A key hallmark of aging is a progressive loss of muscle mass, which occurs independently of health status.[1] Exercise and nutrition are the two main anabolic stimuli for muscle growth and its maintenance throughout the life course.[2-11]
It is clear that maintaining high physical activity and exercise levels throughout ones lifespan reduces aging related loss of muscle mass and function, compared with living a sedentary life.[12-19] However, even active older adults and master elite athletes still experience some loss of muscle and physical performance with advancing age.[8, 13, 20]
When it comes to nutrition, high protein intake [2, 3, 10, 21] and creatine supplementation [4-8, 22] are two of the best documented interventions, which together with resistance exercise training, result in greater increases muscle mass and strength in both young [21-23] and older people [2-8, 10], and prevent its loss with aging. Here I will present the relatively unknown effects of fish oil (most well-known for its cardiovascular health promoting effects) on muscle growth (anabolism) and its possible contribution to prevention of aging related loss of muscle mass and function…

Increased Muscle Growth with Fish Oil
Several studies therefore directly investigated the effect of fish oil on metabolic pathways that underlie muscle growth, with very interesting findings….
Supplementing healthy young and middle-aged (25-45 year old) men and women with 4 g per day of fish oil concentrate – providing a daily dose of 1.86 g EPA and 1.5 g DHA – for 8 weeks was found to significantly increase the anabolic response of muscle protein synthesis to amino acids and insulin.[24] The augmented anabolic response to amino acids and insulin was shown to be due to an increased activation of the mTOR/p70S6K signaling pathway, which is considered an integral control point for muscle protein anabolism [25] and muscle cell growth.[26-29]
Other mechanisms probably contribute as well. The same study showed that the fish oil supplementation doubled the proportion of EPA, DPA (another less well known omega-3 fatty acid) and DHA in muscle cell membranes, at the expense of omega-6 fatty acids and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, with no change in saturated fatty acid concentrations.[24] Thus, it is possible that fish oil supplementation may influence anabolic signaling cascades by affecting membrane lipid composition and/or fluidity.[30-33]
Fish oil supplementation also confers muscle anabolic effects in the elderly. The same research team conducted another study, using an identical research protocol (1.86 g EPA and 1.5 g DHA for 8 weeks), in healthy elderly subjects over 65 years (mean age 71 years).[34] The results were the same as in the younger subjects [24]; fish oil supplementation significantly increased the muscle protein synthetic response to amino acids and insulin.[34] Thus, fish oil seems to attenuate the anabolic resistance to protein intake that develops with aging.[35-37] The researchers were so impressed with this response that they concluded high dose fish oil may be useful for both prevention and treatment of sarcopenia.[34] Support for this comes from a study specifically demonstrating that fish oil increases anabolic signaling in aged muscles.[38]
Both of these studies only measured the response of muscle protein synthesis to amino acids and insulin.[24, 34] Muscle mass, which is the result of a net positive muscle protein balance over a longer time period (at least 6 months), was not measured because the interventions lasted for only 8 weeks. However, taking into consideration that changes in muscle protein metabolism precede corresponding changes in muscle mass [39-41], these results are very promising.
Indeed, recently longer term outcomes of the fish oil supplementation study in elderly were published.[42] Compared with the placebo group (which were given identical soft gels containing corn oil), supplementing healthy elderly subjects with 1.86 g EPA and 1.5 g DHA for 6 months significantly increased thigh muscle volume by 3.6%, handgrip strength by 2.3 kg (5.1 lb), 1-RM muscle strength by 4.0%. There was also a trending increase in power output by 5.6% in the fish oil group.[42]
The difference in muscle volume between the fish oil and the placebo group at 6 mo was +3.5%, and the difference in overall muscle strength was +6%.[42] This suggests that 6 month of fish oil supplementation can prevent 2-3 years of normal age-related losses in muscle mass (0.5–1.0%/year) and function (w2–3%/year).[43-46] Thus, it was concluded that the fish oil fatty acids EPA and DHA may slow the common age-related decline in muscle mass and function in older adults, and that fish oil should be considered a therapeutic approach for preventing sarcopenia and maintaining physical independence in older adults.[42]
Decreased Muscle Breakdown with Fish Oil
Another way that fish oil can promote muscle growth is by exerting anti-catabolic effects. Muscle growth occurs during periods of positive net muscle protein balance, that is, when muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Muscle proteins undergo a continuous process of synthesis (anabolism) and breakdown (catabolism). In a healthy state, the anabolic and catabolic processes are balanced to maintain stability, or an increase muscle mass (as is observed with resistance training combined with proper nutrition and supplementation).
Catabolism of muscle tissue is common in both clinical states (for example diabetes, renal failure, trauma and cancer) and during dieting and other stress conditions [47-52]. During these catabolic states, muscle protein degradation (catabolism) exceeds muscle protein synthesis (anabolism), which results in muscle loss and weakness.
