Fish Oil Helps Prevent Weight and Muscle Loss in Cancer Patients

By Marrecca Fiore Feb 28th 2011

Weight loss and loss of muscle mass are common problems in cancer patients, especially patients going through chemotherapy, which can cause nausea and appetite loss.

But a new study, published in Cancer — the journal of the American Cancer Society, finds that fish oil supplements may stop the loss of muscle and weight in cancer patients.

“Fish oil may prevent loss of weight and muscle by interfering with some of the pathways that are altered in advanced cancer,” said Dr. Vera Mazurak, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, in a statement. “This holds great promise because currently there is no effective treatment for cancer-related malnutrition.”

The finding is important because chemotherapy can cause cancer patients to become malnourished, leading to fatigue, a decreased quality of life, an inability to receive necessary treatments and shorter survival, the authors said.

Before starting the study, researchers suspected that supplementing cancer patients’ diets with fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid, might help them maintain or gain muscle.

To test the theory, the research team compared the effects of fish oil-supplemented diets with the standard diets used in newly diagnosed lung cancer patients.

Sixteen patients took fish oil containing 2.2 grams of eicosapentaenoic acid daily, and 24 patients did not.

The study ran for about 10 weeks while the patients completed their chemotherapy treatments. Muscle and fat were periodically measured using computed tomography images. Blood was collected and weight was recorded at the start of the study and throughout chemotherapy.

Patients who did not take fish oil lost an average of 5 pounds, but the patients receiving fish oil maintained their weight.

Also, 69 percent of patients in the fish oil group gained or maintained muscle mass, while only 29 percent of patients in the standard group maintained muscle mass. Overall, patients who did not take the fish oil supplement lost about 2.2 pounds of muscle.

Mazurak said fish oil is safe and non-toxic, and that subsequent studies may find that it also helps maintain muscle mass in patients suffering from other types of cancer, as well as in the elderly.

Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Dallas, told HealthDay the findings looked “promising.”

“Malnutrition is a big concern with cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation,” she said. “Because first of all they do have wasting from the cancer itself, which is very metabolically active and eats up your energy stores. And then with chemotherapy, there is some inflammation that’s detrimental to the heart and muscle, as it can cause muscle breakdown. And preservation of lean muscle tissue, we know, leads to better outcomes.

“Similar studies have looked at omega-3 and muscle preservation and have also suggested that fish oil can act to prevent inflammation caused by both disease and hardcore medications, like chemotherapy agents,” Sandon added.


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