Muscle wasting has become a condition that is now more common than ever. With our sedentary lifestyle, we don’t exercise enough to stimulate our musculoskeletal system. This can have a severely negative impact on our health as we age.
In this post, we’ll look at what causes muscle mass loss, how you can tell whether you’re beginning to suffer from it, if it can be treated, and how it can be prevented.
Causes of muscle mass loss
Muscle mass loss can be caused by a variety of factors. Some of them are actual medical conditions that require pharmaceutical or alternative treatment. But there are others that can lead to the development of this health problem.
1. Lifestyle causes
As one ages, one loses some muscle mass, which will be replaced with fatty tissue. People who don’t exercise are more predisposed to developing early muscle mass loss. Physical activity has been found to strengthen pretty much all the muscles, depending on the kind of activity.
However, that doesn’t mean that all exercise is perfect. If you run a marathon, for example, your legs will become stronger, but some other muscles might break down quicker. This is the other extreme from not exercising at all. The virtue is in the middle.
Finally, one of the most common causes of muscle mass loss is a sedentary lifestyle. The less activity you have, the more predisposed you are to muscle wasting.
Desk-bound work keeps you seated most of the time and may lead to muscle loss.
2. Metabolic causes
The two main metabolic causes that lead to the development of muscle mass loss are endocrine diseases and malnutrition.
If some hormones are produced in excess, which would be the case in people suffering from hyperthyroidism or diabetes, for example, a person could experience weight loss. Unfortunately, this type of weight loss doesn’t merely involve the loss of fatty tissue – it also leads to the loss of muscle mass.
As for the other cause, malnutrition, it goes without saying that your muscles can’t thrive if they have no access to the right nutrients.
3. Gastrointestinal causes
The loss of muscle mass can be caused by two gastrointestinal causes, which consist of inflammation of the person’s stomach or intestines and malabsorption. In both of these situations, the nutrients from the food you eat aren’t going to get into your blood stream.
In a nutshell, the gastrointestinal tract is incapable of absorbing nutrients, whether fully or partially.
4. Systemic causes
Some diseases affect the whole body and, along with the rest of the organs, the muscles, too. These range from cancer and genetic conditions to neurologic deficits and chronic disease.
It appears that about twenty to thirty percent of people who eventually die of cancer experience muscle mass to the point that they develop cachexia. The chronic health problems that are linked to muscle wasting are chronic diseases of the heart, lungs, or kidneys. All of these can lead to loss of muscle mass.
About 20-30% of people who died of cancer experienced loss of muscle mass.
5. Psychiatric causes
Although the causes themselves aren’t exactly psychiatric, some imbalances that involve eating disorders, mood swings, or any changes in a person’s feelings or cognitive processes can lead to behaviors that cause muscle mass loss.
A good example would be anorexia, which is an eating disorder that involves altering a person’s nutritional intake. Once again, if the body doesn’t get any fuel from food, it will resort to using the nutrients stocked in any system, not just the fatty tissue we all want to get rid of.
Substance abuse can be linked to muscle wasting, too, especially if a person takes drugs like methamphetamines, for example.
Needless to say, people who suffer from depression also experience poor appetite and, in some cases, a complete loss of appetite. This, too, can lead to muscle mass loss with time.
What conditions can lead to muscle mass loss?
Besides the causes that we have already described, there are a number of diseases that can lead to muscle wasting. We’ll discuss three, but there are others, and they range from idiopathic inflammatory myopathy to mitochondrial myopathy.
1. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
ALS is a progressive disease that causes nerve cell damage throughout the body. In this case, muscle atrophy appears not as a result of lack of voluntary activity, but because the nerve cells become incapable of sending out signals to the muscles.
To date, the causes of this condition remain unknown.
2. Multiple sclerosis
MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the myelin around the nerve fibers in your body. Similarly to ALS, it eventually causes damage to the nerves, which in turn can’t trigger the movement of muscles, which leads to atrophy.
3. Brachial plexopathy
Even though this is a somewhat uncommon disease, it can still lead to muscle mass loss. There is a web of nerves present in any person’s neck and shoulders, and it can get damaged when performing sports or other types of physical activity.
Treating brachial plexopathy almost always involves plenty of rest and physical therapy. Due to the inactivity, the patient might experience partial muscle wasting. If the nerve lesion is severe, surgery might be necessary to repair the damage, which could call for even more rest and even more muscle mass loss.
Injured web nerves present on your neck and shoulders can lead to loss of muscle mass.
Does being inactive lead to muscle wasting?
The short answer to this question is yes. Naturally, having a sedentary lifestyle can have a negative impact on your musculoskeletal system, regardless of your age.
Sometimes, it might take years before you notice any of the symptoms. This happens because not all people are truly sedentary. They go out with friends, they might take a walk now and then, they might walk to the store to get groceries, and all of these activities add up and might keep your muscles “active” even if you don’t realize it, though this highly depends on the activity level, eating habits, past behaviour, etc.
On the other hand, if you have to rest in bed for several months or more to recover from an injury or disease, you will experience muscle wasting a lot faster. If you’re wondering why, the explanation is simple — you aren’t engaging in any type of physical activity whatsoever.