Muscle protein catabolism is primarily caused by the ubiquitin-proteasome system [49, 52-57]. It is here fish oil enters the picture, since its fatty acid EPA significantly decreases the activity of the muscle protein catabolic (ubiquitin-proteasome) system.[48, 50, 51, 58-62]
An additional mechanism by which fish oil may exert its anti-catabolic effect is by reducing cortisol levels.[63, 64] Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue [65] and contributes a host of other detrimental health effects when present at chronically elevated levels (which is a topic for another article).[66-68] Thus, the cortisol lowering is a beneficial effect of fish oil beyond anti-catabolism.
Does the greater muscle anabolism and reduced catabolism translate into physical performance enhancement?
When it comes to prevention of muscle loss with aging, a paramount question is whether the beneficial muscle anabolic and anti-catabolic effects seen in short term studies translate into physical performance enhancement? Several long-term studies show promising effects.
One study in postmenopausal women found long-term (6 months) fish oil supplementation (providing 1.2g EPA + DHA]) to improve physical performance indices (such as walking speed) compared to placebo (olive oil).[69] Moreover, during a 90-day resistance exercise training program in older women, the consumption of fish oil supplements (2 g per day) resulted in greater gains in muscle strength and functional capacity when compared with a placebo.[70] And as outlined above, long term fish oil supplementation increases not only thigh muscle volume, but also muscle strength as well as power output.[42]
More and more studies show that the anabolic effects of nutrients (e.g. amino acids or proteins), hormones (e.g. insulin, testosterone) and/or exercise on muscle can be enhanced by long-term fish oil supplementation.[71] A recent review of the research literature concluded that long-term fish oil supplementation, in association with anabolic stimuli like exercise and proper nutrition, could potentially provide a safe, simple and low-cost intervention to counteract anabolic resistance and aging related loss of muscle mass, strength and performance.[71]
Conclusion
In a previous article “Muscles – not just for bodybuilders!” I explained that, contrary to mainstream attitudes, muscles aren’t just for show. Your muscle mass contributes to your physical and metabolic health, which in turn paves the way for multiple health benefits.
Research shows that fish oil supplementation in both young and older adults increases muscle protein synthesis in response to anabolic stimuli like exercise and protein intake, and over time increases both muscle mass, strength and power output. It is indeed impressive that 6 month of fish oil supplementation in people who have passed their middle-age can prevent 2-3 years of normal age-related losses in muscle mass and function.
Aim for a daily fish oil intake that provides at least 1900 mg (1.9 g) EPA and 1500 mg (1.5 g) DHA. Ideally, strive to get at minimum about 4000 mg (4 g) EPA + DHA combined. At of this writing, there is not enough research data to make precise recommendations on any specific EPA-to-DHA ratio for muscle growth.
Remember to read the labels as different fish oil products provide different amounts of EPA and DHA. Don’t buy low quality fish oil products that do not specify the content of EPA and DHA individually. Look for a fish oil concentrate that provides over 50% EPA and DHA of the total fat content.
By adding fish oil supplementation to your daily regimen you will not only reap the muscle related benefits, but also a range of other health benefits (which I will cover individually in upcoming articles):
* Increased fat burning and fat loss.[64, 72-78] This, together with stimulation of muscle anabolism and reduction of muscle catabolism, will contribute to improvement of body composition and related health parameters.
* Improved brain function, cognitive performance (reaction time and memory), and prevention of dementia.[79-89]
* Multifaceted anti-inflammatory protection.[90-100]
* Cardiovascular health promotion and prevention of heart disease [101-108] and the metabolic syndrome.[109]
For more info on how fish oil may help you get in shape, see my other article “Fish Oil for Fat Loss
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About Monica Mollica > www.Ageless.Fitness
Monica-Mollica-Ageless-Fitness_BrinkZone
Monica Mollica holds a Master degree in Nutrition from the University of Stockholm / Karolinska Institue, Sweden. She has also done PhD level course work at renowned Baylor University, TX.
Having lost her father in a lifestyle induced heart attack at an age of 48, she is specializing in cardiovascular health and primordial/primary prevention. She is a strong advocate of early intervention in adolescence and young adulthood, and the importance of lifestyle habits for health promotion at all ages.
Today, Monica is sharing her solid medical research insights and real-life hands on experience and passion by offering nutrition / supplementation / exercise / health consultation services, and working as a medical writer, specializing in health promotion, fitness and anti-aging.
She is currently in the process of writing a book on testosterone, covering health related issues for both men and women.
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48 Comments
  1. Art 8 years ago

