You naturally lose muscle mass as you age. No surprise here. But if you don’t resistance train, you’ll lose muscle tissue and strength at a faster rate than someone who works out with dumbbells, resistance bands, or barbells. Unfortunately, not everyone has the motivation to resistance train or exercise at all. This explains why there’s a growing epidemic of sarcopenia.
The Growing Problem of Sarcopenia
If you don’t know, sarcopenia is the loss of muscle tissue due to aging. Sarcopenia has a number of unwanted consequences. For one, weak muscles increase the risk of falling and fracturing a hip. It also reduces functionality.
At its most extreme, sarcopenia makes it hard to get up out of a chair as the fast-twitch muscle fibers that generate power atrophy. Sarcopenia also leads to a slower rate of fat-burning since muscle is more metabolically active relative to fat. In addition, it contributes to other health issues, like insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
The message: you need to hang on to as much muscle as you can! The tried and true way to do that is to work your muscles against resistance, using weights that challenge your muscles more than they’re accustomed to. When you lift heavy, you also give your bones a stimulus to lay down new bone tissue. That’s helpful for osteoporosis prevention. You often see osteoporosis and sarcopenia together – a double whammy. So, there is no substitute for weight training.
However, for those who rarely lift a weight, scientists are always researching other options. Just recently, a new study revealed that compounds in pomegranates may help preserve muscle tissue and strength.
Pomegranates for Aging Muscles
Pomegranates have been in the spotlight in the last few years due to their high levels of antioxidants. Pomegranates contain compounds called ellagitannins. What researchers in Switzerland found is gut bacteria turn these compounds into urolithin A. In turn, urolithin A does something pretty amazing with regard to cellular health. It helps recycle old mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells, into new, more functional ones.
Why is this important? Scientists believe that mitochondrial aging is a key factor in muscle aging. As mitochondria age and die, muscles become less functional. How does this come about? Mitochondria age when they’re exposed to free radicals and oxidative damage. The metabolic urolithin A, from the pomegranate fruit, may act as a strong antioxidant that protects the mitochondria from injury.
One way to potentially get the benefits of the antioxidants in pomegranates is to drink pomegranate juice. Unfortunately, not everyone processes the ellagitannins the same. For them to be effective, they have to be converted by gut bacteria to urolithin A. Some people are “high converters,” meaning they can easily do this while others are “low converters” and may not produce enough to make a difference. Researchers are hoping to develop a standardized urolithin A product so that even low converters can get the benefits.
Other Fruits contain Ellagitannins Too
Pomegranates don’t have a monopoly on ellagitannins. Other fruits and some nuts have respectable levels as well. Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, pecans, and walnuts contain fair amounts but raspberries are the best source. In fact, raspberries have more ellagitannins than pomegranate. As a bonus, studies show ellagitannins, the most potent being ellagic acid, helps block DNA mutations that trigger cancer. It also helps promote cancer cell death without harming normal cells. In addition, ellagic acid has anti-bacterial properties.
The question is how much of these foods do you need to consume to get the benefits? Obviously, there are lots of questions still to answer. Yet, you can’t go wrong eating berries. With regard to sugar content, berries are the lowest in natural sugar. Pomegranates are higher, especially if you drink the juice. In fact, a cup of pomegranate juice has around 31 grams of natural sugar. If you’re taking medications, talk to your doctor before drinking pomegranate juice. Drinking even modest amounts of pomegranate juice or grapefruit juice can increase the blood level of some medications, particularly statins.
Preserving Muscle Mass
Of course, no single intervention is likely enough to prevent loss of muscle tissue. Until we know more about the role ellagitannins play in preserving muscle tissue, the best approach is to resistance train and make sure you’re consuming enough protein and calories to avoid entering a catabolic state. Some studies suggest that getting more than the recommended 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (for sedentary people) helps boost protein synthesis in folks over the age of 60.
One particular amino acid in protein, leucine, is a potent stimulator of muscle protein synthesis. Leucine is one of the three branched-chain amino acids, the other two being valine and isoleucine. Bodybuilders often consume whey protein to get more branched-chain amino acids because of their muscle building capabilities.
In addition, there’s some evidence that consuming omega-3 fatty acids and getting enough vitamin D helps preserve muscle strength and mass. In fact, one study showed that 13 weeks of supplementation with leucine-enriched whey protein and vitamin D led to substantial improvements in lower body strength and muscle size in older adults with sarcopenia.
So, there are some interventions that can potentially help with sarcopenia. Yet none of them are likely to compare to resistance training. Muscles increase and maintain size and strength in response to overload. Combine resistance training with these other interventions and it may lead to even greater improvements in muscle strength and size.
The Bottom Line
There’s no substitute for moving your body and working it against resistance. Yet, diet is a factor as well – getting adequate protein, vitamin D, and omega-3s. Now, there may be another reason to eat more berries, the ellagitannins may protect your mitochondria against damage. This, in turn, may help rejuvenate aging muscles. More research is still needed in this area but, until then, eat a clean diet with enough protein and calories and, of course, keep lifting.
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