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In more recent years, interesting research has suggested that omega 3 fatty acids can also play a role in promoting weight loss and muscle growth - the two holy grails of 'gym gains'. Of course, by themselves they won't make all the difference: you still have to do the hard yards through exercise and diet. But how significant their role can be might just surprise you. So, let's find out how omega 3 can help you promote lean muscle growth.
The three main types of omega 3 are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). ALA is found in flax, vegetable oils, nuts and some green, leafy vegetables. Our bodies convert some ALA into DHA and EPA - but slowly and only in very limited amounts.
DHA and EPA are what we call long-chain fats; these are absent in plant food sources, but actually have the most direct health benefits. However, our consumption tends to be considerably lower than the recommended amounts. Although there is no precise recommendation in the UK, the American Heart Association suggests that healthy individuals have a combined intake of DHA/EPA of 650 mg per day and that those with coronary heart disease aim for 900 mg per day.
DHA and EPA are found in fish, such as salmon, tuna and halibut, and in certain algae extracts. Some foods - such as certain brands of eggs, milk, yogurt, bread, and spreads - may be enriched with omega 3, too. Fish oil supplements are another popular source, especially for those who do not have enough fish in their diets.
Various studies involving obese participants have shown a connection between omega 3 and weight loss. In one study, the participants who had taken fish oil and exercised showed a decrease in body fat percentage and an average weight loss of 2kg/4.5lb, whereas those who had exercised but not taken fish oil, showed little change.
According to the researchers, omega 3 fatty acids can help to 'switch on' enzymes specifically involved in the oxidising or burning of fat - but that they need a driver (in the case of that study: exercise) to increase the metabolic rate in order to lower the body fat.
Most notable of all for anyone wanting to gain lean muscle is the fact that omega 3 fatty acids have been found to increase the rate of muscle synthesis in people of all ages.
As an example, older strength trainers may have unwelcome personal experience of sarcopenia; also known as anabolic resistance. As the years progress, the body synthesises protein less efficiently and you start to lose muscle mass - or at least not gain it at the same rate as when you were younger.
Omega 3 may help with this. One study found that omega 3 fatty acids stimulated muscle protein synthesis in older adults, bringing about greater increases in muscle (corn oil, notably, did not produce the same effect). Omega 3, the researchers concluded, therefore may be useful for the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia.
The benefits of omega 3s in synthesising protein are not confined to older people. In a study of healthy, young and middle-aged adults, omega 3 was found to have a similarly anabolic effect. After supplementing with omega 3 for eight weeks - significantly, with no change to their usual diet and activity levels - the participants' muscle protein concentration and muscle cell size were larger.
Not only do omega 3s help with building your muscles, they can also help with muscle recovery after your workout. Studies suggest that omega 3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in obese adolescents, whereas omega 6 (another essential fatty acid which tends to be more abundant in most western diets) promotes inflammation. So having enough omega 3, with the right ratio of omega 6, can be important for controlling inflammation in your body - especially if you're obese.
If you suffer from DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), that familiar pain and muscle stiffness that occurs 8-72 hours after you have exercised and believed to be caused by microtrauma to muscle tissue, you'll also be glad to learn that omega 3s are thought to speed up the rate at which DOMS subsides. One study showed that taking omega 3 supplements reduced perceived pain from muscle soreness and had a positive effect on mobility after performing knee extensions.
The chances are that if you eat a healthy diet, you'll have enough ALA in your diet already. But unless you eat a large amount of oily fish, you may not be hitting the recommended amounts of DHA and EPA. It's worth noting that in the studies mentioned, the amounts of omega 3 were significant.
Additionally, if you're relying on fish for your omega 3 intake, be aware that some brands of canned tuna may have omega 3 removed during processing, so do check the label. If you're considering a fish oil supplement, take a close look at the ingredients. Cheaper versions may contain substantial amounts of filler, so check not only the amount of fish oil, but also the amount of DHA and EPA within them.
You can take omega 3 at any time of day, but most people prefer to take them at mealtimes. Whether you choose to combine them with a multivitamin or take them separately is a matter of choice and convenience; they work equally well on their own.
It seems that omega 3 can play a role in how your body supports lean muscle growth and it does this by aiding both muscle growth itself and weight loss - two prerequisites to the development of muscle that is lean and functional and not just there 'for show'.
For more information on how you can maximise lean muscle growth, head on over to the Elite content hub and discover what experts are saying.
Patricia Carswell is a health and fitness writer. She has written for all of the major newspapers and a wide variety of fitness publications, and is writer of the award-winning blog, Girl On The River.
See more of Patricia Carswell's work at Girl on the River.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.