Minding Our Muscles for Immune Health

Minding Our Muscles for Immune Health

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Research suggests muscle health may impact the immune system 

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FEB. 25, 2021   3 MIN. READ 

Our immune system is always at work, protecting against unwanted microbes or infections. And while our immune system is always operating, it is not usually top of mind unless one is sick or trying to avoid a virus. Following good-health guidelines – like eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep – are natural ways to keep the immune system strong and healthy. But should we also be considering our muscle health when thinking about our immunity?

The Connection Between Muscles and the Immune System

Skeletal muscle accounts for about 40% of total body weight and contains at least 50% of all body proteins.1 Muscles are well-known for their role in movement, strength and energy. However, there is evidence suggesting a relationship between muscle and immune function as well.

Muscles produce and release compounds which play an important role in the proliferation, activation and distribution of some immune cells.2 And while additional research is needed, data suggests loss of muscle mass is associated with compromised immunity and infections.3,4 Research in older adults has shown increased markers of inflammation associated with low muscle mass and muscle function.5,6,7 Finally, muscle is as a major storage site for amino acids that are used by the body during a trauma or infection.8 Therefore, low muscle mass coupled with inadequate protein intake may affect the body’s response to an injury or infection.

Given the evidence linking muscle to the immune system, maintaining or improving muscle health should be a priority.3

Nutrition is fundamental for people to live well, particularly for older adults to maintain their strength and support their immune health, prevent disease and aid their illness recovery.

Yen Ling Low, Ph.D., Scientific & Medical Affairs, Abbott

How to Maintain Muscle Health

Safeguarding muscle mass can be done with a few simple strategies – mainly focusing on physical activity and proper nutrition. This is especially important as we age. Adults 40+ can lose up to 8% of their muscle mass per decade - a rate that can double after the age of 70.

The SHIELD (Strengthening Health In ELDerly through nutrition) study found high prevalence of low muscle mass among 4 in 5 older adults in Singapore at risk of malnutrition, which may impact overall health and immune function.  Older adults who received individualized dietary counseling and consumed oral nutritional supplements (ONS) found significant improvement in nutritional status, physical function and health.

Nutrition is fundamental for people to live well, particularly for older adults to maintain their strength and support their immune health, prevent disease and aid their illness recovery," said Yen Ling Low, PhD, divisional vice president, scientific and medical affairs at Abbott and co-author of the study.

"That’s why Abbott has been researching the impact of nutrition in adults for more than 45 years. The latest clinical research on aging confirms that with the right nutritional intervention and dietary guidance, older adults – even those at risk of malnutrition - can improve their nutritional status, mobility and strength, and help them lead fuller lives, into their golden years."

To preserve muscles:

  • Engage in Regular Exercise: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, and include resistance training to also help maintain muscles and strength.

  • Eat Enough Protein: Incorporate protein foods, like chicken, seafood, eggs, nuts, beans or dairy into your diet, and aim for about 25-30 grams of protein per meal.  Adults 65+ require higher amounts of protein than young adults, and some can need almost double the amount depending on their nutritional status or if they have an acute or chronic disease.9,10 To amp up protein intake further, add in protein snacks, like one before bed or supplement your diet if needed.

  • Follow a Nutritious Diet: Choose a balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, proteins, healthy fats and key vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin D.

  • Consider HMB: HMB is a naturally occurring compound that helps preserve and build muscle mass by hindering muscle breakdown. Along with exercise, HMB can also help improve muscle strength and function.11 While HMB is naturally found in foods such as avocados, grapefruit, and catfish, it’s hard to get enough from food sources alone.12 That’s why it can be beneficial to look for a nutritional supplement that includes HMB.

Making an effort to maintain or improve muscle mass can have extensive benefits on health. Many may immediately think of the role muscle can have on our strength and energy – especially as we age, but research points to its positive impact on the immune system, as well.


1. Torre-Villalvazo I, et al. Nutr Res. 2019;72:1-17
2. Nelke C, et al. EBioMedicine. 2019;49:381-8
3. Argiles JM, et al. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2016;17:789-96
4. Prado, Carla M., et al. Annals of Medicine. 2018;50: 675-693.
5. Visser M, et al. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2002;57:M326-32
6. Atkins JL, et al. J Nutr Health Aging. 2014;18:26-33.
7. Schaap LA, et al. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2009;64:1183-9
8. Reeds PJ, et al. J Nutr. 1994;124:906-10
9. Deuz et al Clinical Nutrition 33 (2014) 929e936
10. Bauer, Jürgen, et al. JAMDA 14.8 (2013): 542-559.
11. Stout J et al. Exp. Gerontol. 2013;48;1303-1310
12. Zhang Z, et al. FASEB J. 1994;8:A464.

Top 5 Nutrition Tips for Women to Support Healthy Aging

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Aging is a natural process that every woman goes through. Although the passing decades are accompanied by bodily wear and tear, good nutrition and an active lifestyle can help women mitigate declines in muscle and joint health, bone density and skin integrity. Understanding how nutrition affects the changes you experience with aging can help you make informed choices about your health.

Muscle Recovery: A Key Component to Healthy Aging

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Sometimes it's not until later in life that a person starts to think about aging well. Healthy aging can mean many things, from keeping your memory intact to maintaining an active social life to staying in peak physical condition. One component of aging well is supporting your muscle health, particularly muscle recovery — your body's ability to repair muscle after exercise or while recovering from disuse (e.g., inactivity due to a sedentary lifestyle, illness or hospitalization).




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