    Hello Wil,
    Great article about fish oil !!
    just a little question, whats the best time to supplement the fish oil?
    spreading over the day, morning, day, evening or around the training?
    Thanks for your reply! greetings from Holland. Art

    • Monica 8 years ago

      Try to spread out your fish oil evenly throughout the day. If you don’t want/can to bring your fish oil softgels or oil to work/school etc, take it in the morning and when you back home.

      • Art 8 years ago

        Thanks a lot Monica !!

    • Will Brink 8 years ago

      It is a great article, but I didn’t write it Art.

  2. Nick 8 years ago

    Looking forward to your next article, Monica!
    I’m currently learning how to write well sourced articles like this for the future 🙂
    It is currently an invaluable skill to take all research and separate the evidence from the bull.
    This is probably the most important skill for being on the internet, not to mention the reason why the Brinkzone is so awesome.
    Good luck finding quality, high quantity sources of Omega 3’s. I’ll certainly be interested in how you go through all the products to find what is actually beneficial.
    From a big picture standpoint, Learning how to find an effective fish oil supplement can certainly translate towards a skeptical, research method for organizing one’s nutrition. A method that can help decide what food to add to one’s diet and to use when analyzing other supplements.
    For the future, I’m really interested in hearing about an article about how to most effectively measure one’s training and nutritional progress. There are many methods for measuring progress, yet I only use fat % (skin calipers), body measurements, photos, and amount of weight lifted. Is there a better approach to take? One that allows for more refinement and experimentation in a training and nutrition program? This is an important topic from a personal training standpoint. Also, an important one for a lifelong learner/overachiever 🙂

    • Monica 8 years ago

      Body composition assessment is certainly the best way to objectively gauge your training/nutritional progress. Skin calipers, body measurements, photos, and amount of weight lifted etc. are good ways to self-monitor your progress.
      For those who want to track their progress with a more accurate body composition assessment, the golden standard is DEXA. Contact the nearest large hospital and ask if you can come in as an outpatient and do a body composition DEXA scan. Ask for the gynecology department (because they are the ones who most often use DEXA), and explain to them that you want a complete body composition analysis (and not only an osteopososis investigation). It can be pretty expensive, but if you are a lifelong learner/overachiever you’re going to love the data it gives you.

    • Will Brink 8 years ago

      “It is currently an invaluable skill to take all research and separate the evidence from the bull.This is probably the most important skill for being on the internet, not to mention the reason why the Brinkzone is so awesome.”
      I would agree with that statement! 🙂

  3. Bob 8 years ago

    Wow. This is the first article that I read about fish oil having anabolic effects. Never heard of that before. That’s very interesting.
    Monica, what do you think about Krill Oil, as this is what I’m taking currently. I heard it’s a lot more powerful than regular fish oil.
    Bob

  4. M. Leendert 8 years ago

    Which brands do you recommend for high quality omega 3’s? (must of them are inferior quality, you can notice by the fishy and rancid taste and the cheap price. Any advice would be really appreciated.

    • Monica 8 years ago

      I have given product specific recommendations in the BBR member forum. You will find many good suggestions there.

  5. Chris 8 years ago

    Thats a very interesting article thanks Monica,
    Quick question for you.. on closer inspection of my Omega 3’s each capsule contains 1000mg Omega 3 concentrate, EPA 180mg , DHA 120mg recommended dosage of 3 capsules per day which would amount to EPA 540mg and DHA 360mg. The dosage levels based on your article would equate to me needing to up the levels to 10 capsules a day … would you think that is necessary or should I rather stick to the recommended dosage or move onto a more concentrated oil..
    Regards
    Chris

    • Monica Mollica 8 years ago

      I’d strongly recommend you switch to a fish oil concentrate.

