Omega-3 fatty acids have been long touted for their cardiovascular benefits. But many research studies strongly suggest that these fatty acids exert improvements well beyond those related to heart health.
Omega-3 fatty acids and/or fish oil supplements (the latter being a rich source of omega-3s) have been administered to those with cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and psychiatric disorders (i.e. schizophrenia and major depressive disorder) with resultant improvements in disease-specific outcomes and body composition (read: more and/or better quality of muscle) (1, 2). The supplement also has essentially no side effects, aside from the occasional lingering fishy after-taste. It’s thought that these beneficial effects are due to omega-3’s inhibition of numerous pro-inflammatory pathways.
So is there a place for these supplements in healthy populations? Say, exercising older adults? This is exactly what Mariasole Da Boit and a group of colleagues investigated in a randomized, double-blind placebo controlled trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition earlier this year (3). Fifty men and women (age 70.6 ± 4.5) participated in a resistance exercise training program for lower limbs twice weekly for 18 weeks. All were randomized to 3g fish oil/day or placebo (3g safflower oil/day). In women, maximal isometric torque (static contraction) and muscle quality defined by torque per unit of muscle cross-sectional area improved more in the fish oil group, independent of muscle mass changes; no differences were observed in men. Plasma triglycerides decreased in both sexes, while maximal isokinetic torque (moving contraction), 4-minute walk test, chair-rise time, muscle size, and muscle fat did not differ. The authors speculate that omega-3 improves neuromuscular function and/or enhances the contractile properties of type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. Some findings suggest that older women do not increase muscle strength to the same degree as older men; thus women could undergo a more profound response to resistance training since there is a greater capacity for muscular improvement.
While this is only one study and the mechanisms behind the results are somewhat speculative, the results are promising. With forthcoming research, omega-3 fatty acid supplements might become an evidence-based recommendation for healthy community-dwelling older adults and many clinical populations.
- Lee S, Gura KM, Kim S, Arsenault DA, Bistrian BR, Puder M. Current clinical application of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Nutrition in Clinical Practice 2006; 21(4):323-41
- Murphy RA, Mourtzakis M, Chu QS, Baracos VE, Reiman T, Mazurak VC. Nutritional intervention with fish oil provides a benefit over standard of care for weight and skeletal muscle mass in patients with nonsmall cell lung cancer receiving chemotherapy. Cancer 2011;117(8):1775-82.
- Da Boit , Sibson R, Sivasubramaniam S, Meakin JR, Greig CA, Aspden RM, et al. Sex differences in the effect of fish-oil supplementation on the adaptiveresponse to resistance exercise training in older people: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2017; 105:151-8