After menopause, your risk for developing a number of health issues goes up. We know that heart disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes top of the list of health concerns in women over 50, but there’s another epidemic that you hear less about – sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and strength that happens due to aging. Not only does sarcopenia change your body composition by gobbling up muscle tissue but it makes you less functional and more prone toward falling. Many of the frail, older adults that you see have significant loss of strength and muscle tissue.
What causes sarcopenia? Experts believe it’s partially driven by the hormonal changes that happen after menopause but you can also blame it on a sedentary lifestyle. You tend to lose a higher ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers with age and this magnifies the loss of strength and power. In addition, the decline in metabolically active muscle tissue slows your resting metabolic rate – a definite drawback when you’re trying to avoid weight gain. Plus, as you lose muscle mass and gain body fat, your risk of metabolic issues, including insulin resistance, goes up. Essentially sarcopenia creates conditions that increase your risk of other health problems.
Now that you know why you want to avoid sarcopenia, what can you do about it? The best prescription for avoiding it is exercise, particularly weight training. Encouragingly, a new study shows that a key nutrient may help you hang onto muscle mass after menopause. This nutrient is one you’re familiar with – vitamin D.
Vitamin D and Muscle Mass
Why vitamin D? According to a study published at the Annual Meeting of the North American Menopause Society, vitamin D may help women retain muscle after menopause. In the study, researchers gave one group of post-menopausal women a vitamin D3 supplement. Another set of women did not receive vitamin D3. At the beginning of the study, researchers used an imaging technique to determine how much muscle mass the participants had and repeated it at the end They also measured the strength of their hand grip and how easily they could rise from a chair. The latter test is a gauge of lower body strength and power. What they found was after nine months, the women who took the vitamin D3 supplement gained just over 25% muscle strength.
Another study looking at vitamin D supplementation (800 I.U. to 1,000 I.U. daily) in women over the age of 60 showed that supplementation was linked with improvements in strength and balance. Yet another meta-analysis of five randomized, controlled, trials linked vitamin D with improvements in muscle strength in young, healthy athletes as well. It showed that supplementing with vitamin D3, but not vitamin D2, in doses ranging from 600 I.U. to 5000 I.U. daily improved muscle strength. The improvements ranged from 1.37% to 18.75%.
Unfortunately, vitamin D2, the form of vitamin D in some supplements, showed no benefits. Vitamin D2 is not quickly or easily metabolized into an active form your body can use. That’s why vitamin D3 is the type experts recommend and is similar to what your own body makes when you expose your skin to sunlight. In contrast, vitamin D2 is derived from fungi. Vitamin D3 also has a longer half-life, meaning it stays in your body longer. This helps to maintain vitamin D levels better.
Vitamin D Supplements vs. Food vs. Sunlight
How does your body make vitamin D3 when you expose your skin to sunlight? You have a molecule called 7-dehydrocholesterol on the surface of your skin. When light strikes your skin surface, 7-dehydrocholesterol is converted to a vitamin D precursor. Your liver and kidneys, in turn, transform the precursor into active vitamin D. You must expose your skin to sunlight regularly to make enough vitamin D for health, at least 10 minutes four or five days a week. That’s a problem for some people, especially those who live in Northern latitudes. In addition, the ability to make vitamin D declines with age and with increasing body weight. Plus, if you have darkly pigmented skin, you need more sunlight exposure to produce sufficient amounts of vitamin D. Armed with this information, it’s not hard to see why up to 75% of the population is either deficient in vitamin D or borderline low.
You might wonder whether a diet is a good source of vitamin D. You won’t find vitamin D naturally in most foods. Eggs and wild-caught salmon have a modest amount but eating these foods alone is unlikely to be enough to maintain a healthy vitamin D level. You still need sunlight exposure to fill in the gap. Some foods, such as yogurt, milk, milk alternatives, and cereal, are fortified with vitamin D, but unless you eat them consistently, they’re unlikely to be enough.
That’s why supplementation is often necessary for people with a deficiency. Do you fall into this class? Before reaching for a supplement, find out what your vitamin D status is. Ask your doctor to check a blood level of vitamin D. Knowing your level will help you decide whether you need a supplement and how much you need to take to get your level up. It’s best not to blindly take a supplement without knowing where you stand.
Other Reasons to Follow Your Vitamin D Status
Vitamin D helps regulate thousands of genes that impact your health. Most cells and tissues in your body have receptors for vitamin D, so it must be important. We know it plays a role in bone health. Plus, it also helps balance your immune system and may protect against some forms of cancer. As this new study shows, it may help preserve muscle strength and mass after menopause so you can counteract the frailty that goes with sarcopenia.
You need an adequate vitamin D level for so many reasons. Now, there’s one more to add to the list.
Knowledge Science Report. “Vitamin D Supplements Can Help Women Build Muscle after Menopause”
J Am Geriatr Soc. 2011;59(12):2291-2300.
Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2012 Nov; 24(6): 623–627.
Science Daily. “Low and high vitamin D levels in older women associated with increased likelihood of frailty”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. “Effects of Vitamin D Supplementation on Muscle Strength in Athletes A Systematic Review” June 28, 2016.
Medscape.com. “Vitamin D: A Rapid Review”
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