By Anne-Marie Chalmers, MD
Muscle wasting. It’s a nasty phenomenon that scares many of us over the age of 40 – especially when we stand naked in front of the mirror!
Known more formally as sarcopenia, muscle wasting is a major issue. As many as 25-45% of older adults in the United States suffer from problematic loss of muscle mass and strength. Besides making it harder to carry out everyday physical tasks, sarcopenia is associated with a long list of negative health outcomes, like fractures, hospitalization and early death.
The good news is that there are ways to fight muscle loss. In addition to traditional measures – like regular exercise, getting enough protein, and maintaining healthy vitamin D levels – research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may also be important for preserving our muscle strength.
Does Omega 3 Help with Muscle Growth?
A number of studies have indicated that omega-3s play a role in muscle growth.
Just in the last year, a study from South Korea found that older women with higher omega-3 levels had a lower risk of sarcopenic obesity. In addition, a 2020 meta-analysis of 10 randomized controlled trials found that taking more than 2000 mg of omega-3s daily was associated with a 0.73 pound increase in muscle mass in elderly individuals.
While such improvements may seem minor, keep in mind that most people after age 50 lose 2% of their muscle mass on a yearly basis. Thus, even small improvements in muscle mass and mobility can be meaningful.
These 2020 findings importantly reiterate the results from previous trials. Consider one 2015 study, which found that giving healthy older individuals 3360 mg of EPA/DHA omega-3s daily for 6 months increased thigh muscle volume, handgrip strength, and one-repetition muscle strength (compared to the control group). The researchers of this study noted that, in functional terms, taking the omega-3 supplements had prevented 2 – 3 years worth of normal age-associated losses in muscle mass and function.
Why Does Fish Oil Help Build Muscle?
While researchers are still working to understand exactly how omega-3s influence muscle mass, they have some educated ideas:
One of the central theories is that omega-3s help fight a phenomenon known as “inflammaging,” which is age-related chronic low-grade inflammation. With inflammaging, the body produces higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines that affect signaling pathways for muscle anabolism (ie. muscle building) and catabolism (ie. muscle breakdown).
Since omega-3s have been shown to reduce high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, they may help resolve destructive ongoing inflammation and make the body more effective at building muscle.
Another mechanism could be that omega-3s support muscle mass by counteracting the damage of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress – which is generally caused by poor eating habits, inactivity, smoking, pollution, etc. – contributes to sarcopenia by decreasing muscle protein synthesis. Over time, prolonged oxidative stress can reduce muscle mass quantity. Promisingly, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce certain oxidative stress markers.
Omega-3s May Fight Anabolic Resistance
Part of what makes these theories especially exciting is that they could help address one of the biggest challenges with sarcopenia: Anabolic resistance.
Anabolic resistance refers to the body’s reduced ability to build muscle, even when getting enough exercise, amino acids, protein, etc. Since anabolicresistance increases with age, some researchers believe that adding omega-3s to the mix could be key to achieving better exercise results in older individuals.
How Much Omega-3 Do You Need Every Day?
One of the tricky things about the current omega-3 literature on muscle building is that the trials use a variety of supplement sources, exercise protocols, and other variables. Therefore, the findings are not always conclusive.
With that said, several reviews have identified that getting at least 3000 mg of EPA/DHA omega-3s daily may be necessary in order to achieve positive results for muscle mass in older adults. Since most fish oil capsules contain just 10% of that amount (approximately 300 mg of EPA/DHA per gel cap), this dosage can be hard to replicate through regular omega-3 supplements.
For easier-to-swallow alternatives, liquid products like Omega Cure® Extra Strength and Omega Restore provide 3000 mg of EPA/DHA in pre-measured vials. That’s roughly the same amount of omega-3s found in a 6oz. fillet of wild-caught salmon.
This article was abbreviated from a longer version published on omega3innovations.com. For the full text and references, visit:
About Anne-Marie Chalmers, MD
Born and raised in the United States, Dr. Chalmers graduated from Brown University and completed her medical training at the University of Oslo in Norway. Dr. Chalmers practiced medicine in Norway for many years. Today, she serves as president of Omega3 Innovations.
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