Using Oral Nutritional Supplements Containing n-3 Fatty Acids May Help Maintain Weight and Muscle Mass during Treatment

Omega-3 fatty acids, the popular name for n- 3 fatty acids, have been shown to be effective in controlling cachexia, a common problem during cancer treatment.

Cachexia is the physical wasting away associated with loss of weight and muscle mass. It occurs in patients who are eating enough, but who cannot absorb the nutrients as a result of chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments. Normally, the body would adjust to lack of nutrient intake by slowing down its use of nutrients, but in cachectic patients, the body is unable to do this, so it gets the nutrients it needs from the stored reserves in muscle. The following two studies suggest that adding n-3 fatty acid supplements slows this process.

In the most recent study titled Nutritional intervention with fish oil provides a benefit over standard of care for weight and skeletal muscle mass in patients with nonsmall cell lung cancer receiving chemotherapy, published online February 28, 2011 in Cancer, researchers enrolled forty patients with nonsmall cell lung cancer that were newly referred to chemotherapy in a study to compare intervention with fish oil with standard of care that had no intervention. They were looking to see if the fish oil affected weight, skeletal muscle, and fatty tissue.

Sixteen participants were randomly assigned to the intervention group, which received 2.2 grams of eicosapentaenoic acid, an n-3 fatty acid derived from fish oil and 24 participants were randomly assigned to the control group, which received standard of care. Skeletal muscle and fatty tissue were measured using CT scans. Blood was collected and weight was recorded at the start of the study and throughout chemotherapy.

What they observed was that participants in the standard of care group experienced an average weight loss of 2.3 kg (a little over five pounds), but the participants receiving fish oil maintained their weight. Participants with the greatest increase in plasma eicosapentaenoic acid concentration had the greatest gains in muscle. Approximately 69 percent of participants in the fish oil group gained or maintained muscle mass. However, only 29 percent of participants in the standard of care group maintained muscle mass. In addition, the overall weight loss in the standard of care group was 1kg (a little more than two pounds). There was no difference in total fatty tissue between the two groups.

In an earlier study titled Oral Nutritional Supplements Containing (n-3) Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Affect the Nutritional Status of Patients with Stage III Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer during Multimodality Treatment, published online August 25, 2010 in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers wanted to examine the effects of an oral nutritional supplement containing n-3 fatty acids on nutritional status and inflammatory markers in patients with non-small cell lung cancer undergoing more than one type of treatment.

The body responds to infection with inflammation. It releases excess proteins at the site of the infection that are easy to detect in the blood stream. These proteins are known as inflammatory markers.

There were forty participants with stage III nonsmall cell lung cancer enrolled in the study who were randomly assigned to receive two cans daily of either an oral nutritional supplement containing 2 grams of eicosapentaenoic acid and 0.9 grams of docosahexaenoic acid, another n-3 fatty acid derived from fish oil, or a supplement with the same number of calories as the other group’s supplement, but without the n-3 fatty acids.

The researchers observed that the fatty acid supplement group had a better weight maintenance than the other group after two weeks and four weeks. They also had better fat free mass (muscle) maintenance after three weeks and five weeks, a reduced amount of energy expended while resting after three weeks, greater upper arm circumference after five weeks and a higher energy and protein intake after four weeks.