As early as your thirties, you start to lose muscle mass. This condition, called sarcopenia, causes the loss of up to five percent of muscle mass every decade thereafter.
Exactly why muscle loss happens isn’t known. But the results of a breakthrough study could help you keep your muscles in good shape for a lot longer. In fact, the future of your muscle strength might hinge on triggering an enzyme called AMPK.
Your body is constantly making and breaking down mitochondria, the “power plants” of cells, to meet your cellular energy needs. This process of clearing away damaged or old mitochondria is called mitophagy.
But as people get older, the way mitochondria behave starts to change. Damaged mitochondria start to build up in cells, and this contributes to the decline in muscle mass and function.
A review of research on loss of skeletal muscle mass that was published in the journal Integrative Medicine Research linked mitochondrial dysfunction to reduced mobility, a diminished quality of life, and an increased risk of fall-related injuries. If doctors could discover a way to prevent this process, it would be a boon for older folk.
Going for Gold
To investigate mitophagy, researchers from the University of Birmingham in England carried out a study using a new imaging tool that lights up healthy mitochondria as gold and those that are breaking down as red.
Through this tool they discovered that the enzyme AMPK plays a key role in the clearance of old and damaged mitochondria. But that’s not all AMPK does.
This enzyme is known as the master regulator of metabolism. Cells activate AMPK when they’re running low on energy. As well as stimulating metabolism, AMPK decreases inflammation, acts as an antioxidant, improves insulin sensitivity, increases blood flow, protects the heart, and helps deliver oxygen to cells. In insects, research shows AMPK lengthens lifespan.
The Birmingham group hope their AMPK discovery will lead to the development of a new drug to activate the enzyme and help people stay physically capable for longer. But you don’t have to wait for a drug– you can activate AMPK right now.
Boosting AMPK Naturally
Calorie restriction is one way to promote AMPK, but a more practical method is to work the muscles with exercise. Studies show high intensity workouts increase AMPK levels in healthy humans.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has become popular in recent years because you get more bang for your buck. According to California physician Bessie Jo Tillman, MD, just working the muscles 30 to 45 seconds at a time, resting for the same period, and then repeating several times in the same exercise session offers huge benefits in a mere 12 minutes per week.
What you eat can also increase your AMPK levels. Studies show water-soluble fiber activates this muscle-saving enzyme. Good sources are oats, barley, beans, peas, carrots, apples and citrus fruit.
Antioxidant polyphenols can activate this powerful enzyme, too. Top sources of antioxidant polyphenols are herbs and spices, nuts, seeds, olives, dark berries, chicory, red onion, spinach, broccoli, extra virgin olive oil, cocoa, tea and red wine.