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A Magic Pill for Strength and Fitness?

Is there a magic pill for strength and fitness? Unfortunately, not in 2019. I wish there was. I would close up shop, pop a few of those pills, and open a food truck selling bacon-cheese fries. Probably the closest we have come so far to understanding how to regulate muscle growth and physical strength was the 1997 discovery of the gene MSTN. MSTN encodes a protein in the body called Myostatin. Myostatin regulates and inhibits the creation and growth of muscle fibers.

By down-regulating Myostatin in mice, researchers found that muscle mass increased greatly. Extremely muscular animals and humans have been tested and found to either produce less Myostatin or have less active Myostatin receptors than the general population. So, if and when scientists figure out how to safely reduce Myostatin production or reception in humans, there may be a stampede toward that drug or treatment. This type of treatment may have valuable therapeutic benefit for those with muscle wasting diseases such as Muscular Dystrophy and certain cancers. However, I would bet many average people would jump at the opportunity to increase muscle mass significantly by simply ingesting a pill.

Currently, a supplement called Creatine is very popular with body builders and fitness enthusiasts because it adds size and strength, albeit temporarily, to skeletal muscles. It has been found that one of the ways Creatine works is by down-regulating Myostatin by a small percentage: Creatine effect on Myostatin.

Resistance training also reduces Myostatin expression moderately, which helps your body grow lean muscle mass.

That said, why do most of us have a level of MSTN and Myostatin production or reception that keeps us from being stronger and more muscular than we are? Why can't we all look like professional athletes? It turns out MSTN may have been a positive evolutionary development to keep a check on uncontrolled growth. One study that looked at anabolic steroid use and its effect on Myostatin showed that although muscle size and strength increased with steroid use, surprisingly, Myostatin also increased: Effect of Anabolic Steroids on Myostatin. This means the body was in an anabolic growth mode, but was also up-regulating a catabolic protein (Myostatin) simultaneously. So, the body sensed muscle growth was occuring and increased the Myostatin to counter excessive growth. Why would this happen?

Maybe there is an explanation in evolutionary biology and natural selection. Our bodies evolved to operate as efficiently as possible. Any body mass that needed to be maintained, but wasn't being used in day to day living, would be highly inefficient and perhaps even a threat to survival in times of scarcity. Excessive muscle mass can put additional strain on the heart and other organs and require higher caloric intake. Evolution may have "selected" for very moderate amounts of muscle mass for most of us. For each indvidual, there likely exists an ideal level of lean muscle mass which aligns with that individual's ideal heart function, physiology, gut biome, physical productivity, and maximum longevity. The goal then for each of us is to optimize our lean body mass: not too little that we can't function at high levels, but also not too much that it puts an excessive and unnecessary strain on the rest our bodies!

It is liberating to know genetics largely dictate how muscular we can become. No matter how much I workout, I will never look like a body builder, unless I start taking steroids. What I can, and should, strive for is to be as strong as possible with the modest amount of muscle mass I am capable of building and to maintain that as long as I live.

The best way we currently know of to optimize our muscle mass is by regular strength training, along with eating a healthy whole-food diet, getting plenty of sleep, and keeping stress levels managed.

In summary, while we may idealize highly muscular humans, each of us has our own ideal level of lean muscle mass. This is most likely a much more modest level of muscularity than what we see in professional athletes or in muscle magazines. Our muscles need to be nurtured through proper exercise, diet and lifestyle in order to be optimized for our own genetics. While there is no magic pill to make us all look like greek gods, we can each take steps to have our own ideal bodies which will allow us to thrive!

Posted January 30, 2019 by Tim Rankin