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The Gut-Muscle Connection

I haven’t focused on gut microbes, because they seem to add complexity with no substantial change in healthy eating patterns. That’s still true, but the gut-muscle connection is an important new development. Animal research suggests that keeping gut microbes healthy helps preserve muscle as we age. The apparent remedy is not new, but the application is.

Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter (August 2019) reported the new benefit:

A dietary pattern high in naturally high-fiber foods (and low in highly-processed refined foods) has many known health benefits—now we can add the possibility that it may even help keep us strong and fit.

*  * *

The strength, size, and function of our muscles tend to decline with age. Left unchecked, we lose of our independence and our quality of life suffers. Physical activity and strength training help to stem the decline. Nourishing our gut microbes to keep them healthy is emerging as a third factor in maintaining muscle strength and function with age.

Gut Microbes and Inflammation

The trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live in our intestinal tract are involved in many aspects of our bodily processes; research suggests that gut bacteria are tied to common diseases and conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, obesity, and depression. “Emerging research in mice and preliminary human studies suggest there may also be a connection between our gut microbiome and our muscles,” Michael S. Lustgarten, PhD, a scientist in the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, told Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter.

“The existence of a gut-muscle axis in human physiopathology is highly plausible, especially in aging and age related skeletal muscle wasting conditions,” scientists lead by A. Ticinesi (University of Parma, Department of Medicine and Surgery, Parma, Italy) added in the December 2018 German Journal of Sports Medicine.

Okay, but what’s the mechanism? How does it work?

Inflammation may be a key factor.

WebMD tells us that people with the ailments listed above are believed to have lower levels of certain anti-inflammatory gut bacteria. Age related changes in the gut microbiome could lead to increased inflammation, which in turn may contribute to loss of muscle. (We have about 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells.)

“Studies in rodents and pigs suggest several pathways by which gut bacteria may influence the change in muscle composition,” Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter tells us. “Several studies have demonstrated that feeding prebiotic [friendly] fibers to mice alters the gut microbiota in ways that decrease inflammation and potentially protect against age-related muscle atrophy.”

Healthline (January 28, 2019) agrees that diet is the first line of defense against inflammation in the gut. Reducing your intake of highly processed foods will set you on the path to improving the overall health of your gut.

The High-Fiber Angle  

Naturally fiber-rich foods are a key component of gut microbe health. Being untouched by digestion, fibers reach the lower intestines intact and nourish gut bacteria.

The recommendation of the Tufts Nutrition Letter will be familiar:  

Choose high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. These foods have health benefits in their own right, and help maintain healthy gut microbes which may play a role in muscle structure and function.

They caution that added fibers may not have the same general health benefits as the fibers found naturally in whole foods, and that many foods with added fiber may also have high levels of added sugar and/or salt.

Stay Strong Three Ways

Here's the bottom line: To keep your gut microbes happy and preserve muscle function with age, Stay Physically Active, Challenge Your Muscles--and Eat a Balanced Diet of High-Fiber Foods.

My Take

This is good news. Introducing a vast army of gut bacteria that must be cultivated with active living and healthy eating, it gives us all another reason to stay the course.

It reinforces my long avoidance of processed foods, in favor of a balanced diet of whole foods.

My Old Reliable cereal mixture--which includes six different whole grains
 combined with 3 times as much water in an automatic cooker--is a superb example of a high-fiber food.
Mixed with fruit, vegetables, nuts, and whole milk, it's filling without over-shooting calorie needs.
We now know that it also helps keep our gut microbes healthy and may play a role in muscle strength and function.

Photo by Laszlo

Another avenue of self-help, the Gut-Muscle Connection presents another area where we can help our self with little or no aid from health care providers.

August 1, 2019

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