Thursday, August 3, 2017

Everything You Need to Know about Catabolism (Muscle Breakdown)


Catabolism is the process where muscle mass is broken down. According to Wikipedia, Catabolism refers to any process where molecules are broken down to be used either for energy or an anabolic (building) process. Catabolism can also refer to the breakdown of fat for energy. Therefore, catabolism in itself is not a bad thing. It can be beneficial if it is breaking down fat cells, for those who are trying to lose weight. Many people have a negative viewpoint on catabolism because it is most often used to describe the breakdown of muscle tissue.

In this article, we will be focusing on the catabolism process with regard to muscle breakdown (the negative kind that you don't want to happen). Your body enters a catabolic state when it is too stressed, for example, and breaks down muscle tissue for a quick source of energy. 

The word is often thrown around many a webpage, and I thought it would be good to write up an in-depth article on what catabolism actually is, what it does, its causes and what you can do to minimize its effects.

The importance of understanding catabolism

According to fitday.com, understanding what catabolism is and how the process works will empower athletes and all health-conscious individuals to achieve greater results with their exercise and eating plans. They will be able to increase their fitness levels, reach their desired body compositions or grow muscle mass more efficiently if they have the right knowledge about what the body is breaking down during different times. 

By understanding catabolism and the catabolic state that your body enters into for various reasons, you can either enhance or counteract this process. For example, knowing when your body will break down muscle for energy will allow you to take actions that will minimize this process. Additionally, knowing when your body will break down fat cells instead will allow you to take steps that will maximize that specific chain of events.

Fit day uses the example of an athlete that knows when muscles are most likely to be broken down in his body because of hormones that are released during exercise. With this knowledge, he is able to stop this process by eating certain nutrients before, during and after exercise. This will decrease the amount of muscle that is broken down and therefore further his specific goals more easily.

Catabolism is a natural process

Many metabolic processes require a catabolic state in order to function properly. Without catabolism, your body cannot break down nutrients for energy and bodily repair. Catabolism is needed for anabolism, because nutrients are needed to be broken down into usable building blocks before they can be reformed into new tissue.

Catabolism and anabolism need to be kept in balance for the right things to be catabolized. Keeping the right balance between the two allows you to avoid the wrong things being catabolized. Your body will always prioritize survival. If it senses that it needs to break down muscle in order to survive, it will do so. If your body has a higher rate of catabolism and a lower rate of anabolism, muscle and fat deposits can become depleted. 

A good example of this would be hard gainers, ectomorphs and very skinny people. They struggle to put on weight because they have high metabolisms. Their bodies are very efficient at breaking down nutrients for energy. Since their bodies are so catabolic (breaking down so many nutrients for energy), they tend to be more catabolic than anabolic. Since catabolism is higher in these instances, these people have lower fat and muscle masses. When understanding the idea of catabolism in this way, it becomes clear that these people can eat more (to increase nutrient availability), exercise in ways that encourage anabolism (increase muscle growth), and work to lower their metabolisms if they want to change their bodies.

Bodybuilders aim to decrease body mass catabolism and maximize muscular anabolism by increasing nutrient intake and limiting exercises to activities that stimulate muscle growth during their bulking phases. During cutting cycles, they decrease nutrients (while still ensuring that they get enough to minimize muscle catabolism) to increase fat catabolism.

The causes of muscle catabolism and muscle breakdown


1. Insufficient nutrition

Livestrong.com explains that muscle catabolism can be avoided through proper nutrition. Larger muscle mass requires more calories to maintain. Therefore the more muscle you have, the more nutrients your body will need to maintain it. They say that sufficient protein and essential fats are the most important nutrients to prevent muscle break down. These two nutrients do this by giving the body what it needs to maintain muscle and regulate muscle-friendly hormones. 

20% of your diet should include protein to maintain muscle mass. This increases to 30% if you exercise every day. You can use protein supplements to assist you if you battle to get your protein requirements from your daily diet, but you need to ensure that the majority of your diet consists of real food. Good sources of natural protein include meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds and legumes. 

20% of your diet should consist of fats. Good sources of healthy fats are oily fish (like salmon, pilchards, herring, mackerel and trout), olives, avocado, nuts, seeds and dairy products.

