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Muscle Mass: Why you need it and 4 ways to build it

Muscle mass might not be something you’ve given much thought to outside of strength and how your body looks, but muscle is extremely health-protective and it’s your organ of longevity!

Longevity means to live a longer life and whilst living longer sounds great, we want to live healthier and happier for longer, right?

The more muscle mass you have, the healthier, fitter and happier you can be as you age! Your muscle is bone-protective, cognitive-protective, helps you keep body fat in check and supports your hormone health. The more muscle you have the better your experience of perimenopause and menopause is likely to be.

After age 35 you lose muscle mass with each passing year

This is true for both men and women, it’s called sarcopenia, which is Latin for ‘lack of flesh’, and is defined as the age related loss of skeletal muscle mass, quality, and strength, and the replacement of muscle fibres with fat. This is one of the ways your body becomes better at storing fat after 40.

The good news is that you CAN counteract this muscle loss and the subsequent consequences and in a moment I’ll give you 4 ways that you can be building and maintaining muscle in your daily life from now on, first let’s look at more of the benefits of muscle.

Muscle mass and insulin sensitivity 

Muscle is also an important factor in your body cells ability to efficiently uptake glucose from your bloodstream. Insulin sensitivity is something I’ve talked about in previous blogs and will go deeper into in my next blog because it’s something you really need to support as you move through perimenopause and beyond. Studies have shown that increased muscle mass increases glucose uptake and improves insulin sensitivity. 

Muscle mass and brain health

Having a healthy amount of muscle mass has been shown to increase ‘neurogenesis’, the making of new brain cells, plus increase what’s known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein found in the brain that can be thought of as fertiliser for your brain cells because it helps neurons grow and survive. A 2022 study at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and School of Human Nutrition showed an association between low muscle mass and cognitive decline, which includes mood. Physical activity – particularly strength or resistance training – and good nutrition with sufficient protein can help build and maintain muscle mass over the years. 

Protein for muscle building

You’ve likely heard me (and other health professionals) talk about the importance of eating enough protein. It’s one thing to KNOW what you need to do but actually understanding WHY is all the more empowering and it’s much more likely that you’ll do it, and stick with it.

Protein is crucial for muscle development. Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is a process by which muscle cells use amino acids (from protein foods) to build muscle tissue. This process is essential for muscle growth and repair and is the primary way that muscles are built and maintained. Muscle protein synthesis can be stimulated through exercise, specifically resistance exercise and strength training, and the consumption of dietary protein.

Other reasons why protein is so important..

Protein is the number one nutrient on your plate for blood sugar balance support. It helps to slow the release of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream from carbohydrate foods helping to keep your cells SENSITIVE to insulin, which is essential for preventing or reversing insulin resistance.  

Protein helps you feel fuller longer and keeps cravings at bay. If you’re trying to reduce your reliance on sugar and sugary snacks then protein is your girl. Simply increasing your protein intake, starting with breakfast, can have an incredible impact on sugar and refined carb cravings. 

4 ways to build and maintain muscle mass

1) LIFT WEIGHTS 3X A WEEK

It’s important to focus on workouts that build muscle, remember, muscle protein synthesis is stimulated through resistance exercise and strength training. This can simply be resistance using your own body weight to start with, such as lunging, squatting, planks, press ups, uphill running or sprinting, and even yoga and walking. EVEN better is to include lifting, pushing and pulling heavier weights, such as bench press, deadlifts, and barbell squats and lunges. During perimenopause and menopause, strength training has been found to improve hot flushes, cognition, mood, blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity and protect bones.

2) EAT ADEQUATE PROTEIN WITH ALL MEALS

An optimal intake of protein per day is between 1.2 and 1.7g of protein per kg of your body weight per day. I recommend my clients aim for 1.5g per kg of body weight per day as a nice in-between. Calculate this number and then divide it out across 3 meals or 3 meals and 1 snack if that’s better for you.

So, if you weigh 70kg, multiply 70 by 1.5 and your optimal total daily intake is 105g, which is 35g of protein per meal. 

The table below shows some common protein foods and their protein content. Use this to get an idea of whether or not you need to spend some time focusing on increasing your daily intake and making it a habit.

protein content in foods

If you need to start hitting a higher protein goal each day, what can you start doing from today to get yourself closer to the optimal amount?

Start with your breakfast, as a protein-rich breakfast really is vital for balancing your blood sugar and energy regulating hormones straight off the bat, then, once you’re nailing a great breakfast every morning effortlessly, you can start to improve upon your other meals. Plus, breakfast is the meal that people struggle to get enough protein into. 

Protein-rich breakfast ideas:

  • “Dinner for breakfast” – what did you have for dinner last night? Chicken, turkey, fish, beef, lamb are all great options for breakfast! With leftover veggies heated up or salad veg. Sometimes I have leftover lamb mince curry & veg topped with a poached egg! 
  • Omelettes are a great option because you can add so much into them such as smoked salmon, chopped chicken sausages, chopped veg such as peppers, mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes, spinach, kale, broccoli, and onions.  
  • Smoked salmon with poached or scrambled eggs, and spinach and tomatoes, on rye or sourdough toast.
  • A protein smoothie using a good quality, unflavoured protein powder such as Pulsin, Sunwarrior, Form Nutrition, or Bulk. A great breakfast smoothie would also include things like ground flax, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, coconut oil, avocado, nut butter, leafy greens, and minimal fruit such as a handful of mixed (fresh or frozen) berries. 

3) GET ENOUGH SLEEP

Sleep plays a critical role in muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth) and repair. When we sleep, our bodies release a hormone called growth hormone, which helps to facilitate muscle growth and repair. Sleep also helps to reduce inflammation, which can cause muscle damage. Sleep also helps with blood sugar regulation, which is another important factor in our ability to synthesise and hold onto muscle. Studies have found that sleep deprivation decreases the activity of protein synthesis pathways in the body and increases the activity of pathways that favour the loss of muscle mass. Therefore, adequate sleep is crucial for maintaining muscle mass and achieving optimal muscle growth and repair. The optimal dose of sleep each night is between 7 and 9 hours.

4) MANAGE CHRONIC STRESS

Chronic stress can lead to muscle loss through several mechanisms. Your stress hormone cortisol, if elevated/out of balance, for example due to chronic stress (and/or body clock being out of sync and sleep deprivation), can have a detrimental effect on muscle growth and cause muscle loss. Elevations/imbalances in cortisol can interfere with protein synthesis, which is the process by which muscles grow and repair themselves. Cortisol can also increase the breakdown of muscle tissue, leading to muscle loss. Furthermore, cortisol can reduce insulin sensitivity, which can lead to decreased muscle recovery and increased muscle breakdown.

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Hi, I'm Francesca

I’m a Registered Nutritional Therapist who helps womens in their 40s find vibrant health and vitality, and thrive through perimenopause and beyond.

With nearly 10 years of experience working with hundreds of people, I empower and support women to support their bodies and hormones for a smooth and happy ride in their 4os.

Through our work together, clients have improved their energy, their periods and cycles, their mood, sleep, brain fog and digestion, and learned how to better manage their weight.

I am here to help you get back to YOU so you can have a fantastic time in your 40s.

My signature nutrition and lifestyle coaching approach to supporting women with their health and wellbeing is refreshing, down-to-earth and realistic.

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