    • Jeff 8 years ago

      google Carlson’s Very Finest Fish Oil. It takes a lot of capsules of fish oil to make a teaspoon.
      1 teaspoon of Carlsons has 800mg EPA, 500mg DHA. 2-3 teaspoons per day will put you in the range recommended in the article.

      • Monica Mollica 8 years ago

        That’s a good choice. For people who don’t like to take the fluid fish oil version, or for whom it is unpractical, there are several good fish oil concentrates.

        • kenneth 8 years ago

          Monica how are you please tell me about this fish oil. can it be any oil like cooking oil?

    • John T 8 years ago

      Another excellent article Monica.
      Chris,
      I’m using Triple Omega 3-6-9, Flax, Fish and Borrage Oils. each cap provides 400mg of EPA and DHA. Three caps will provide 1.2gm of each daily. Based on the dosage in Monica’s article it would only take 2 more caps to reach the recommended level. I’ll just start taking 2 caps with each meal and Viola I’m there.

      • Monica Mollica 8 years ago

        John,
        Triple Omega 3-6-9, Flax, Fish and Borrage Oils is not that great. The label is a bit misleading: it states that 1 softgel provides 400 mg omega-3. However, note that only 30% and 20% of that is EPA and DHA, respectively. This means, that each sg only gives you 80 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA.
        In the BBR member forum I have listed several good fish oil concentrates and specific brand recommendations with links. You, and everybody else who is interested in finding a good fish oil resource, might want to take a look there 🙂

        • cbeet310 6 years ago

          Are Nordic Naturals a reputable brand?

  6. Claudia 8 years ago

    Hey, Monica – You really inspire me. I just turned 50 and want to get back in better shape and more muscular. I have read Will Brink for a long time. It’s nice to see a woman who is muscular – I’m always looking at the men in the magazines. I’ll be following your website and I hope to lose a lot of weight and be looking much better by next summer.
    Keep up the great work

    • Monica Mollica 8 years ago

      Hi Claudia,
      I am so glad to hear that 🙂
      Keep up the great work you too!!!

  7. Seadiver 8 years ago

    Hello
    i do use fish oil for about 2 years in some small amounts, mostly once or twice in a week, is that enoug to get results from it?
    I am a bit whorry about polution, Is it safe to consume Fish oil over a longer period ??
    Fish oil’s May poluted with toxic from heavy metals etc ,
    I buy my fish oil in Holland from a health store in a dark (plastic) bottle 0.5 L it taste great but you can’t see or tast if it’s safe
    Greetings from Belgium
    Freddy

    • Monica Mollica 8 years ago

      Pollutants (mercury, PCB etc) is another reason to use a fish oil concentrate instead of regular fish oil, because in the manufacturing process of fish oil concentrates more pollutants are removed compared to regular fish oil. Fish oil concentrates actually contain less (if any) pollutants than fish!
      No, taking a fish oil supplement just once/twice a week won’t cut it. Get a high quality fish oil concentrate and you don’t have to worry.

  8. Trevor J. 8 years ago

    Great article, Monica!
    I have one question; with fish oil is there then no risk of less muscle adaptation responses from omega-3’s inflammation inhibitory effects?

    • Monica Mollica 8 years ago

      The exercise induced inflammatory burst (as manifested by increased levels of e.g. IL-6, PGE and PGF) is important for the muscle anabolic response to exercise, so this is a valid concern. At very very high dosages (especially EPA) the anti-inflammatory effect could probably to a certain degree counteract the anabolic signalling pathway for muscle protein anabolism and muscle cell growth.
      Thus, if maximal muscle growth is your goal, then don’t go overboard and stick to about 1.86 g EPA and 1.5 g DHA as this was the dosage used in the study showing the fish oil muscle anabolic effect (I would go up to 2 g DHA).

  9. Benny 8 years ago

    I have been taking x-tend life ultra for a while now. What are your thoughts on this product compared to say nordic natural ultimate omega?

