Do Omega-3s Prevent Age-Related Muscle Loss?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Exercise, Supplements and Health

Does Fish Oil Build Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

omega-3Omega-3-rich fish oil supplements have attracted their share of controversy in recent years, but there appear to be lots of reasons to make sure that you get enough omega-3s from your diet.

There is actually pretty good evidence that omega-3s offer a natural approach for people who wish to lower their blood pressure (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/do-omega-3s-lower-blood-pressure/) or heart attack risk (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/fish-oil-really-snake-oil/). There is also some evidence that omega-3s may be important for brain development in infants (J Protzko et al, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8: 25-40, 2013), for mental performance in children (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/omega-3s-improve-reading-skills/) and for preventing cognitive decline in the elderly (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/omega-3s-slow-cognitive-decline/).

If the latest headlines are to be believed, we can add preventing age-related muscle loss to the benefits of an omega-3-rich diet.

Why Is Age-Related Loss of Muscle Mass a Problem?

The term for age-related muscle loss is sarcopenia, and it is a big problem for older adults. After age 50 we lose 1-2% of our muscle mass each year. As you might expect, our strength declines as well. Each 1% loss of muscle mass translates into about 1.5% loss in strength. That means after age 50 we lose 1.5% of our muscle strength each year, and once we hit 60 the rate of loss increases to around 3% per year.

That may not sound like much on an annual basis, but it adds up over time. With a little bit of higher math you can calculate that you could easily have lost 45% of your muscle strength by the age of 70 and a whopping 75% by the age of 80. At that point even the simplest physical activities – lifting a grandchild or a bag of groceries – can become challenging. That loss of strength also contributes to a loss of balance that can lead to debilitating falls.

The most effective way of preventing age-related muscle loss is regular resistance training, especially when coupled with adequate intake of protein and leucine (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/protein-needs-for-older-adults/). However, resistance training is hard work, so many older adults gravitate to quick fixes like testosterone, growth hormone, or DHEA – even though each of those treatment regimens have significant side effects and risks.

That’s why the recent headlines suggesting that a risk-free approach like omega-3 supplementation might increase muscle mass and strength in older adults is so enticing.

Do Omega-3s Prevent Age-Related Muscle Loss?

A previous study had suggested that omega-3 supplementation enhanced the effect of strength training in elderly women (Rodacki et al, AJCN, 95: 428-436, 2012). Although the mechanism of that effect is unclear, the authors of this study decided to go one step further. They asked if omega-3 fatty acids might prevent loss of muscle mass even in the elderly in the absence of a structured exercise program (Smith et al, AJCN, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.105833, 2015).

age-related muscle lossThe study consisted of 44 men and women age 60-85 (average age 69) who were not exercising on a regular basis. They were given either 4 gm of fish oil (containing 1.86 gm of EPA and 1.5 gm of DHA) or a placebo containing corn oil each day for 6 months. Muscle mass and four measures of muscle strength were performed at the beginning of the study and again at 6 months. The measures used were thigh muscle volume (a measure of muscle mass), hand grip strength, overall muscle strength (the maximum weight that the subject could lift in a single repetition for leg press, chest press, knee extension, and knee flexion) and isokinetic power (the power attained in knee extension and flexion exercises). The results were pretty impressive for the omega-3 group compared with the control group:

  • Thigh muscle volume (muscle mass) increased by 3.6%
  • Handgrip strength increased by 6%.
  • Overall muscle strength increased by 4%.
  • Isokinetic power increased by 5.6%.
  • Other than complaints about fishy breath, there were no adverse effects in the omega-3 group.
  • The authors calculated that the increase in muscle mass and strength during 6 months of omega-3 supplementation was sufficient to offset 2-3 years of normal age-related muscle loss and strength loss.
  • The increase in muscle mass and strength associated with omega-3 supplementation was less than can be attained from regular resistance exercise coupled with adequate protein intake. However, it was the same or greater than could be obtained from testosterone, growth hormone or DHEA – and didn’t have the risks associated with those treatments.

For example, a recent study has concluded that testosterone injections are associated with a significant risk of stroke, acute coronary syndromes, hospitalization and death (Layton et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.1573).

The authors concluded ”Fish oil-derived omega-3 therapy slows the normal decline in muscle mass and function in older adults and should be considered a therapeutic approach for preventing sarcopenia and maintaining physical independence in older adults.”

Limitations of the Study

Before you all run out and stock up on fish oil supplements, I should point out that this study has several limitations.

  • It is a very small study. It needs to be replicated by future studies.
  • It used a very high dose of fish oil (4 gm/day). High doses are often used in an initial study like this one just to establish whether there is an effect worth further study. However, this study needs to be repeated at lower doses to see if this benefit of omega-3 supplementation is also seen at more physiological doses (500 – 1,000 mg) of omega-3s.

Because of these limitations, I am not yet ready to agree with the authors that omega-3 supplementation “…should be considered a therapeutic approach for preventing sarcopenia and maintaining physical independence in older adults.” This is an interesting finding that holds the promise of an inexpensive, risk-free, natural approach for maintaining muscle mass in older adults, but it needs to be verified by future studies before it can be widely recommended.

There are many reasons to supplement with omega-3s, but at this point in time I would definitely not recommend fish oil supplementation as an alternative to resistance exercise and adequate protein intake for older adults who wish to prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength.

