Can Minding Your Muscles Improve Immune Health?

Research suggests muscle health may impact the immune system

Our immune system is always at work, protecting against unwanted microbes or infections. And while our immune system is always operating, it is not usually top of mind unless one is sick or trying to avoid a virus. Following good-health guidelines – like eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep – are natural ways to keep the immune system strong and healthy. But should we also be considering our muscle health when thinking about our immunity?

The Connection Between Muscles and the Immune System

Skeletal muscle accounts for about 40% of total body weight and contains at least 50% of all body proteins. Muscles are well-known for their role in movement, strength and energy. However, there is evidence suggesting a relationship between muscle and immune function as well. 

Muscles produce and release compounds which play an important role in the proliferation, activation and distribution of some immune cells. And while additional research is needed, data suggest loss of muscle mass is associated with compromised immunity and infections. Research in older adults has shown increased markers of inflammation associated with low muscle mass and muscle function.,, 
Immunity is affected if an older adult loses more than 10% of their  lean body mass, while a decrease of more than 30% can make them susceptible to pneumonia. Additionally, muscle is a major storage site for amino acids that are used by the body during a trauma or infection. 

Therefore, low muscle mass coupled with inadequate protein intake may affect the body’s response to an injury or infection.

Given the evidence linking muscle to the immune system, maintaining or improving muscle health should be a priority.3 

How to Maintain Muscle Health

Safeguarding muscle mass can be done with a few simple strategies – mainly focusing on physical activity and proper nutrition. This is especially important as we age. Adults 40+ can lose up to 8% of their muscle mass* per decade - a rate that can double after the age of 70.9 

The largest oral nutritional supplement (ONS) trial of its kind in Asia, SHIELD (Strengthening Health In ELDerly through nutrition) from Changi General Hospital, SingHealth Polyclinics and Abbott, conducted in Singapore, found that every one-year increase in age over the age of 65 was associated with a 13% higher odds of having low muscle mass.10 While the SHIELD study sheds light on who may be at higher risk for low muscle mass, it is also an important reminder for all of us of the importance of maintaining muscle as we age. To preserve muscles:

Engage in Regular Exercise: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, and include resistance training to also help maintain muscles and strength.

Eat Enough Protein: Incorporate protein foods, like chicken, seafood, eggs, beans or dairy into your diet, and aim for about 20-30 grams per meal. Adults 65 years and above may need up to 50% more protein than younger adults.11 To increase your protein intake further, add in protein snacks, like one before bed or supplement your diet if needed.

Eat Nutritious Meals: Eat lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains that contain proteins, healthy fats and key vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin D.

Consider HMB: HMB is a naturally occurring compound that supplementation has been shown to preserve muscle mass in healthy older adults. Along with exercise, HMB can also help improve muscle quality  and function in older adults.12 While HMB is naturally found in very small amounts in foods such as avocados, grapefruit, and catfish, it is hard to get enough HMB from food sources alone to achieve health benefits.13 That’s why it can be beneficial to take a nutritional supplement that has HMB.

Making an effort to maintain or improve muscle mass can have significant benefits on health. Many may immediately think of the role muscle can have on our strength and energy – especially as we age, but research points to its positive impact on the immune system as well.

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