  10. William Austin 8 years ago

    I would like too know with is the best too take krill or just fish oil

  11. Ken 8 years ago

    Another great article Will. You got me grinding whole bean coffee and using a French press. Now I will build some muscle. Thanks.

  12. Mitchell Josephs 8 years ago

    Very good article on fish oil. What are your thoughts on krill oil?

  13. Etienne Juneau 8 years ago

    In both of these studies, muscle mass was not measured because the interventions only lasted for 8 weeks. However, taking into consideration that changes in muscle protein metabolism precede corresponding changes in muscle mass 34-36, these results are promising. It is going to be interesting to see longer term studies that measure actual fish oil induced gains in muscle mass, and also how the anabolic response to fish oil interacts with resistance training.
    I’m 100% with you this. Can’t wait to see that done on experienced weight trainers, in conjunction with habitual training.
    Keep it up Monica.
    Also, for your next article on omega-3’s, I’d be curious to know your thoughts about mercury and potential toxicity of cheap brands vs. expensive brands. Are the expensive brands worth my money?
    Thanks,
    Etienne

    • Monica 8 years ago

      Yes! One of the major reasons to “invest” in a high concentrate fish oil products is, other than getting a large enough dose of EPA and DHA, that these have undergone special processing steps (as part of concentrating process) that remove all the contaminants (which are left behind in the production of low grade cheap fish oil products).

  14. Cam 8 years ago

    Great article,
    BUT the dosage is clearly identified but nothing about how often it was taken throughout the day?
    would it be better to get it all in one hit or spread throughout the day??
    thanks

  15. Daniel 8 years ago

    Hi Will,
    another great article of yours!
    When supplementing with fish oil how should I do it? One portion a day or more? Is there a best time to take it or are there times when I should NOT take it like to certain foods or so?
    Best wishes from Germany,
    Daniel

    • Will Brink 8 years ago

      It is a great article, but unless you think I’m an attractive muscular blond women named Monica, you can see it’s not an article of mine 🙂
      Read comments above, I think she answered that Q.

    • Monica 8 years ago

      Daniel, as mentioned in other comment replies, when it comes to fish oil, the most important thing is that you get in your daily dose. Try to spread it out over the day as evenly as you can, take it before meals to avoid fishy burps. But if you miss a serving you can make up for it later that day, no big deal here.

  16. Anoop 7 years ago

    The question is is adding fish oil gonna do anything to protein synthesis in people who already having high levels of protein synthesis because they are weight training 3-5 days a week & taking high levels of protein?
    I seriously doubt it.

    • Monica 7 years ago

      It could. And if it doesn’t, it’s still not a waste as it helps with fat loss and cardiovascular health promotion.

  17. william noah 7 years ago

    very good reading, thanks

  18. mark 7 years ago

    would you say kirkland fish oil is an okay fish oil supplement?? it is what i am currently taking.

    • Monica 7 years ago

      Any fish oil concentrate that provides over 70-80% EPA+DHA is good.

  19. John 4 years ago

    Why not use the greatly less expensive and purer flaxseed oil as ones source of Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9?

    • Author
      Monica Mollica 4 years ago

      For a simple reason:
      Flaxseed oil does NOT contain any EPA or DHA!
      Flaxseed oil contains ALA (alpha-linilenic acid) which is not effectively converted to EPA/DHA in the human body.

  20. James 4 years ago

    Will Cod liver oil provide the same benefits?

    • Author
      Monica Mollica 4 years ago

      To get an effective amount of of EPA + DHA from cod liver oil, you may end up getting an overdose of vitamin A. So I don’t recommend that.
      Get a fish oil concentrate instead.

  21. Eldon L. Raison 4 years ago

    Thanks Monica. As always, good information to digest. Been taking it for years, just at lower doses. I don’t know about clinical data being performed for it, but I have also been using it as help keep joint inflammation down. I’ll keep reading.

    • Author
      Monica Mollica 4 years ago

      To reap the whole spectrum of benefits with fish oil, one needs a higher dose.

  22. Louis 4 years ago

    Awesome article, I have never read an article that associate fish oil to anabolic effect, wow. I am taking Fortifeye Super Omega-3, which has 1600 mg of Triglyceride form of Omega-3, 860 mg of EPA, 580 mg of DHA. It produced from Norway. I really trust that product.

    • Author
      Monica Mollica 4 years ago

      Thank you. Just increase your dose and you will get more benefits.

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