Eat fresh fruit and vegetables to keep healthy. When looking at a new diet, you always need to include a good amount of fresh fruit and vegetables for optimum health. This is essential to get all the micro nutrients that your body needs to be optimally healthy. Failure to get these micro nutrients can lead to illness (a significant cause of muscle break down - see below). Also, these are needed to improve digestion, which ultimately helps your body to absorb the nutrients it needs to achieve your goals. 

2. Prolonged exercise (and over training)

The Journal of Applied Physiology showcases a study that investigated the effects of muscle breakdown during prolonged exercise. They measured the breakdown of protein by looking at urea levels. Urea is the end product that is made when protein is broken down. High urea levels, for example, indicate highly broken down muscle mass. They measured the urea levels of participants who cycled for 1 hour at 61% of their VO2 max to determine the correlation between muscle loss and exercise duration. The researchers found that 13.7 grams of protein was broken in 1 hour of exercise. 10.4% of the total energy cost (measured in calories) was obtained by breaking down protein. The study reports that protein is broken down at a much greater extent than what is commonly estimated.

This study shows that you lose more muscle during exercise than what you would probably think. This happens because your body does not realize that you can stop exercising when you want to and that you are doing it out of choice. It thinks that you are physically exerting yourself because you have to for your survival. In order to protect your survival, it ensures that your system has as much energy as it can physical produce to allow you to do what you need to do. It would rather break down the protein in your muscle to survive than preserve it and compromise your chances of survival.

This sounds like a very depressing story. You exercise to get into better shape, but your body breaks down muscle when you do. The good news is that by understanding the above process, you can take steps to minimize the amount of protein that is broken down. Here are the ways that you can improve muscle retention during physical activity.

Don't prolong exercise for too long

Find the optimum length of time that you are going to train for, depending on your goals. Marathon runners have less muscle mass because they exercise for extremely long periods of time.

If your goal is to become a marathon runner, you shouldn't mind losing muscle mass as much as other athletes, because it will make you lighter and therefore require less energy to move your body over a long distance. You can still retain some muscle mass, though, by following the next few points.

If your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, like bodybuilders do, you should limit the amount of time that you spend on each workout to 90 minutes.

Check the exercise intensity

Exercise above a VO2 max of 60% is considered to be a very high intensity exercise. The higher the intensity of the exercise session, the more your body will break down muscle for energy. Take this into consideration when planning your exercise routines.

For example, I lower the intensity of my exercises by increasing the rest times between sets. This minimizes muscle loss. I do this because some of my training programs can't be squeezing into 90 minutes. I compensate for this by resting for longer than 2 minutes between sets so that the intensity is lower and therefore my body needs less calories to complete the task. I make these changes because muscle growth is a bigger priority than fitness. If fitness was more important to me than muscle size, I would rest less instead.

Have enough rest days

You muscles grow just as much on rest days (if not more) as they do on training days. If you don't have enough rest days, you are burning more energy than you should to achieve your goals. Catabolism is one of the ways that over training (training so much that the body does not have enough time to fully recover) negatively affects your physical progress. Exercise stimulates a muscle to get better. Rest is where it actually gets better. You need a balance between both. Too much of one will cancel out the positive effects of the other. Here are great ways to get the most out of every rest day.

Meet energy requirements

If your body is breaking muscle down for energy, then clearly providing your body with the energy that it needs will decrease the amount of muscle that it breaks down. BCAA's (branched chain amino acids) are known to reduce muscle breakdown and provide energy during exercise. Consuming the nutrients that your body needs for energy before, during and after exercise will also lower muscle catabolism.

3. Sleep

There are two sides of the coin when it come to the relationship between sleep and muscle breakdown. Firstly, sleeping without the right nutrients in your system can lead to catabolism because your body needs energy and resources to repair all of its tissues. Secondly, insufficient sleep leads to muscle breakdown because it does not have the time it needs to recover and rebuild.

The right nutrients to recover when sleeping

The nutrition you consume before sleep determines what resources your body has to rebuild. Nutrition timing determines how much your body can repair and grow during sleep. If you have enough of what your body needs, it can use these resources to replenish energy levels, maintain physical tissue, grow muscle and repair the central nervous system (a very important system that every athlete must look after).

