Since omega-3 fats were discovered in the 1970s, growing evidence has found they have far-reaching benefits for the body and brain, from fighting heart disease and improving cognition, arthritis and eye health to warding off anxiety and depression.
More recently, studies have revealed these active fats may improve protein metabolism in skeletal muscles, which could have implications for loss of muscle mass and strength with aging.
The importance of skeletal muscle
Skeletal muscle comprises 45% of body mass and is critical for physical function, respiratory and overall metabolic health and recovery from illness or surgery.
Yet muscle mass and strength start waning with age as muscle protein breaks down more quickly than it can be regenerated.
This has been linked, in part, to low-level inflammation that often occurs with aging and is linked to frailty. Chronic inflammation has also been associated with abnormalities of mitochondrial function – the cells’ powerhouse – in aging skeletal muscle.
Combined with inadequate physical activity and poor diet, such declines can lead to sarcopenia, a debilitating condition afflicting one in three older adults, increasing risk of falls and fractures with detrimental impacts on health, activities of daily living and quality of life.
How do omega-3s work?
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats that form vital parts of all cellular and intracellular membranes where they support cell structure and a host of metabolic activities that impact gene expression and mitochondrial function, among other things.
The most studied omega-3s are the long-chain versions EPA and DHA, which also have properties that reduce inflammation and blood clotting and improve blood flow, accounting for much of their health benefits.
Accordingly, growing research has shown that EPA and DHA positively impact skeletal muscle regeneration, suggesting it can help muscles take up protein. This is likely to vary according to protein intake, which is very important to keep up.
Rich plant sources of omega-3s include nuts and seeds, especially linseeds and walnuts, dark leafy greens, and a succulent plant that grows like a weed in hot, dry areas of Australia called purslane or portulaca.
While these have their own health benefits and can be converted into EPA and DHA by the body, it can be more efficient to consume direct sources of these long-chain omega-3s. That includes algae and deep-sea fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel.
In combination with a healthy diet, fish oil supplements can also boost omega-3 levels, with numerous add-on health benefits.