By Dr. Mercola
Chronological aging begins at birth, and you can’t stop the clock from ticking. However, there’s also biological aging, and evidence suggests the aging of your cells can indeed be slowed, and in some cases even reversed. This is particularly true of muscle tissue, which can be regenerated even at an advanced age with the appropriate diet and exercise.
It may come as a surprise that muscle aging may start at a relatively young age. By the time you enter your third decade of life, age-related muscle decline may already have begun if you’ve neglected to take proactive steps to prevent it. Without intervention, you can lose an average of nearly seven pounds (three kilos) of muscle per decade.1
It’s important to realize that your daily activities play a key role in this process. What you eat, when you eat, and how you exercise all translate into gene activities that dictate the speed at which your body ages.
Why Maintaining Muscle Mass Is So Important
Typically as a muscle ages, it not only diminishes in size and strength, it also loses its aerobic capacity. A less obvious side effect is that this loss of muscle mass can also lead to an overall decline in metabolic function.
Indeed, the biological role of your muscles goes far beyond mobility. Your muscles are also responsible for keeping your metabolic system intact, and maintaining muscle mass helps protect you against metabolic and hormonal decline, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It also enhances your cognitive function and slows down the aging process. Given the biological and metabolic importance of your muscles, age-related muscle degradation can herald a significant health crisis.
In short, once muscle loss sets in, your health is on a steep downhill slope. Loss of muscle equates to a general loss of physical energy, a tendency to gain excess weight, enhanced vulnerability to disease, and accelerated aging. Not to mention the general loss of independence that comes with being too frail to move around unassisted. As noted by Dr. Murtaza Ahmed in an article on sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss):2
“... [D]uring our youth we have far more muscle than we need for everyday tasks.
We only require 30 percent of our strength to carry out all the important tasks of everyday living such as getting up from a chair or climbing a flight of stairs, so as our maximum strength decreases by 5 percent every so many years we remain oblivious as we can still carry out all our activities of daily living with ease.
The trouble comes when our maximum strength starts to decline to around 50 percent of what it was in our youth, and suddenly everything that used to feel easy suddenly becomes hard.
First you find it hard to carry out more strenuous tasks such as getting out of a car, but eventually simple tasks such as getting changed or combing hair become challenging.”
Sarcopenia also increases your risk of falling, which can have life threatening consequences. Falls are the most common cause of hip fractures among seniors, which carry great risks of complications and usually require prolonged specialized care. Fortunately, by making a few strategic changes to your lifestyle, you can significantly slow down or even reverse this chain reaction.
Insulin Resistance Promotes Muscle Wasting
First of all, it’s important to realize that maintaining healthy insulin sensitivity is part and parcel of maintaining healthy muscle and avoiding sarcopenia. As you age, insulin no longer prevents your muscle from breaking down between meals and overnight as it normally does when you're young. The same phenomenon occurs when you're insulin resistant or diabetic.
The mechanism responsible for this is called mTOR (Mammalian Target of Rapamycin), which is part of the insulin pathway. This is why insulin sensitivity is essential for proper protein building in your muscle. In short, to build muscle, the mTOR mechanism must be activated. If your insulin receptors are insensitive, this cannot occur, and muscle wasting becomes inevitable. The mTOR mechanism can be activated through both diet and exercise.
Whey protein is a highly beneficial dietary component as it not only increases GLP-1 — a satiety peptide that promotes healthy insulin secretion and helps your insulin work more effectively — it also boosts human growth hormone (HGH). High-intensity interval exercises and intermittent fasting also promote HGH production in your body.
The triple combination of doing high intensity exercises while fasting and consuming high-quality whey protein 30 minutes after your workout is one potent strategy for preventing insulin resistance and muscle wasting.
Another lifestyle factor to consider is sensible sun exposure, as vitamin D is critically important for muscle function. (It’s also essential for bone health, along with calcium and magnesium.) Vitamin D deficiency also raises your risk for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, regardless of your weight.
Whey Protein — A Potent Muscle Promoter
Amino acids are essential for healthy muscle, and perhaps one of the most important is leucine, found in a variety of animal foods, including dairy, beef, salmon, chicken, and eggs, just to name a few. Leucine serves multiple functions in your body, one of which is signaling the mTOR mechanism I just mentioned. This causes protein to be created and builds your muscle.
According to fitness expert Ori Hofmekler, author of Unlock Your Muscle Gene, the requirement for leucine to maintain body protein is 1 to 3 grams daily, but to really optimize its anabolic pathway, an estimated 8 to 16 grams a day may be required. You’d be hard-pressed to reach that level eating most foods — with one exception.
While you’d need to eat about 1.5 pounds of chicken or 0.5 pounds of raw cheddar cheese to get 8 grams of leucine from your diet, you only need 3 ounces of high-quality whey to reach the suggested amount, making it an ideal choice.