If you don't have the right nutrients during these times, your body can recycle the protein in your muscles into the energy and building blocks that it needs to ensure that you recover and function at your best the next day. This decreases muscle mass. Your body will rather recover and function properly instead of retaining muscle and risk degrading into oblivion. Give your body what it needs to be able to do both.

You can do this by consuming a good amount of slow-release protein and complex carbohydrates before sleep. Slow release versions work best because they will last in your system for longer. Remember: they should be available for as much of your 8-hour sleep period as possible. I have a nutrition shake that has carbohydrates and casein protein, because casein lasts longer in your system before being used up. You can see the difference between protein supplements according to how long they last in your system here.

Getting the right amount of sleep

Medical News Today explains that lack of sleep can actually cause muscle loss. When you don't get enough sleep, you don't get enough recovery. This is because a large portion of recovery happens when you sleep. Your body needs to recover in order to become better at using energy more efficiently. When you haven't recovered, it takes more energy to do normal activities and function properly. This is why you crave food that is high in calories on days following poor sleep. Lack of sleep forces your body to prioritize regular function instead of muscle growth. It prioritizes regular function over retention as well, meaning that it will break down muscle tissue if it needs the resources.

4. Aging

Springer Link, a Sports Medicine authority, explains muscle loss as a result of aging. This also results in decreased muscle function. It also contributes to the increased risk of accidental falls and injuries.

As depressing as the above statement is, there is a little good news that comes with it. It may not be reversed or indefinitely stopped, but exercise can drastically decrease muscle loss from aging. Maintaining a good exercise routine right into old age can not only keep you around for longer, but keep those guns strong and healthy. Numerous studies have found that elderly people who start exercising can possibly reverse some conditions associated with old age and may appear younger than before they started.


5. Stress

Firstendurance.com explains how cortisol, the stress hormone, breaks down muscle mass. When your body is stressed, it undergoes changes in order to prepare for the impending dangers that it faces. It thinks that your survival is threatened and therefore releases cortisol to prepare the body for fight or flight. In preparation for this anticipated danger, your body will slow down recovery processes so that the energy that is used for those functions can rather be used where it might be needed more. Additionally, the body will gather its resources for quick energy that it can use. One of the resources that it will tap into is... you guessed it... muscle mass.

The opposite is also true. Serotonin (the happy, relaxing hormone) speeds up recovery because this hormone signals to the body that there is no impending danger. This lets the body know that it can relax and rather focus its resources on other functions like recovery.

A study proved that sending clowns into a hospital shortened the recovery times of its patients. The proposed reason for this was the reduction in the cortisol stress hormone and an increase in happy hormones which therefore increased internal anabolic processes.

Nutrition can help minimize the catabolic effects of stress because your body will have the nutrients that it needs for energy. Managing the stress in your life and creating opportunities for you to feel relaxed will help your body to become less catabolic and more anabolic.

6. Hormonal imbalances

Testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH, or growth hormone for short) and IGF-1 are hormones that support anabolic activity such as building muscle. They play vital roles in muscular repair, recovery, maintenance and performance.

Having imbalances of these hormones can interfere with your body's ability to build muscle and properly recover from exercise. On the other hand, exercise helps to regulate and improve these home levels.

Did you know? Women also naturally produce testosterone. Optimal testosterone levels in women ensure good health and lower-than-natural levels can cause adverse health effects.

7. Illness

Diseases and illnesses limit your body's ability to build and maintain muscle because of the way that they negatively impact basic biological functions. This is one of the reasons why maintaining a healthy lifestyle outside of exercise is important to boost the effects of exercise. Illness can reduce your physical achievements and potentially reverse all the hard work that you have put in. Exercise is one way to prevent many illnesses, but there are other essential ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle as well.

In order to protect yourself against illness and disease, it is important to follow a healthy, balanced diet, get enough rest and sleep, live a balanced life that includes fun hobbies and relaxing activities, interact with other people and have a reason to wake up every morning. All of these beneficial activities will not only add to your life, but also assist you in achieving your own physical goals.


I hope that this article has helped you learn the basics about catabolism, what it means and how to use the information to maximize the effort that you put into your body. I am looking forward to reading your comments below. STAY STRONG!