You have probably overheard about the overwhelming number of health benefits that Omega 3s carry.
Omega 3s have been shown to help improve brain health and development leading to higher intelligence and cognitive capacity in people (study); has showed to help decrease risk factors of cardiovascular diseases (study, study); and anti-inflammatory benefits (study, study, study).
But here is where it gets really interesting:
Recent studies have shown that Omega 3 can help build muscle.
Intriguing. Isn’t it?
In this article, I help answer the question “Does Omega 3 help build muscle?”, list some of the best omega 3 rich foods; have a comprehensive and critical discussion of plant based omega 3s; and touch upon how much fish oil should you take per day to build muscle.
1. What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?
I’m not going to go into too much scientific depth, because I don’t want to bore you, but I will brush over the main elements that help understand the building blocks of Omega 3s.
Omega 3s are a class of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids with the double bond in the third carbon position from the methyl terminal (hence the use of “3” in their description)
When people refer to Omega 3 Fatty acids they often refer to DHA (docosaheaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-Linolenic acid)alpha-Linolenic acid).
The last one, ALA, is going to be an interesting topic of discussion later in the article.
The membrane surrounding the cell, as well as the “machinery” of the cell (such as the mitochondria and the nucleus) is referred to as phospholipid bilayer membrane. What this means is that the majority of the construct of our cells is fat – that’s why the types of fats that you consume have a serious impact of your general health and well being.
EPA and DHA’s structure causes membrane fluidity, which is what makes the body’s cell function better by improving cellular communication. Membrane fluidity is what allows our cells to function more efficiently when producing energy, produce hormones, enzymes and antibodies.
Ok, now that you have a very rudimentary understanding of what Omega 3 fatty acids are, we can get to the juicy bit of this article – how Omega 3s can promote muscle growth.
2. How Does Omega 3 Help Build Muscle?
As of recently, a lot of the studies carried out on Omega 3s, when it comes to their aid in build muscle, is focused on anti-inflammatory and muscle loss (atrophy) prevention properties. (study, study, study)
What these studies show us is that with the introduction of Omega 3 fatty acids to a person’s diet, can help spare muscle tissue that can be associated with muscle wasting diseases.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), yes the same ALS that had millions of people dumping buckets with ice-cold water over their heads in 2014, has been reported to be closely affected by Omega 3s as it is shown that DHA, EPA and ALA may prevent or delay the onset of ALS. (study)
This has caused researchers to ask “If Omega 3s alone can help keep muscle from wasting, then what can these fatty acids do, in combination with a proper diet, do for those who are actively trying to build muscle and get in shape?”.
A lot of the more recent studies take a closer look at Omega3s in conjunction with hyperaminoacidemia (more amino acids, protein) and hyperinsulinemia (more carbs).
The combination between these macronutrients and Omega 3 is not random.
Remember earlier how I told you that the main health benefits that come from Omega 3s are primarily due to the fact that they aid the cells to function more properly and improve their intercommunication? Well, this is where it gets interesting.
The main hypothesis that researchers had was that Omega 3 fatty acids would help active certain cell pathways allowing for protein and carbohydrates to build muscle more efficiently and effectively.
Omega 3s help build muscle through the mTOR pathway – an element of the body that helps activate the anabolic pathway and response of a muscle cell.
This is the part of the article where I have to make a flashy disclaimer and explain something before everybody freaks out, so here I go:
Do not be freaked out by the word anabolic! Anabolic is a medical term used to define cells that are in a position to grow. The antagonist of anabolism is catabolism – where cells are broken down. The reason why anabolic has become interchangeable to steroids is because anabolic steroids are the type of steroids that are used to promote cellular growth by pumping large abnormal quantities of HGH and testosterone in the body. When something is said to have anabolic properties it means that it enhances cell growth, or in this case – muscle cell growth.
All-in-all, what that means is that mTOR is a good thing. Especially when it comes to building muscle.
Research shows us that Omega 3 fatty acids help activate and modulate mTOR a lot better (study, study, study, study), through studies about tumor cell supression, neurodegeneration.
Understandably so, researchers began asking the question: “Can Omega 3 fatty acids aid people trying to build muscle?”.
An interesting study carried out at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that by introducing 4000mg of Omega 3 (EPA and DHA) supplementation to sedentary males accompanied with hyperaminoacidemia there was a huge increase in protein synthesis – i.e. muscle growth.
When I say huge, I mean huge – roughly a 50% increase in the pathways that trigger protein synthesis.
Essentially, what this study shows us is that Omega 3s have the capacity of improving the way that the body utilizes amino acids to build muscle and strength.
Another interesting study seems to support this theory as they conclude that Omega 3 fatty acids possess anabolic properties – i.e. help build muscle – especially when combined with a proper diet and exercise.
As well as this one, carried out last year, that shows that only do Omega 3s have a positive impact on muscle anabolism but also catabolism – i.e. they help you build and preserve muscle tissue.
What makes all of this even more fascinating than it already is that we are barely scraping the surface of Omega 3s muscle building properties.
Improved anabolic signaling in the muscle cell is just part of the reason why they are so beneficial for building muscle and strength.
I am not going to go into too much detail, otherwise this article is going to be far too long, but here are some of the:
Well-researched direct and indirect muscle-building properties of Omega 3s
- Omega 3 fatty acids help minimise muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery (study) – muscle protein synthesis (when your body builds muscle) lasts for about 36 hours where during the first 24 hours it is the strongest (study). By improving muscle recovery, you can increase your workout volume and thus improve your weekly and monthly’s average protein synthesis.
