When it comes to keeping your muscles strong and healthy, you probably know that protein and exercise are important—especially as we age and in times of illness or recovery. But research shows that a little-known compound, HMB, is beneficial to muscle health too.
What is HMB?
Suzette Pereira, PhD, an Abbott researcher specializing in muscle health, explains that HMB stands for beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, and as scientific as that sounds, its purpose is easier to understand when you realize it’s been part of your diet for a long time.
HMB is naturally produced in small amounts when your body breaks down leucine, an essential amino acid that you can get through eating protein foods including milk and Greek yogurt, soybeans, beef and chicken. It can also naturally be found in very small amounts in foods like avocado, grapefruit, cauliflower and catfish. But it’s difficult to get amounts found to support muscle health just by diet alone and is often found in nutrition supplements.
HMB isn’t new — it’s been studied for more than 25 years in over 90 clinical studies, including more than 20 studies in healthy or hospitalized adults along with other nutrients. But it’s easier to understand how HMB helps when you first look at how muscles function.
Our Muscles at Work
Muscles are always working and supporting our body in terms of mobility, balance, posture and even strength and energy. Through these activities there is a natural process of regeneration occurring.
"Muscle is dynamic," explains Pereira. "Both muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis, or building, are happening in the body throughout the day. The goal is to ensure that breakdown isn't happening faster than building."
However, breakdown can accelerate with age, illness and immobility.
While younger people are typically able to offset natural breakdown, the balance can shift with age as the body becomes less adept at using protein for muscle synthesis. A review paper published in Age and Ageing reported that age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, affects approximately one in three adults age 50 and older. This decline in muscle health can contribute to fatigue, losses in strength and energy as well as poor mobility.
An Abbott-supported review paper in the Annals of Medicine illustrated how factors like inflammation and bedrest during illness, surgeries and hospital stays can contribute to muscle loss too.
"People can lose a lot of muscle in a short amount of time," says Pereira, noting that this kind of muscle loss is often associated with delayed recovery from illness, slow wound healing and reduced quality of life. "The catch is to get ahead of muscle loss before it accelerates.”
How does HMB work?
So what can you do to maintain muscle health? That’s where HMB might be able to help.
HMB may act as a gateway to help keep your muscles in balance by slowing muscle breakdown. In fact, HMB has been shown to help preserve muscle mass in healthy older adults. Maintaining a well-balanced diet rich in protein and exercising regularly supports the natural balance.
“Levels of HMB in the body are significantly correlated with existing muscle mass. One thing we can do to benefit our muscle health is eat a good diet, including getting more HMB and keeping up with strength building exercise," points out Pereira.
How to Get HMB
Getting more HMB naturally isn’t always easy. In the body, less than five percent of all leucine is converted to HMB1. Even on a good day, protein-packed foods can leave adults coming up short.
Pereira agrees that meeting HMB goals through food alone is very difficult. "You'd have to eat around 6,000 avocados to get enough to get a few grams of HMB" she explains, "and I think you'd turn green before you got there."
It's a joke, but it's also a problem she and the Abbott team have worked hard at driving education around to help doctors and people understand how to supplement with HMB to help preserve muscle mass.
Getting in the practice of incorporating HMB supplements into your diet can support muscle health. Talk to your healthcare provider or a dietitian.
"Our goal is to help people stay healthy," says Pereira. "At the end of the day, we want people to live their best life."
1Ref: Walker, D. K., Thaden, J. J., Wierzchowska-McNew, A., Engelen, M. P., & Deutz, N. E. (2017). Determination of β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate concentration and enrichment in human plasma using chemical ionization gas chromatography tandem mass spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography B, 1040, 233-238.
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