Fish oil could help soldiers and athletes preserve muscle mass and strength during periods of physiological stress. Here’s the new science.
The regular use of fish oil might help soldiers and others in the military service preserve strength and mass during periods of physiological stress.
It’s something that needs to be considered, especially since military command sometimes acts like an aggressive toddler that plays too hard with its “toys,” the toys, in this case, being the men and women who comprise their fighting forces.
Yeah, yeah, training is supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to weed out the weak and prepare the strong for the rigors of battle, but when you train, say, a boxer for a fight, you don’t send him into the ring so physically depleted that their right cross couldn’t make a dent in some tapioca.
Here’s why that happens and how fish oil can help.
One study, ironically, found that the very training that was supposed to turn Army Rangers into real-life Uruk-hai instead turned them into Hobbits. They experienced a 23% reduction in upper body strength and a 35% reduction in core strength. And this diminution of strength was discovered two weeks AFTER completing training.
Another study designed to replicate an 8-day covert reconnaissance mission found that the stress, along with the protracted periods of immobilization, led to a 9.9% reduction in maximal jump height, a 10.9% decrease in maximal strength, a 19.5% decrease in the rate of force development, and a 5% loss of lean body mass (LBM).
Post hoc analysis of the participants of that eight-day study found that the decrease in LBM and strength was mediated by a 42% reduction in total mTOR (a protein kinase that regulates protein synthesis and cell growth, among other things).
Instead of crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war, those soldiers were more likely to cry nap time and let slip the dogs of toasty comforters.
However, to their credit, the armed forces seem to be aware of the problem. A gauntlet full of free thinkers in the military, and especially some foreign militaries, have bandied about the idea of supplying anabolic steroids to soldiers to offset the loss of LBM and strength incurred during training and/or combat missions. But that, of course, is one big, controversial matzo ball to shove into the military’s tactical MRE.
Fish oil, however, might be a more acceptable alternative, as there seems to be sufficient evidence that it preserves strength and mass in soldiers during periods of physiological stress. This same research shows that fish oil might also have similar effects on first responders, athletes, and exercisers.
Researchers Jeffrey Heileson and LesLee Funderburk pooled the results of 18 separate studies on the effects of fish oil on participants that mirrored the typical military population: 18-42 years old, body mass index of less than 30, and generally healthy. The 18 studies were published between 1997 and 2019 and involved 455 men and women (57.6% male and 28.6% female).
While some of the studies found that fish oil supplementation increased muscle mass and/or protected against muscle breakdown (during periods of physiological stress, which may or may not have been imposed by exercise), the studies were too small for the researchers to feel comfortable about making any concrete assertions.
However, they felt much more confident about fish oil’s role in preventing muscle breakdown during those same periods of physiological stress, including its beneficial role in accelerating the recovery of muscle strength.
Regarding dosage and applicability to other populations, Heileson and Funderburk said:
“Although it’s difficult to make specific recommendations for fish oil n-3 PUFA supplementation, it would seem that the minimum effective dose is 2 grams a day for at least four weeks to preserve strength and enhance recovery from physiological stress. Although this review focused on military personnel, the results are equally applicable to first responders, athletes, and avid exercisers.”
Maybe this study will convince you to start popping golden fish oil capsules, or maybe you’ve already been riding the omega-3 train, or, more aptly, the omega-3 fish trawler. Great. But there’s something you need to know about, something that could kneecap fish oil’s ability to improve recovery and maintain muscle mass in the face of stress, along with cutting the fins off all the other stuff fish oil does.
That something you need to know is that fish oil needs some help in the absorption department. Even though fish oil itself is a type of fat, it needs to be ingested with some additional fat. Otherwise, it doesn’t percolate down into its favorite tissue and cell destinations.
There’s plenty of proof, too, but it’s either unknown or ignored by virtually all dietitians, nutritionists, and aspirational supplement experts. A study in Germany (Rauch, et al.) showed “no significant benefits” of omega-3 fatty acids when they were ingested with a relatively low-fat breakfast meal.
Another study (Lawson and Hughes) found that the absorption of DHA and EPA, the predominant omega-3 fatty acids crucial to human health, was three times higher when volunteers ingested them with a fat-rich meal (44 grams of fat) than when co-ingested with a low-fat meal (8 grams of fat).
One more: Kling, et al. found plasma concentrations of DHA and EPA were five times higher when administered with a high-fat meal than with a low-fat meal.
So, popping a couple of fish oil capsules after eating your low-fat breakfast of oatmeal, egg whites, and blanched asparagus nibs isn’t going to let fish oil do its job. Instead, as suggested, take it with your highest-fat meal of the day, which is usually dinner. Alternately, take it with a protein drink that’s been laced with a tablespoon or two of olive oil.
You’ve probably seen the occasional fish oil study – the one that gets top billing on your news feed – that says that fish oil doesn’t work and that all you’re doing is making your blood chemistry resemble that of a mackerel.
There are a couple of reasons fish oil studies might have been duds: Either they used inadequate doses, or they used fish oil capsules that had a high degree of peroxidation (oxidative degeneration of fats), which is rampant in the fish oil business.
Maybe you remember that VITAL study that slammed fish oils and their supposed lack of effects on cardiovascular health? They used a measly 840 mg. a day of EPA and DHA (the two most biologically omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil). That’s only a third or fourth of the amount deemed most effective in preventing heart attack or stroke (or, for that matter, a third or fourth of that found to increase muscle mass and strength).
Regular people tend to under-dose themselves, too. They buy a fish oil product and don’t pay attention to anything except the number of capsules recommended on the label. There is, however, a huge range of omega-3 content and recommended dosages in fish oil capsules.
Take for instance the amount of DHA and EPA in a typical Costco, Kirkland brand fish oil capsule. A serving size contains a combined 250 mg. of EPA and DHA. Most people read the label, assume Kirkland knows what they’re talking about, pop just one capsule and then walk down the aisle to buy a block of white underwear the size of an old-time bank vault.
Contrast that with a serving Biotest’s fish oil product, Flameout. Each serving has a combined 3,080 mg. of EPA and DHA. That’s like, a lot more than the Kirkland brand. If the Kirkland brand is Tyrion Lannister from GOT, Flameout is the Mountain (but, you know, one that had nice parents and grew up not even the least bit hostile or psychotic).
Flameout® also contains 352 mg. of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid found in high concentrations in the milk of grass-fed cows and valued for its fat burning and health-promoting properties. Add to that Flameout’s high processing standards:
- Flameout is purified by molecular distillation and stringently tested for PCBs, dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metal contaminants.
- Flameout incorporates a self-emulsifying delivery system to make the product virtually odorless and better absorbed so that it doesn’t result in a fishy aftertaste or “fish burps.”
Anyhow, whether you want to use fish oil to turn yourself into a tireless military fighting machine, prevent muscle breakdown and preserve strength in the face of physiological stress, or just to ensure overall health, Flameout is a damn good choice.
- Heileson JL et al. The effect of fish oil supplementation on the promotion and preservation of lean body mass, strength, and recovery from physiological stress in young, healthy adults: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2020 Dec 1;78(12):1001-1014. PubMed.
- Peltier C et al. The Future of Steroids for Performance Enhancement in the U.S. Military. Mil Med. 2018 Jul 1;183(7-8):151-153. PubMed.
- Li J et al. Health benefits of docahexaenoic acid and its bioavailability: A review. Food Sci Nutr. 2021 Jul 23;9(9):5229-5243. PubMed.