As a naturopathic doctor, I have been intentional about the way I live. I eat well and regularly get enough sleep. I have always maintained an active lifestyle, beginning with competitive gymnastics as a child, backpacking, marathon running, bike commuting, trail running, yoga, and I am the mother of 2 children. Yet, at 45 years old I had suffered 3 ankle breaks in 3 years and chronic to sometimes acute back pain that stopped me in my tracks for days to weeks, stealing my fitness away. I wondered how someone who works so hard at health and well-being could be suffering this way. Was I really just getting old?

What is aging?

What is aging, other than the passage of time? In 2013, researchers characterized aging as a progressive loss of physiological integrity, leading to impaired function and increased vulnerability to death, and even identified 9 hallmarks of aging. Among these hallmarks are a variety of genetic and epigenetic effects (epigenetics has to do with whether or not a gene is actually expressed), plus:

  • mitochondrial dysfunction (mitochondria are the powerhouse of every cell in the body)
  • cellular senescence (oxidative stress and cell death)
  • stem cell exhaustion (stem cells are what the body uses in order to repair itself)
  • altered intercellular communication (endocrine, neuronal, and immune system signaling declines)

Naturopathic Medicine With Meghan Van Vleet ND

While in my practice I use therapeutic modalities to effect all of the hallmarks, in this blog post I focus on the bulleted hallmarks above. Why? Because as my astute colleague, Tyna Moore ND, DC has elucidated, these are all associated with sarcopenia, or diminished lean muscle mass. We know that breathing, eating well, drinking plenty of clean water and getting exercise are components of a healthy lifestyle. But you may not know that building muscle mass, specifically, is incredibly beneficial, far beyond physique and weight. In other words, yes, we can build muscle as medicine.

What Lean Muscle Mass Does For Us

Besides making a person strong, which has many benefits of its own, having and maintaining lean muscle mass:

  • Increases cognitive function via BDNF
  • Helps maintain blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Increases metabolism
  • Increases testosterone (beneficial for both men and women)
  • Increases Human Growth Hormone (commonly prescribed for weight loss)
  • Helps in the conversion of thyroid hormone from the inactive to the active form
  • Increases mitochondrial synthesis (remember, mitochondria are the powerhouses of our body)
  • Reduces pain (most notably back pain, but also neck other joint pain, fibromyalgia pain, etc)
  • Improves immune function
  • Offers better prognosis if confronted with a cancer diagnosis
  • Increases bone density
  • Improves mood
  • Increases adaptive abilities to various stressors as we age

Who would not want all of that? More importantly, I bet there is something specific in that list that you could use more of. Most all conditions could benefit from increased muscle mass.

What is Sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia translates literally as “poverty of flesh” and refers to the muscle loss that typically begins between 30-40 years old. That is 8% loss of muscle mass per decade until the age of 70, and then it increases to 15% per decade. Arguably, with the population spending more and more time in front of devices, this is likely starting even younger. There is a relatively new term for seemingly thin people with poor, fatty muscle mass: TOFI – Thin outside, Fat Inside. TOFI refers to the finding that many people with a seemingly good BMI actually have fatty infiltrate in their muscles, classifying some as obese despite being thin. Folks with TOFI have all the health risks of the outwardly obese.

The Best Way to Build Lean Muscle Mass

The best, most efficient & comprehensive way to build muscle mass and functional strength is with strength training with free weights. Weight machines artificially isolate muscle groups and force movements that aren’t functional in nature, ie: don’t reproduce movements of your daily activities that you want to be strong in. Strength training with free weights requires the coordinated use of multiple muscle groups spanning multiple joints throughout the body and prepare the body to be strong in the face of everyday physical challenges. Additionally, using free weights increases grip strength; poor grip strength is a major risk factor for a fall.

Lean Muscle Mass Reduces Risk of Falls

Interestingly, the strongest risk factors for a fall as a person ages, all of which can be positively affected by strength training with free weights, include:

  • mobility impairment
  • reduced knee, hip, or ankle strength (strong, coordinated muscle groups surrounding a joint increase joint strength)
  • reduced grip strength
  • Difficulty arising from a chair (think loaded squats)
  • Number of medications (see list of benefits of maintaining lean muscle mass above)

Build Muscle Mass Safely

The key to efficiently building lean muscle mass though is to do it safely, which requires a trainer, at least to start. Using free weights properly 2-3x/week as part of an active, healthy lifestyle is the key to “everyday fitness”, as Karen Harbour of Bella Strength in Boulder, CO calls it. Because the pain of sore muscles is different than the pain of inflamed joints, this everyday fitness is what can enable a person to do work around the house, the yard, maybe schlepping kids (or grandkids) & all their stuff, go on long runs, or whatever your jam is…without causing acute or chronic pain. You might be getting older and beginning to feel or show more vulnerability, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.

Frailty Syndrome

I realized that at 46 years old, I was developing “frailty syndrome”, which is a viscious cycle:

Pain/injury –> loss of full mobility –> deconditioning & loss of muscle mass –> pain/injury

Additionally, I realized that for at least 3-4 years, around the time that my youngest child was too big to pick up regularly, that I had not lifted anything heavy with regularity as part of my daily activities.

Aha moments of clarity mobilize me into action. I headed to the gym for the first time in my life to see if they might help me with my everyday fitness. Only six weeks in and things are changing for me. It is a slow and steady road, and I am glad to be on it and taking charge of my health in a whole new way.

Lean Muscle Mass Can Benefit You

Consider your own trajectory. Do you experience chronic or sometimes acute pain? Are you prone to injury? Are you fit-but-fragile like I was, or maybe you just lack strength. Now consider again the list of benefits maintaining lean muscle mass offers your overall health and well-being and whether or not you are in need of any of those benefits. I encourage you to consider adding strength training into your wellness routine.

