When you think of anabolic supplements, you think whey protein or creatine, but omega-3s probably don’t immediately come to mind. This may change as word of a recent study begins to spread. Let me do my part in bringing you up to speed by telling you a little bit about it.

As background, previous research has shown omega-3 fatty acids (notably EPA and DHA), such as those found in fish oil supplements, have the ability to reduce muscle loss during treatment for cancer and to improve the anabolic response to amino acids in older healthy adults. It is speculated that the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 supplements are responsible for these beneficial effects on protein metabolism in the sick and the elderly.

The question remained, however, what effects omega-3 supplementation would have in a healthy population. This is precisely what the more recent study aimed to answer.

Gordon Smith, Ph.D., and his group at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, collaborated with researchers at the University of Nottingham in England to find out what benefit, if any, omega-3 fish oils would offer healthy subjects’ muscle metabolism. They measured the effect—over eight weeks of taking 4 grams per day of a prescription omega-3 oil in nine 25- to 45-year-old healthy subjects—on the rate of muscle protein synthesis and the activation of enzymes known to be involved in muscle hypertrophy, including mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) and p70S6K (p70 S6 kinase).

Following eight weeks of supplementation they found that in a normal (post-absorptive, i.e., empty stomach) state, the omega-3s really had no effect on muscle metabolism. Things changed, however, when they infused low levels of insulin or amino acids. The anabolic response to both insulin and amino acids was significantly enhanced. Keep in mind that the subjects were healthy folks, not cancer patients or elderly people with sarcopenia.
 At this point it isn’t entirely clear just how omega-3s increase the anabolic response to nutritional stimuli like amino acids and insulin. It’s believed that because omega-3s alter the phospholipid makeup of muscle cell membranes, they might be facilitating the conduction of anabolic signals within the cell.

One thing to mention before closing is that in this study they used a prescription version of fish oil called Lovaza. It contains omega-3 ethyl esters in highly concentrated form, and in this study they provided two types of fats (1.86 grams EPA and 1.50 grams DHA) per day. It isn’t necessary to use a prescription omega-3 product to get the same results, however. Regular fish oil will do as long as you get enough. An alternative choice that may even work better is omega-3s from krill oil. Krill oil’s omega-3s exist as phospholipids and are more easily incorporated into cell membranes. You could probably get away with about half as much krill oil as regular fish oil.

Reference: G.I. Smith et al., Clin Sci. (Lond), 121(6):267–78, 2011.