Red wine compound can help astronauts going to Mars stay strong by preventing their muscles from weakening

Red wine compound can help astronauts going to Mars stay strong by preventing their muscles from weakening

An antioxidant found in red wine could help Mars explorers stay strong and prevent their muscles from weakening, according to Harvard scientists.

Unchallenged by gravity, muscles lose both mass and strength during a space flight, a state known as muscle deconditioning. Weight-bearing muscles such as the soleus muscle in the calf are hit first and worst, say experts.

However, resveratrol—a key ingredient in red wine, grapes, and blueberries—could help mitigate muscle deconditioning, allowing astronauts to operate safely on long missions to Mars, whose gravitational pull is just 40% of Earth's, according to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-funded study. The study, published in Frontiers in Physiology, shows that resveratrol substantially preserves muscle mass and strength in rats, which were exposed to the “wasting effects” of simulated Mars gravity. 

Previous studies have investigated resveratrol for its health benefits, including its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, and anti-diabetic effects. "Resveratrol has been shown to preserve bone and muscle mass. So, we hypothesized that a moderate daily dose of resveratrol (150 mg/kg/day) would help mitigate muscle deconditioning in a Mars gravity analog, too. Indeed, our results demonstrate that resveratrol treatment significantly preserves muscle function, and mitigates muscle atrophy,” say the researchers in their findings. 

According to NASA, a trip to Mars could take about 21 months: nine months to get there, three months there, and nine months to get back. However, space travel takes a toll on the human body. The experts from Harvard Medical School say that the soleus muscle shrinks by a third after just three weeks in space. This is accompanied by a loss of "slow-twitch muscle fibers", which are needed for endurance. Accordingly, dietary strategies could be key, say the researchers, adding that this is particularly important as astronauts on Mars missions will not have the opportunity to exercise with the same devices currently deployed on the ISS. 

“After decades of manned low-earth orbit missions, space agencies are now targeting other planets for human exploration. In the coming years, NASA plans to send astronauts to the Moon and to Mars, both of which display a significantly lower gravity than Earth (0.16 and 0.38g, respectively). While there is extensive literature reviewing the impact of microgravity (real or simulated) on the muscular system, relatively little is known about the effects of partial gravity. Thus, mitigating strategies will be needed to prevent muscle deconditioning and allow astronauts to safely perform tasks upon arrival on Mars, especially after being reintroduced to gravity, even if at a reduced level,” says the paper. 

It adds, “Among potential medicinal interventions to prevent muscle deterioration, nutraceuticals are especially appealing since they are naturally occurring compounds that are present in the diet. Of potential candidates, resveratrol (RSV), a polyphenol, commonly found in grape skin, red wine, and blueberries and used as a dietary supplement, has been widely investigated and declared safe for animals and humans. However, its mitigating effect has never been studied in a partial weight-bearing model. In this study, we hypothesized that daily supplementation with a moderate dose of RSV would mitigate muscle impairment in a ground-based partial gravity analog that mimics a Martian environment.”

Resveratrol - a key ingredient in red wine, grapes and blueberries - could help in mitigating muscle deconditioning, allowing astronauts to operate safely on long missions to Mars, whose gravitational pull is just 40% of Earth's, says the research team. (Getty Images)

To mimic Mars gravity, the researchers used a previously developed approach, in which rats were fitted with a full-body harness and suspended by a chain from their cage ceiling. For their study, the team exposed 24 male rats either to normal loading (Earth) or 40% loading (Mars) for 14 days. In each group, half received resveratrol (150 mg/kg/day) in water, while the others were only given water. They, otherwise, fed freely from the same food. The researchers measured calf circumference and front and rear paw grip force weekly, and at 14 days the calf muscles were analyzed.

“The results were impressive. As expected, the 'Mars' condition weakened the rats' grip and shrank their calf circumference, muscle weight, and slow-twitch fiber content. But resveratrol supplementation almost entirely rescued front and rear paw grip in the Mars rats, to the level of the non-supplemented Earth rats. What's more, resveratrol completely protected muscle mass (soleus and gastrocnemius) in the Mars rats, and in particular, reduced the loss of slow-twitch muscle fibers. The protection was not complete, though: the supplement did not entirely rescue average soleus and gastrocnemius fibers cross-sectional area or calf circumference,” said the findings. The study also found that resveratrol did not affect food intake or body weight. 

A possible explanation for their findings, the researchers say, could be insulin sensitivity, and that resveratrol could be responsible for maintaining skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity. “Resveratrol treatment promotes muscle growth in diabetic or unloaded animals, by increasing insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake in the muscle fibers. This is relevant for astronauts, who are known to develop reduced insulin sensitivity during spaceflight,” says the study.

The research team says that more research will be needed to understand the impact of different doses of resveratrol (up to 700 mg/kg/day) in both males and females. They say studies will be required to also ascertain whether there could be potential harmful reactions/interactions of resveratrol with other drugs given to astronauts during space missions.

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