If you’re over the age of 50, you may also need to increase your protein intake to maintain optimal muscle protein synthesis. Recent research3 suggests older people may need about 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which is double the current RDA guideline.
That said, there is an upper limit to how much protein your body can actually use, so protein in and of itself is not a magic solution against sarcopenia. There are risks involved with eating too much protein, including an increased risk for cancer, so you don’t want to exclusively rely on protein to “save” your muscles. You still need strength training to actually build muscle, and if you have cancer, you need to be particularly cautious about consuming excessive amounts of protein.
Beware of Inferior Whey Products That May Do More Harm Than Good
There's no shortage of whey products on the market, but unfortunately most of them are of inferior quality and will not provide the health benefits associated with high-quality whey. Make sure you use a whey protein concentrate. Concentrates also contain glutamylcysteine, the major precursor to glutathione; another phenomenal anti-aging nutrient.
For the highest quality possible, opt for whey derived from raw milk cheese manufacturing. One of the most important components of whey is glycomacropeptides (GMP), which has potent immune-supporting components that also support healthy gut flora. However, only whey produced from raw milk can grant you these benefits. Other varieties do not.
Avoid whey protein isolates, as they lack valuable nutritional co-factors such as alkalizing minerals, naturally occurring vitamins and lipids — all of which are lost in the processing of the isolate. To ensure you're getting a high-quality product, make sure the whey you buy fulfills the following requirements:
Made from unpasteurized (raw) milk
Cold processed, since heat destroys whey's fragile molecular structure
Rich, creamy, full flavor
Sweetened naturally, not artificially, and without sugar
Highly digestible — look for medium chain fatty acids (MCTs), not long chain fatty acids
Compounds in Apple Peel and Green Tomatoes Help Prevent Muscle Wasting
Overall, your best dietary strategy is to eat real food, ideally organic and grass-fed, to avoid chemical exposures. Making sure you eat a varied diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can go a long way toward warding off premature aging. For example, researchers at the University of Iowa recently published findings4,5,6 showing that apple peel and green tomatoes can help prevent muscle loss by decreasing the activity of a protein called ATF4.
ATF4 is a transcription factor involved in a process that depletes muscle protein synthesis; apples and green tomatoes contain two compounds that reduce ATF4 activity, thereby allowing for normal synthesis of muscle proteins. The two compounds in question are ursolic acid and tomatidine, found in apples and green tomatoes respectively. As explained by senior author Christopher Adams:7
"By reducing ATF4 activity, ursolic acid and tomatidine allow skeletal muscle to recover from effects of aging.”
Elderly mice fed a diet containing either 0.05 percent tomatidine or 0.27 percent ursolic acid increased muscle mass by 10 percent and muscle quality by 30 percent in a mere two months. The effects were large enough to effectively restore muscle mass and strength to a level comparable to that of a young adult mouse. As noted by Tech Times:8
“Previous studies had shown the compounds could prevent serious muscle wasting association with malnutrition or an extremely sedentary lifestyle, while the new findings suggest they can also be effective in reducing age-related weakness and atrophy in muscles.”
Exercise Is Key to Preventing Loss of Muscle
Last but certainly not least, avoiding age-related muscle loss is difficult if not near impossible without regular exercise. Resistance or strength training is particularly important for the elderly. The American College of Sports Medicine, the American Heart Association, and the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recommend engaging in muscle strengthening activities targeting all major muscle groups at least two days per week.9
The video above discusses the many benefits of resistance training, and demonstrates a number of exercises you can do either at home or in a gym. I’ve also included a number of video demonstrations and written instructions in my recent “Easy Strength Training Moves for Seniors” article.
But what do you do if you’ve already lost a significant amount of muscle and are too weak or frail to engage in these types of exercises? Do not lose hope or give up! There are many seated exercises that can help you improve your balance and strength. In the video below, my mother demonstrates several such exercises. For written instructions and additional guidance, please see my previous article, “Basic Exercise Guide for Older Seniors and the Infirm.”
Sarcopenia Is Not an Inevitable Fate
While muscle loss is a natural effect associated with aging, it’s not an inevitable fate. A healthy and active 60 year old can have the muscle mass of a 30-year old, while a sedentary middle-aged person who eats a primarily processed food diet and struggles with insulin resistance or diabetes may have the muscle quality of a 70-year old...
Remember, eating real, whole foods and staying active are key, as both will help prevent insulin resistance. In terms of staying active, avoid sitting as much as possible and be sure to engage in resistance exercises. A potent trifecta of strategies that will boost muscle growth is to do high intensity exercises while fasted, and then consume high-quality whey protein after your workout to give your muscles the nutrients they need to rebuild.
But even if you’re too old to embark on such a program, there is still hope. Start with some of the seated strengthening exercises suggested in the video above, and work your way back. Even if you’re in your 70s or 80s, it’s not too late to achieve significant improvements.