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What Scientists Have Learned About Astronaut Nutrition and How It Can Protect Against Bone and Muscle Loss

What astronaut nutrition tells us about human nutrition

It’s been 60 years since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin journeyed into outer space on the world’s first manned space flight. Since then, humans have walked on the moon and assembled an International Space Station (ISS), and are now gearing up for missions to Mars and Venus as early as the next decade. Space exploration hasn’t limited its advancements to space. In their studies on astronaut nutrition, NASA scientists have uncovered key nutritional interventions for bone loss and muscle loss. What they’ve found is proving to help protect not just astronauts, but earth-bound humans suffering from disease and trauma, such as burn victims and patients undergoing prolonged bed rest. Keep reading, because you’ll be surprised to learn that in times of stress and illness, your body’s needs aren’t that different from an astronaut’s in a microgravity environment.

The Space Food Challenge

Astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria commandeered the longest United States space station mission, spending 215 days in space. And Valeri Polyakov, a Russian cosmonaut spent a record breaking 437 days in space. These types of long-duration space flights present a challenging puzzle to food scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and partner space agencies. 

An astronaut’s endocrine, musculoskeletal, and immune systems depend on adequate nutrient intake to preserve health and counteract the effects of a low-gravity environment. The space environment and weightlessness, as well as the environment of the spacecraft cabin and spacesuit, can have a grave effect on bones, muscles, blood vessels, heart, and nerves if nutrition is not properly managed. 

During their exploration missions, astronauts must not just survive but thrive with limited water, fresh food, storage, and preparation capacity such as heat and hot water. Their food system must be made up of light-weight, single-serving foods with a long shelf life. 

Space food is specially formulated products designed to provide astronauts with the balanced nutrition they need while in space. These foodstuffs are easy to store and cook and consume while in a space shuttle. Astronauts get to select 20% of their food, while the other 80% is standard astronaut fare. 

Astronaut nutrition has come a long way since the Apollo missions. There are still the canned fruits, freeze-dried foods, and irradiated meats, but astronauts living on the ISS receive a resupply of fresh fruits and vegetables several times a year. They can also grow their own plant crops through the The Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie, a space garden on the ISS. They’ve had success growing Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, red Russian kale, and zinnia flowers among other varieties of lettuces and plants. 

Curious about the specifics of an astronaut’s diet? We’ve put together a sample space menu that includes tortilla wraps and shrimp cocktail here

Astronaut nutrition facts

How Astronaut Nutrition Can Protect Against Bone and Muscle Loss

NASA scientists have spent decades researching the bone loss and muscle loss sustained by astronauts in space. To mimic the effects of a microgravity environment on human physiology, study subjects are assigned to long-term bed rest while the efficacy of different nutritional therapies are tested. Scientists have determined that what works for astronauts on space missions can also work on the human body in times of critical illness and stress.  

How to Prevent Bone Loss

Space travel takes a toll on the bones. Bone tissue breaks down at an increased rate while bone formation remains unchanged or decreases. Astronauts experience bone loss, particularly in the legs. The longer the shuttle mission, the greater the bone loss. 

Weightlessness also contributes to the loss of bone density because it increases the amount of calcium excreted in urine which, in turn, raises the risk of kidney stones, a condition linked to bone loss. Calcium absorption also declines during space flight, even when astronauts supplement with this bone-building mineral. 

These deficiencies greatly increase the risk of fractures and osteoporosis-like bone degradation over the long term.

Research points to several nutrients as bone-saving therapies: vitamins D, K, and C alongside protein, which helps to build bones and protect bone health. In addition to daily exercise and food products rich in calcium and vitamin D, supplementing with essential amino acids, the raw components of protein, and engaging in daily exercise are proven bone and muscle-saving measures for crew members in space and for people in critical conditions. 

How to Prevent Muscle Loss

According to nasa.gov, astronauts lose 20% of their muscle mass on a 5 to 11 day space flight. This rate of muscle loss mimics that of bed rest, which puts muscle loss at 12% after a week of inactivity. By studying the effects of bed rest on muscle mass, space programs are able to develop nutritional interventions for astronauts. Essential amino acids are emerging as one of the most important nutrients to help preserve muscle mass in zero-gravity environments and in conditions of stress and disease. 

Both space flight and bed rest result in profound reductions in muscle mass, strength, and function, which can have long-term consequences on health, including increasing the risk of obesity, disease, and mortality. When combined with resistance training, essential amino acid supplementation before or after resistance training (which astronauts perform for 2.5 hours a day!) prevents losses in muscle mass and strength by as much as two-thirds (1). 

Another study showed that an essential amino acid supplement can help preserve single fiber function during long-term bed rest and space flight likely due to the ability to increase muscle protein synthesis. Researchers conclude that supplementation with essential amino acids can help stimulate muscle protein synthesis and thus protect against microgravity-induced loss of myofibrillar protein, muscle atrophy, and decrease in fiber force and power (2).

Study after study has shown similar results, so much so that Amino Co scientists, including a select group of researchers who conducted these NASA-funded experiments, came together to develop a patented formula of essential amino acids to help protect against the muscle loss experienced by astronauts in space flight and individuals undergoing prolonged bed rest and recovery. And they’re available to the public in several different formulations targeted to specific health needs.

  • Active Aging Life helps prevent the natural decline of muscle and heart function that begins at around age 40 and has been proven in clinical trials to improve physical function, muscle strength, and blood lipid profiles for better heart health.
  • Surgical Recovery Heal reduces recovery times and enhances physical function after surgery and injuries by speeding up muscle repair and supporting a healthy inflammatory response.
  • Athletic Performance Perform improves concentration, mental clarity, and muscle performance during exercise and reduces fatigue, dehydration, and recovery times.  

It’s the best of astronaut nutrition in one tasty scoop. And while you may not be prepping for a Mars mission, these premium blends help to optimize your health with amino acid nutrition so that you can be ready for any surprise missions here on earth, such as an unexpected surgery or illness.

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