Wellness with Meghan Van Vleet ND in Boulder CO

If you need support with your health goals, give me a call: 720-340-0193

 

SOURCES:

Grimbly G, Saltin B. The ageing muscle. Clin Physiol. 1983;3(3):209-218.

Institute of Medicine (US) Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “Falls in Older Persons: Risk Factors and Prevention.” The Second Fifty Years: Promoting Health and Preventing Disability., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1992, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235613/.

López-Otín, Carlos, et al. “The Hallmarks of Aging.” Cell, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 6 June 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3836174/.

Moore, Tyna. “Muscle as Medicine: Balancing Health Through Strength Training” OANP 2019.

 

On the first Monday of the new school year I found myself taking two calls from two different schools telling me that both my kiddos were feeling crummy and needed a ride home. Yes, already. Before long, everyone in our house felt under-the-weather.

While no one wants to be sick or see their children get sick either, becoming ill from time to time is actually important. Catching a cold is an educational exercise for our immune systems. The ability to mount an appropriate healing response is a sign of good health. While getting sick all the time is problematic, getting sick occasionally is reassuring and an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and reassess.

As a naturopathic doctor with two kids and a partner that works in the public school system as well, my family has ample opportunity to contract illness. Given that, I still aim for prevention. Healthy lifestyle habits go a long way to minimize risk, and decrease the severity and duration when illness does strike. Here are my recommendations to weather this cold and flu season well.

  • SLEEP: Sleep is critical to overall health and immune system function. Make sure that you and your family members prioritize the appropriate amount of sleep.
  • HYGIENE:
    • Wash your hands. Whenever anyone comes home from work or school, make sure they wash hands upon entering the house. Note that research is conclusive: old fashioned soap and water work just as well as antimicrobial soap or hand sanitizer and have the added benefit of not being harmful to us (carcinogenic, endocrine disruptor, create lethal superbugs).
    • Remind yourself and your kids how to effectively cover your cough and sneezes: Use the crook of your elbow, not your hand.
    • Keep the house on the cooler side as germs like warm environments.
    • Air out the house briefly (ie: open up all the windows and maybe doors) daily or at least weekly, even in the cold of winter.
  • EXERCISE: Regular moderate exercise enhances immunity.
  • GO OUTSIDE: Whether this is for exercise specifically or just to get out, do it. Fresh air and sunlight is good for us. Cold air is not bad for us. Dress and layer comfortably for the weather and keep your neck and ears warm. If you have a young child, dress them the way you dress to keep comfortable; i.e., if you get cold and put your hood up, put theirs up too.
  • HYDRATION: Sufficient water intake is critical to every function in our body, not the least of which is expelling pathogens. Being adequately hydrated can tip the scale from successfully staving off full-blown illness or succumbing to it.
  • DIET: A whole foods diet supports optimal health. Highly processed foods or “food-like substances,” and those with added sugar, actually suppress your immune system.
  • STRESS: Throughout these months when life doesn’t slow down and we are additionally exposed to so many pathogens, it is more important than ever to have routine coping mechanisms such as mindfulness, breath work, and yoga  – as well as any other exercises or activities that bring you joy.
  • SUPPLEMENTATION: I am not actually a big fan of taking supplements myself or for my children, however, you may find us taking them this time of year:
    • PROBIOTICS: Ideally, you will be consuming probiotics in the food you eat – from your garden or the farm your food came from, from yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, and any other of the varieties of fermented foods now available at many grocery stores. If you feel like you are not good at getting probiotics into your diet, consider taking a potent probiotic supplement.
    • VITAMIN C: Vitamin C helps prevent and/or reduce the duration of the common cold (Note: It only works as prevention if you regularly take it). Food sources of vitamin C include: papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, cantaloupe, and cauliflower.
    • ZINC: Zinc also helps reduce the duration and severity of the common cold, and many people are deficient in zinc. Food sources include: beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, garbanzo beans, cashews, turkey, quinoa, and shrimp.
    • BLACK ELDERBERRY: Taken as a syrup or even better as a warm tea, this is a delicious fall and wintertime routine. Black elderberry is an antiviral useful in preventing the flu.
    • TULSI TEA: This is a readily available (at most grocery stores) herbal tea that helps your body simply adapt to the various stressors of life, including a change in season. For best results, drink it daily.

Here’s to our beautiful weather, and may you weather it beautifully!

If you feel run down or need immune system support, please call to make an appointment.

720-340-0193 or Book Now

As our children leave summer behind and head back to the rigorous routines of fall, it is important to revisit sleep habits. Due to the extra hours of daylight (not to mention the ability to sleep later during summer break), many of our children find themselves struggling at the start of the school-year. Suddenly staying up a little later becomes a liability once they have to get up earlier for school. This can make for a hard transition into the academic year. Starting the year off well can set the stage for success for the rest of the year. Help your students be successful by consciously going back to the night time habits that promote enough sleep.

What happens when we sleep? We gain many different benefits from sleep: memory consolidation (solidifying learning), normal daytime wakefulness and hunger/satiety signaling (research shows kids cannot learn well when hungry), as well as optimal immune system function (less sick days) all require appropriate amounts of sleep (see chart below). Similarly, less than optimal sleep can contribute to an inability to concentrate, make the best decisions, or be engaged socially. Getting good sleep is important for everyone, but especially important to consider as our children make the transition back to school.

The National Sleep Foundation is an excellent resource for all things sleep-related.

If you or your child needs help problem-solving your sleep, call me to setup an appointment: 720-340-0193 or Book Now

Additionally, if you have a baby affecting your ability to sleep, consider working with our fabulous sleep coach at The Postpartum Wellness Center/Boulder, Jessica Schaeffer