Most of us practicing either power or endurance sports want to keep decent levels of muscle mass in order to perform our best. It is not always easy since generally this involves taking exogenous protein supplements to promote and maintain muscle mass. Sometimes this is might just be enough due to underlying genetic factors that limit the supplement uptake and assimilation. In addition to that, intensive exercise usually comes with negative side effects to our bodies such as inflammation of our tissues or oxidative stress inside our cells which slows our recovery. A natural molecule rarely known by athletes and triathletes might actually be a good solution to these problems.
Muscle mass and diet
Surely, just as me, many people have actually gone into protein supplements to gain muscle mass for any purpose. However, genetic mutations in genes even associated to performance in Ironman Triathlons such as the ones in the NOS3 gene, involved in vasodilation also in muscles, may greatly affect how much muscle mass we can pump up 1. Supplements such as L-arginine and other amino acids represent a very valid way to increase expression levels of NOS3 for example. Some foods like turkey or spirulina algae contain high levels of the muscle mass growth promoting amino acid arginine. Said that, depends on each individual how significant the benefit of these supplements can be. We might simply not have enough levels of receptors that capture these amino acids so most of the supplement would leave our body without being absorbed.
Usrolic Acid – a wide spectrum molecule
A natural molecule called Ursolic Acid (UA) has shown promising properties desired by triathletes. In several scientific studies in both animals and humans, UA has been shown to enhance the production of the mediator of the growth hormone called IGF-I (insulin growth factor) 2. Seemingly, IGF-1 activates several downstream pathways such as Akt which ultimately leads to muscle hypertrophy 3. This is interesting as it represents two independent strategies to promote muscle growth. Besides the effects on skeletal muscle, UA is responsible for increasing fat burning and has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties 4. What’s more, it is amazing that a single compound can reduce oxidative stress to ease our recovery, help burning fat and at the same time contribute to our muscle performance. A winning combination with no doubt! I hope to see more studies in the future addressing these benefits more in depth.
Where can Ursolic Acid be found?
This interesting molecule belongs to a group of compounds so-called terpenes, in particular, triterpenes, widely found in the plant kingdom. Triterpenes have many functions in plants including self-defense against predators, antioxidant activities to protect them from radiation and even communication between plants. UA is found in many plants such as in the peel of apples, however, the American Cranberry (Accinium macrocarpon) is to date, the species with a higher concentration of this precious compound 5. Interestingly the molecule can be bought as a supplement in online stores. As a scientist in the matter, I think it would be interesting to develop an efficient production method of this compound in the future since it presents many interesting health benefits.
I have to admit that after going through the literature on this matter, the results of ingesting this molecule seem difficult to ignore. Therefore I am planning to include a cocktail of natural supplements such as arginine containing Spirulina and large cranberries to see if I can benefit from this molecule in terms of muscle mass. As a triathlete, it is critical for me to achieve high leg power needed for a strong cycling race, currently my weakness in this sport. Keep posted for more interesting tips!
1 Saunders, C. J. et al. The bradykinin beta 2 receptor (BDKRB2) and endothelial nitric oxide synthase 3 (NOS3) genes and endurance performance during Ironman Triathlons. Human molecular genetics 15, 979-987, doi:10.1093/hmg/ddl014 (2006).
2 Kunkel, S. D. et al. Ursolic acid increases skeletal muscle and brown fat and decreases diet-induced obesity, glucose intolerance and fatty liver disease. PloS one 7, e39332, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039332 (2012).
3 Izumiya, Y. et al. Fast/Glycolytic muscle fiber growth reduces fat mass and improves metabolic parameters in obese mice. Cell metabolism 7, 159-172, doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2007.11.003 (2008).
4 Wozniak, L., Skapska, S. & Marszalek, K. Ursolic Acid–A Pentacyclic Triterpenoid with a Wide Spectrum of Pharmacological Activities. Molecules 20, 20614-20641, doi:10.3390/molecules201119721 (2015).
5 Kondo, M. et al. Ursolic acid and its esters: occurrence in cranberries and other Vaccinium fruit and effects on matrix metalloproteinase activity in DU145 prostate tumor cells. Journal of the science of food and agriculture 91, 789-796, doi:10.1002/jsfa.4330 (2011).