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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Latest Article

Does Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

Posted May 15, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

How Do You Gain Muscle Mass & Lose Fat Mass?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

protein supplement timingMost of what you read about protein supplements on the internet is wrong. That is because most published studies on protein supplements:

  • Are very small
  • Are not double blinded.
    • Both the subjects and the investigators knew who got the protein supplement.
  • Are done by individual companies with their product.
    • You have no idea which ingredients are in their product are responsible for the effects they report.
    • You have no idea how their product compares with other protein products.
    • There is no standardization with respect to the amount or type of protein or the addition of non-protein ingredients.

Because of these limitations there is a lot of misleading information on the benefits of protein supplements timing and maximal benefit. Let’s start by looking at why people use protein supplements. Let’s also look at what is generally accepted as true with respect to the best supplement timing.

There are 4 major reasons people consume protein supplements:

  • Enhance the muscle gain associated with resistance training: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed concurrently with the workout.
  • Preserve muscle and accelerate fat loss while on a weight loss diet: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals or as meal replacements.
  • Provide a healthier protein source. In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals in place of meat protein.
  • Prevent muscle loss associated with aging or illness. There is no customary pattern associated with this use of protein supplements.

How good are the data supporting the customary timing of protein supplementation? The answer is: Not very good. The timing is based on a collection of weak studies which do not always agree with each other.

The current study  (J.L. Hudson et al, Nutrition Reviews, 76: 461-468, 2018 ) was designed to fill this void in our knowledge. It is a meta-analysis that compares all reasonably good studies that have looked at the effect of protein supplement timing on weight gain or loss, lean muscle mass gain, fat loss, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

How Was The Study Done?

The authors started by doing a literature search of all studies that met the following criteria:

  • The study was a randomized control trial with parallel design. This means that study contained a control group. It does not mean that the investigators or subjects were blinded with respect to which subjects used a protein supplement and which did not.
  • The subjects were engaged in resistance training.
  • The study lasted 6 weeks or longer.
  • Reliable methods were used to measure body composition (lean muscle mass and fat mass).
  • The subjects were healthy and at least 19 years old.
  • There was no restriction on the food the subjects consumed.

The authors started with 2074 published studies and ended up with 34 that met all their criteria. They then separated the studies into two groups – those in which the protein supplements were used with meals and those in which the protein supplements were used between meals.

Both groups were diverse.

  • Group 1 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement with their meal and those who consumed their protein supplement as a meal replacement.
  • Group 2 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement concurrent with exercise (usually immediately after exercise) and those who consumed their protein supplement at a fixed time of day not associated with exercise.

Does Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

 

protein supplement timing workoutsBecause the individual studies were very diverse in the way they were designed, the authors could not calculate a reliable estimate of how much lean muscle mass was increased or fat mass was decreased. Instead, they calculated the percentage of studies showing an increase in lean muscle mass or a decrease in fat mass.

When the authors compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals:

  • Weight gain was observed in 56% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 72% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • An increase in lean muscle mass was observed in 94% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 90% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • A loss of fat mass was observed in 87% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 59% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • An increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass was observed in 100% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 87% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In short, protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

The following seem to suggest protein supplement timing matters:

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when protein supplements are consumed with a meal they displace some of the calories that otherwise would have been consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors stated that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

The others concluded: “Concurrently with resistance training, consuming protein supplements with meals, rather than between meals, may more effectively promote weight control and reduce fat mass without influencing improvements in lean [muscle] mass.”

What Are The Limitations Of The Study?

Meta-analyses such as this one, are only as good as the studies included in the meta-analysis. Unfortunately, most sports nutrition studies are very weak studies. Thus, this meta-analysis is a perfect example of the “Garbage In: Garbage Out (GI:GO)” phenomenon.

For example, let’s start by looking at what the term “protein supplement” meant.

  • Because the studies were done by individual companies with their product, the protein supplements in this meta-analysis:
    • Included whey, casein, soy, bovine colostrum, rice or combinations of protein sources.
    • Were isolates, concentrates, or hydrolysates.
    • Contained various additions like creatine, amino acids, and carbohydrate.
  • As I discuss in my book, Slaying the Food Myths, previous studies have shown that optimal protein and leucine levels are needed to maximize the increase in muscle mass and decrease in fat mass associated with resistance exercise. However, neither protein nor leucine levels were standardized in the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.
  • Previous studies have shown that protein supplements that have little effect on blood sugar levels (have a low glycemic index) are more likely to curb appetite. However, glycemic index was not standardized for the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.

protein supplement timing workout peopleIn short, the conclusions of this study might be true for some protein supplements, but not for others. We have no way of knowing.

We also need to consider the composition of the two groups.

  • Protein supplements used as meal replacements are more likely to decrease weight and fat mass than protein supplements consumed with meals. Yet, both were included in group 1.
  • Some studies suggest that protein supplements consumed concurrent with resistance exercise are more likely to increase muscle mass than protein supplements consumed another time of day. Yet, both are included in group 2. We also have no idea whether the meals with protein supplements in group 1 were consumed shortly after exercise or at an entirely different time of day.

This was the most glaring weakness of the study because it was completely avoidable. The authors could have grouped the studies into categories that made more sense.

In other words, there are multiple weaknesses that limit the predictive power of this study.

What Can We Learn From This Study?

Despite its many limitations, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, most of us are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio. Simply put, we are either trying to lean out (shape up) or lose weight. And, we want to lose that weight primarily by getting rid of excess fat. For us, calories do matter. With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

 

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study looked at the optimal timing of protein supplements consumed by subjects who were engaged in resistance exercise. Specifically, the study compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals on weight, lean muscle mass, fat mass, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass. The study reported:

  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • Timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean mass to fat mass.

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when a protein supplement was consumed with a meal it displaces some of the calories that would have been otherwise consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors said that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

As discussed in the article above, the study has major weaknesses. However, despite its many weaknesses, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, for those of us who are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio, calories do matter.  With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

For more details, 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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