Some statistics suggest that people can experience muscle wasting in a matter of just 10 days of being bedridden. During this time, some people lose about 40% of their muscle strength. If that’s not scary, we don’t know what is.
The above is an example of a drastic and quick muscle mass loss. Luckily this is not normal. However, having a body composition beyond what is considered normal also means you don’t have enough muscle mass and the consequences to your health are serious, even more as you age. It could get to a point where you need help to sit on the toilet or simply walking because your muscles can’t cope with it. This is also scary.
Muscle mass loss happens regardless of age when you have a sedentary lifestyle.
Symptoms of muscle mass loss
A variety of clinical signs are associated with this muscle wasting, and they range from poor or increased appetite to loss of sensation and poor functioning of some muscle groups. Other symptoms are:
- Weight loss
- Night sweats
- Frequent urination
Loss of stamina can be quite common in most people who have muscle wasting, and it almost always interferes with their physical activity. Unfortunately, if you find working out uncomfortable, you might end up avoiding it, which in turn can lead to even more muscle mass loss. The best tip to get going with physical activity, if it’s something you don’t quite like, is simply doing something you enjoy be it because of the activity itself, the people you share it with, the place, etc.
Treatments of muscle mass loss
Treating muscle wasting can be extremely challenging, especially when it is developed due to inactivity. However, there are some things that can help, even in this case, and one of them is resistance or strength training. This type of activity increases muscle strength and endurance, whether with the use of resistance bands or weights, even just that of your own body.
Resistance bands exercises can help treat muscle mass loss.
If you have no previous experience with resistance training, it might be a good idea to work with a seasoned trainer or physical therapist. At least you’ll know that you aren’t going to injure yourself in this way.
Medication is not the preferred way of treating muscle mass loss, but if it is the result of some medical conditions, your physician might prescribe some. You can get testosterone supplements, Urocortin II (which prevents muscle atrophy that shows up as a side effect of taking other medications), or growth hormone supplements. Again, recommended only in special cases and strictly under prescription by a professional.
How to prevent muscle mass loss
Even though everyone experiences declining muscle mass as a result of the natural aging process, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything about it. Age-related muscle loss happens gradually and in a percentage of about 3 to 8% per decade.
But why is muscle mass loss dangerous, and why should you be preoccupied with preventing it? Well, just to name one reason, it appears that people who have muscle wasting are far more exposed to bone injuries whether that means a broken hip, leg, arm, wrist, or collarbone.
Incorporating exercise into your daily routine is by far the best way of preventing muscle wasting. If you don’t like resistance training, you can opt for other types of exercise, whether that is lighter or harder.
Speed walking, or jogging can prevent muscle mass loss in your legs, though these exercises might cause some tear due to impact on your legs’ joints. Other exercises that are good for leg muscles are squats and lunges. Leg exercises need to be coupled with upper body ones. The simplest of them being push-ups. If they seem too much for you, try them on your knees (instead of on your feet), and just bend your elbows a little. Then build from there.
Speed walking, jogging, doing squats, lunges, or push-ups can help prevent muscle mass loss.
By contrast, swimming is one of the most effective types of exercise as it works almost every muscle group in your body in addition to your cardio.
The stretching involved in yoga and pilates routines can help you maintain your muscle mass, too. Even certain kinds of yoga can help you build muscle mass since many poses are variations of squats, lunges, push-ups, dips, etc.
But what about nutrition? Does it matter, too?
The answer to this question is a big yes. As you might have noticed, we mentioned anorexia and malnutrition as two of the main causes of muscle wasting, so getting the right nutrients is essential to keeping your muscles in check.
Eating more protein is the right way of making sure that you aren’t going to have to deal with the unpleasant effects of muscle mass loss, especially as you get older. If you don’t know how to incorporate more protein into your diet or you have special nutrition requirements that might involve the absence of animal protein, go to a nutritionist.
The ideal amount of protein for someone looking to build their muscle mass would be around 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per KG of body weight. If you don’t want to make significant changes to the way you eat, there is always the option of you adding protein powder into your meals.
Limit your alcohol intake as much as possible because, besides the myriad of side effects that it comes with, it also lowers your testosterone levels and increases your estrogen levels, which means that it causes even more muscle loss.
Limiting your alcohol intake also helps lessen muscle mass loss.
Finally, try to get enough sleep every day. During sleep, our bodies recover significantly, but they also regulate hormone production. Since people who are stressed are more likely to experience muscle wasting, try to introduce relaxation techniques into your life, whether through meditation or other methods.
It’s not a matter of bulking up or dying from muscle mass loss. In fact, trying to bulk up if you are not ready might also be extremely detrimental to your health. Again, the virtue is in the middle. Having the right amount of muscle mass is key to your wellbeing and health.
Co-founder of MB Zen, digital nomad and freedom seeker. Loves developing projects that improve people’s lives. Functional training, yoga, and healthy eating define his lifestyle since he got his back injured. Fell in love with Yin yoga from the very first session though he won’t say no to any other kind of yoga.