older adults who are participating in resistance exercise training, it helps increase strength and lean body mass.13-15 According to one research group, creatine supplementation in older adults may help attenuate age-related loss of muscle strength as well as improve one’s ability to perform functional living tasks.14
Vitamin D. While scientists have long known that vitamin D plays an important role in bone health, recent studies suggest that it is also essential for maintaining muscle mass in aging people. Vitamin D helps preserve the Type II muscle fibers that are prone to atrophy in the elderly. Scientists recently noted that vitamin D helps support both muscle and bone tissue, and that low vitamin D levels seen in older adults may be associated with poor bone formation and muscle function. Thus, ensuring adequate vitamin D intake may help reduce the incidence of both osteoporosis and sarcopenia in aging people.16
Whey protein. Many older adults find it difficult to obtain enough high-quality protein from dietary sources. Whey protein, which is derived from dairy products, may help aging adults to optimize their protein intake and protect against muscle loss. Whey has an exceptionally high biological value—that is, it contains amino acids in proportions that are similar to those required by humans. Proteins with higher biological value generally are superior to lower-quality proteins in maintaining muscle mass. One study found whey protein to be especially effective in preserving lean body mass in older adults.17
Additional Nutrients of Interest
When developing a comprehensive supplement regimen to prevent or treat sarcopenia, several other nutrients deserve consideration. These include omega-3 fatty acids, carnitine compounds, and the amino acid glutamine. Although scientists have yet to study their specific effects in relation to sarcopenia, these nutrients have biological activities and mechanisms of action that suggest a potentially beneficial role in promoting healthy muscle mass.
For example, the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) has been found to preserve muscle mass under various physiological conditions.18 Like EPA, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) has anti-inflammatory effects, which scientists believe may be of value in managing sarcopenia.19,20
Carnitine formulations are known to help enhance athletic performance and may help promote healthy muscle mass in older adults who are prone to sarcopenia.21 Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body; in combination with resistance training, it has been reported to help increase muscle mass.22
Critical Importance of Exercise
Exercise is critically important in preventing and managing sarcopenia. Exercise stimulates the release of hormones that promote healthy muscle mass. These include growth hormone, which acts throughout the body, as well as local growth factors, such as mechano growth factor.3,23 Exercise helps combat the loss of essential muscle and bone seen with aging,24 and may enhance the effects of other interventions, such as hormone replacement therapy.
Although any exercise is better than no exercise, not all forms of exercise are equal. Aerobic exercise is great for the cardiovascular system and for keeping body fat levels low, but is only mildly effective in preserving the lean body mass you already have. When athletes want to increase lean mass, they use resistance training as their preferred method. Thus, engaging in some form of resistance training (using weights, machines, bands, or other devices) is essential for those seeking to preserve or increase their muscle mass. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines for resistance exercise for older adults, noting that in addition to building muscle, strength training can promote mobility, improve health-related fitness, and improve bone health.25
Millions of people will become weak and frail as they age due to severe loss of muscle mass. The good news is, you do not have to be one of them.
By adopting a regimen that includes dietary modifications, hormone replacement therapy as indicated, nutritional supplements, and exercise, it is possible to dramatically improve lean muscle mass at virtually any age. Optimizing muscle mass helps improve strength, functionality, and overall health and well-being, even into advanced age. Since it is far easier to prevent or slow the progression of muscle loss than it is to treat it later in life, it makes sense to begin your sarcopenia-prevention program today.
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