Fatty fish, like salmon, is good for you. One of the most compelling reasons to add more fish to your diet is the omega-3 fats they contain. Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked with a lower risk for certain diseases like heart disease due to their anti-inflammatory benefits. There’s also some evidence that a diet rich in omega-3s can lower your blood pressure and has mood-stabilizing benefits. Now there’s another reason to put more omega-3 fatty fish on the table. A new study shows foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids or fish oil supplements may boost muscle strength and help you get more out of your strength-training program.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Do They Boost Muscle Strength?
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers enrolled 45 older women, with an average age of 65, in a 90-day strength-training program. They were divided into three groups. One group took a 2-gram fish oil supplement daily during the study. Another took a 2-gram fish oil supplement 60 days before the strength-training program started and continued taking a fish oil supplement throughout the program. The third group did similar strength workouts without taking supplements.
The results? Women in the two fish oil supplement groups showed greater improvements in strength and functional capacity compared to the women who strength trained without supplementing with fish oil. This isn’t the first study to show a link between omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil and greater muscle strength. Another smaller study in 2012 in older women showed similar benefits. These women took 4 grams of fish oil a day and got almost doubled the benefits they got from strength training compared to a placebo group.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Loss of Muscle Strength and Aging
Why is this important? We lose muscle strength and muscle mass with age, and eating a diet rich in omega-3s could help slow down this decline when combined with regular strength training. Of course, this is a small study looking at a single population, older women. It’s not clear whether younger women or men would experience the same benefits.
Why might omega-3 fatty acids improve muscle strength? Research in animals shows omega-3s reduce cortisol levels. Plus, a study carried out in men showed supplementation with fish oil lowered the amount of cortisol released in response to mental stress. Cortisol levels rise in response to stress and strenuous exercise or exercise of long duration. Cortisol has a catabolic effect, breaking down muscle proteins during periods of stress and low blood sugar so the liver can use them to make glucose. Putting the brakes on cortisol works in your favor if you’re trying to build lean body mass.
Fish oil supplementation has also been linked in studies with greater insulin sensitivity. It seems to improve insulin sensitivity by increasing levels of a protein produced by fat cells called adiponectin. Adiponectin not only improves insulin sensitivity, the ability of cells to take up glucose, it also has a metabolism-boosting and appetite-suppressing effect. That’s a good thing if you’re trying to improve your body composition.
Fish Oil and Omega-3s: Is It Best to Get It Through Diet or Supplements?
Omega-3 fatty acids offer a number of possible health benefits and they may help you improve your body composition through their effects on cortisol, insulin sensitivity, and muscle strength. Ideally, it’s best to get fish oil through diet – eating fatty fish. The omega-3s in fish oil capsules are prone towards rancidity and oxidative damage, especially if you store them in a warm environment or expose them to light or air. The problem is you have to eat a fair amount of fish – a few servings a day – to get the quantities used in these studies.
The good news is you may not have to eat THAT much fish to get equivalent benefits. The DHA and EPA (omega-3s) in fish oil capsules aren’t as well absorbed as the omega-3s found naturally in fish. Therefore, you’ll probably get the same benefits by eating 2-4 servings of wild salmon weekly. Plus, it’s almost always best to get nutrients in their natural form rather than in isolation. The key is to choose wild fatty fish, not farmed since farmed fish is lower in omega-3s and higher in harmful toxins.
If you do use fish oil supplements to get your omega-3 fatty acids, buy them from a reputable manufacturer. Make sure they come in a dark bottle to protect them against light and store them in a cool, dark place. Look for a brand that’s purified using molecular distillation to remove toxins.
The Bottom Line?
Add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet through diet if possible. If not, choose an omega-3 fish oil supplement from a reputable company and take no more than 2 grams a day. There’s no real evidence that you need more than this to get the health benefits unless you’re treating an elevated triglyceride level.
Talk to your doctor before taking omega-3s in supplement form since they have blood-thinning properties that may not be suitable for everyone, particularly people taking blood thinners or aspirin. Omega-3s are not only heart-healthy, but they may also improve muscle strength and body composition while reducing inflammation. Make sure you’re getting enough of them, preferably through diet.
Am J Clin Nutr February 2012 ajcn.021915.
BBC News. “Fish oils ‘help slow age decline”
Diabetes Metab. 2003 Jun;29(3):289-95.
The Clinical Advisor. “Fish oil may benefit insulin sensitivity”
Wu JHY et al. “Effect of fish oil on circulating adiponectin: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” J Clinical Endocrinol Metab 2013.