Focus on fucoidans – roles in physical body ageing
We normally think of slowing down in old age, taking it easy and enjoying a life of leisure. For some, this may include more rounds of golf, walking the dog, swimming, gardening, bush walking or many other activities. What you may not realise is that these physical activities are not only a healthy way to spend leisure time but are actually beneficial in more ways than you may expect. There is exceptional evidence demonstrating that exercise (even light exercise) can help promote cardiovascular health at any age and as such is widely recommended by medical professionals . What is less considered is the importance of regular physical activity on maintaining skeletal muscle mass and function as we get older.
With older age, our muscle mass naturally begins to decline . This reduction in muscle mass really begins in middle age and accelerates over time. This has been estimated as about 1-2% loss of muscle mass each year beginning in the 50s . Muscle loss overtime leads to a progressive decline in muscle strength, which in the most serious of cases leads to a condition known as sarcopenia. Recent research indicates that around 20% of Australian adults aged over 65 have sarcopenia . Unfortunately, muscle weakness leads to even less movement in turn driving greater muscle loss and increasing weakness and immobility, a sort of “vicious cycle” . This is only in the most extreme cases, but it highlights the need to maintain activity to ensure muscle mass, strength and mobility in older age.
Muscle mass loss with older age is thought to be triggered by of a combination of changes in diet and lifestyle, neuronal factors and oxidant damage (oxidative stress) . These factors in combination, increase the levels of myostatin, a molecule within the muscle cells that prevents muscle growth. Over a period of time, elevated myostatin levels drives more oxidative stress and inflammation, leading to muscle cell shrinkage (atrophy) and death (apoptosis) in addition to a loss in energy utilisation capacity .
Physical activity is the “gold standard” strategy to manage loss of muscle mass in old age, although emerging new research has revealed that fucoidans derived from brown seaweed are able to support muscle growth and enhance strength whilst demonstrating various health benefits . Brown seaweed still remains a part of a traditional diet in East Asia  but if a radical change in diet doesn’t appeal to you, recent advances in science have allowed the efficient and safe extraction of fucoidans for consumption as a supplement.
Models of disease provide some insight to a mechanism
By using a mouse-model of biological ageing, fucoidans from Sargassum hemiphyllum was able to significantly improve muscle strength and muscular endurance, when compared to the control group . Although oxidants were found to be inhibited by fucoidans in ageing mice, advance pathway analysis also revealed that several molecules involved in muscle energy utilisation and metabolism were influenced by fucoidans that can help to explain improved muscle performance . Muscle wasting is also commonly observed in patients with cancer. In a mouse model of bladder cancer that was also administered fucoidans from Sargassum hemiphyllum, fucoidans prevented loss of skeletal muscle mass and shrinking of the size of the muscle cells, which were present in the mice being treated for bladder cancer . Importantly, it was demonstrated that fucoidan was able to prevent increases in the protein, myostatin in mice being treated for bladder cancer .
Promising results from the laboratory
In the laboratory, scientists have been able to discover how fucoidans can influence skeletal muscle function and growth. One study has found that daily administration of fucoidans isolated Laminaria japonica at human-equivalent dose to healthy mice for a 3 week period improved muscle function and endurance . In the mice given fucoidan, a clear increase in grip strength (a common test for small animals to determine muscle strength) and muscle endurance during a weight-loaded swimming test was observed when compared to mice in the control (placebo) group . Probably the most impressive finding of this study was that these benefits in muscle strength and endurance were achieved independent of any exercise training protocol. Biochemical analysis revealed that fucoidans tended to improve how the muscles metabolised energy and cleared lactate post-exercise , which simply means that the muscles appeared to become more efficient.
Another group of Australian researchers has also recently reported similar effects of an Undaria pinnatifida and Fucus vesiculosus extract on muscle size and function . Mice were given a human-equivalent dose of the fucoidan extract for 4 weeks after which it was found that fucoidans could enhance muscle-specific size and strength in addition to increasing the expression of some genes associated with muscle growth and function when compared to the control group .
Evidence from the clinic
When it comes to clinical (human) research, fucoidans have been able to exert beneficial effects in terms of physical activity and mobility in older people. In this study, a group of moderately active senior subjects (average age ~73 years old) were supplemented with fucoidans extracted from Laminaria japonica (commonly known as kombu) for 6 weeks, after which body composition, physical fitness and mobility were examined . Those subjects supplemented with the fucoidans were found to have enhanced physical fitness and mobility when compared to those who received the placebo (inactive, identical treatment) . This result is even more remarkable when it’s considered that participants were asked to stop any regular exercise over the treatment period. The investigators also found that subjects receiving fucoidans exhibited greater antioxidant capacity and reduced oxidative damage by comparison to placebo group . Moreover, fucoidan supplementation prevented the reductions in muscle-related growth factors that are known to preserve neuromuscular transmission and enhance protein synthesis in the context muscle loss in ageing . Although no increases in muscle mass were observed , the findings suggest that longer term fucoidan supplementation in combination with regular exercise could prevent muscle loss or even promote muscle growth and strength in older people.
Ageing is something that happens to us all, and it requires us to be increasingly cognisant of overall health. Skeletal muscle health is not something that many people think of, despite its importance (along with many other bodily systems) in enjoying a long and healthy life. Along with a balanced diet and regular exercise, high-quality fucoidans extracted the world’s best sources are a powerful combination to keep you moving through the golden years!
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