However, the health risks of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA supplementation are significant. For someone who is absolutely set on pursuing an exercise-free solution to maintaining muscle mass and strength as they age, I would recommend omega-3 supplementation first rather one of the riskier alternatives.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study has suggested that omega-3 supplementation may prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. The study was performed in both men and women age 60-85 who were not exercising on a regular basis.
  • Omega-3 supplementation was less effective than regular resistance exercise coupled with adequate protein intake, but equal to or greater in effectiveness than testosterone, growth hormone, or DHEA treatment.
  • This was a very small study and it used a very high dose of omega-3s. It is a promising finding because it represents an inexpensive, risk-free, natural approach for maintaining muscle mass in older adults, but it needs to be verified by future studies before it can be widely recommended.
  • There are many good reasons to supplement with omega-3s, but at this point in time I would definitely not recommend fish oil supplementation as an alternative to resistance exercise and adequate protein intake for older adults who wish to prevent age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. Resistance training combined with adequate protein is a proven intervention. Omega-3 supplementation is not.
  • However, the health risks of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA supplementation are significant. For someone who is absolutely set on pursuing an exercise-free solution to maintaining muscle mass and strength as they age, I would recommend omega-3 supplementation first rather one of the riskier alternatives. It might just work, and it is a lot less risky.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Joanne Larson

    |

    You mentioned possible risks using dhea What are those risks?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Joanne,

      DHEA is an immediate precursor to both estrogen and testosterone, so the potential side effects are the same as for those hormones. I would be most concerned about cancer.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

Posted November 6, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Microbiome Mysteries

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is our microbiome affected by exerciseIn a recent post,  What is Your Microbiome and Why is it Important,  of “Health Tips From The Professor” I outlined how our microbiome, especially the bacteria that reside in our intestine, influences our health. That influence can be either good or bad depending on which species of bacteria populate our gut. I also discussed how the species of bacteria that populate our gut are influenced by what we eat and, in turn, influence how the foods we eat are metabolized.

I shared that there is an association between obesity and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. At present, this is a “chicken and egg” conundrum. We don’t know whether obesity influences the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut, or whether certain species of gut bacteria cause us to become obese.

Previous studies have shown that there is also an association between exercise and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. In particular, exercise is associated with an increase in bacteria that metabolize fiber in our diets to short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. That is potentially important because butyrate is a primary food source for intestinal mucosal cells (the cells that line the intestine). Butyrate helps those cells maintain the integrity of the gut barrier (which helps prevent things like leaky gut syndrome). It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the immune cells that reside in the gut.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. We don’t know whether the differences in gut bacteria were caused by differences in diet or leanness in populations who exercised regularly and those who did not. This is what the present study (JM Allen et al, Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50: 747-757, 2018 ) was designed to clarify.  Is our microbiome affected by exercise?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

is our microbiome affected by exercise studyThis study was performed at the University of Illinois. Thirty-two previously sedentary subjects (average age = 28) were recruited for the study. Twenty of them were women and 12 were men. Prior to starting the study, the participants filled out a 7-day dietary record. They were asked to follow the same diet throughout the 12-week study. In addition, a dietitian designed a 3-day food menu based on their 7-day recall for the participants to follow prior to each fecal collection to determine species of gut bacteria.

The study included a two-week baseline when their baseline gut bacteria population was measured, and participants were tested for fitness. This was followed by a 6-week exercise intervention consisting of three supervised 30 to 60-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week. The exercise was adapted to the participant’s initial fitness level, and both the intensity and duration of exercise increased over the 6-week exercise intervention. Following the exercise intervention, all participants were instructed to maintain their diet and refrain from exercise for another 6 weeks. This was referred to as the “washout period.”

VO2max (a measure of fitness) was determined at baseline and at the end of the exercise intervention. Stool samples for determination of gut bacteria and concentrations of short-chain fatty acids were taken at baseline, at the end of the exercise intervention, and again after the washout period.

In short, this study divided participants into lean and obese categories and held diet constant. The only variable was the exercise component.

 

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

is our microbiome affected by exercise fitnessThe results of the study were as follows:

  • Fitness, as assessed by VO2max, increased for all the participants, and the increase in fitness was comparable for both lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise induced a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise increased fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the lean subjects, but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were largely reversed once exercise training ceased.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent of diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.” [Note: To be clear, the exercise-induced changes in both gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were independent of diet and contingent on the sustainment of exercise. However, only the production of short-chain fatty acids was dependent on obesity status.]

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

is our microbiome affected by exercise gut bacteriaThere are two important take home lessons from this study.

  • With respect to our gut bacteria, I have consistently told you that microbiome research is an emerging science. This is a small study, so you should regard it as the beginning of our understanding of the effect of exercise on our microbiome rather than conclusive by itself. It is consistent with previous studies showing an association between exercise and a potentially beneficial shift in the population of gut bacteria.

The strength of the study is that it shows that exercise-induced changes in beneficial gut bacteria are probably independent of diet. However, it is the first study to look at the interaction between obesity, exercise and gut bacteria, so I would interpret those results with caution until they have been replicated in subsequent studies.

  • With respect to exercise, this may be yet another reason to add regular physical activity to your healthy lifestyle program. We already know that exercise is important for cardiovascular health. We also know that exercise increases lean muscle mass which increases metabolic rate and helps prevent obesity. There is also excellent evidence that exercise improves mood and helps prevent cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise is also associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and irritable bowel disease. This effect of exercise has not received much attention because the mechanism of this effect is unclear. This study shows that exercise increases the fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps, this provides the mechanism for the interaction between exercise and intestinal health.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that:

  • Exercise induces a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise causes an increase in the number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that are beneficial for gut health.
  • These effects are independent of diet, but do not appear to be independent of obesity because they were seen in lean subjects but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production are largely reversed once exercise training ceases.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent on diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.”

For more details and my interpretation of the data, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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