- Omega 3s improve energy expenditure (study) – improved levels of energy means that you can increase your workout intensity, volume and weight. All of this will help you push your muscle to grow.
- Omega 3s can help reduce body fat (study, study) – some studies have concluded that perhaps due to the improved communicative abilities cause by Omega 3s there can be an improvement in lipid metabolism (burning fat for energy) and reducing adipose tissue inflammation.
3. Truth About Plant-Based Omega 3s
The amount of brands that abuse the health and fitness benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids in order to better market their product as a “healthy alternative” is staggering.
Anything from cereals, to food bars, smoothies, houmous, and even crackers.
Companies state that they enrich their products with Omega 3 rich foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and/or walnuts.
Don’t get me wrong…
I’m not saying that these foods do not contain Omega 3s, it’s the type of Omega 3s that the have that’s the problem.
Confused? It’s OK, let me explain:
Remember how in the beginning of the article I told you that one of the types of Omega 3s (ALA) is going to be an interesting topic of discussion later on?
Whenever somebody says that a certain plant-based food is rich in Omega 3 they are referring to them being rich in ALA Omega 3s.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that ALA fatty acids are not really utilised by the body.
In order for ALAs health benefits to be apparent they need to be converted in DHA and EPA.
That’s fine and dandy and all, but the problem here is that the margin of conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is far too small. Research indicates different coversion rates, with the majority claiming that it can range anywhere from 0.5% to 8% (resource).
Interestingly, women are far more efficient in this conversion process as women’s ALA metabolism ranges from 9% to 21% (study).
Even if you manage to grab the long end of the stick when it comes to ALA conversion, you are still going to be getting a small fraction of the muscle-building and health benefits that come from Omega 3 fatty acid integration.
Does this mean that vegans cannot benefit from the muscle building properties of Omega 3 fatty acids?
There are a lot of Omega 3 supplements where EPA and DHA are extracted from algae oils.
Here is one example (United States): Vegan Omega 3
And another one (United Kingdom): Vegan Omega 3
4. How To Properly Take Omega 3s
There isn’t anything complicated that you need to know about the proper way of taking Omega 3 fatty acids.
However, there are a few little tips and tricks that I can give you that will help you fully capitalize on the muscle building properties of Omega 3s.
Here is a quick list:
- Foods rich in Lecithin: Lecithin, which is normally found in eggs and red meats, is said to increase the efficacy of DHA supplementation (study).
- Meals rich in carbs and protein: Remember, the main anabolic muscle building properties of Omega 3 fatty acids become apparent when its intake is combined with hyperaminoacidemia and hyperinsulinemia (study), which means a meal, or meals, rich in carbs and protein.
- Do not take before a workout: Omega 3 fatty acids have an anabolic affect. During your workout you want your body to enter catabolism – muscle breakdown. If you are going to take Omega 3s around your workout make sure that it’s after your workout rather than before.
- Probiotics: Some researchers stated that Omega 3s and probitoics have a dynamic relationship where probiotics help with Omega 3 absorption – similar to that seen with Lecithin (study). Foods like sourcrout rich in a diverse selection of probiotics may be a good idea to integrate to your diet.
Something worth answering in this segment of the article is “How much fish oil should i take per day to build muscle?”. Well, the study that I have referenced previously in the post states that subjects were given 4 grams or 4,000mg of fish oil for them to reach those impressive muscle building results.
According to this article at Healthline, taking more than 5,000 mg of Omega 3 will have no additional benefit to your health nor muscle growth.
So I would say that the Goldilocks zone as to how much fish oil to take to see improvements in muscle growth would be around 3,000mg to 4,000mg per day.
Just to be sure, however, I would suggest consulting your physician before taking the next step.
5. Omega 3 Rich Foods
I think that we have made it clear that ALA is not worth our time and effort.
Our focal point is EPA and DHA sources, which can be found in fish and other seafood.
Here are 6 foods rich in Omega 3:
- Mackerel with 4107mg per serving
- Salmon with 4023mg per serving
- Herring with 3181mg per serving
- Cod liver with 2664mg per serving
- Sardines with 2205mg per serving
- Oysters with 565mg per serving
6. Omega 3 Supplementation
While I’m all about getting your micronutrients from natural sources.
Sometimes, however, regardless of how bad you want to improve your protein synthesis you just don’t feel like eating fish.
Plus, some of the better fish meals can be pretty expensive.
A good alternative that allows you to reap the muscle building benefits of Omega 3s is through supplementation.
When it comes to searching Omega 3 supplements you want to make sure that you are getting a strong DHA and EPA content.
The one Omega 3 supplement that I recommend to almost everyone is this one:
United Kingdom: Omega 3 Fatty Acids supplement
United States: Omega 3 Fatty Acids Supplement
Both of these are inexpensive and they have a high DHA and EPA concentration, unlike other over-the-counter alternatives.
Hopefully this article helps answer the question “Does Omega 3 help build muscle?” and help you understand more about the intriguing anabolic properties of Omega 3s.
Of course, just by adding in Omega 3s to your diet does not mean that you are going to magically pack 10lbs of muscle in a month. While it is a strong anabolic food, Omega 3s are just an addition that helps you improve muscle growth, it’s not a button that you press and you immediately see results.
If your diet is crappy and you’re not working out correctly and frequently, you’re not really going to see improvements.
Remember, what you eat and how you train are the main indicators to muscle growth.
Everything else that follows are addons that help facilitate strength development and muscle building.