Omega 3 Fatty Acids Prevent Muscle Loss in Cancer Patients

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Omega 3 and cancer treatment

New research from Trinity College Dublin shows that omega 3 fatty acids prevent muscle loss in cancer patients who undergo major surgery. The study, published in the Annals of Surgery, showed that patients who underwent surgery for esophageal cancer maintained muscle mass from omega 3 fatty acids administered before, immediately after, and for three weeks following surgery.

The scientists conducted the study on patients undergoing surgery for esophageal cancer because of the seriousness and typically severe debilitation seen among cancer patients following surgery for cancer of the esophagus.

According to John V Reynolds, Professor of Surgery at TCD and St James’s Hospital and lead researcher, “An increasing number of patients are treated with chemotherapy alone or in combination with radiation therapy before they undergo surgery. The surgery is a serious operation lasting several hours and can take weeks to recover from surgery and up to six months to recover pre-illness quality of life. Weight loss is extremely common both before and especially after this type of surgery, and any approach that can preserve weight, in particular muscle weight and strength, may represent a real advance”.

The study showed that omega 3 fatty acids were superior for preventing muscle loss among the cancer patients who received 2.2 grams of purified EPA from omega 3 fatty acids in a nutritional supplement, compared to patients who received a similarly flavored supplement with the same amount of calories, protein, and micronutrients, but without omega 3 fatty acids.

Both groups of cancer patients were started on a 240-ml. nutritional supplement five days prior to surgery. Immediately after surgery, the supplement was given by way of a feeding tube. Both groups continued for 21 days after surgery. The cancer patients, given the omega 3 fatty acids before and after surgery maintained muscle mass, and all other aspects of body composition.


The group who did not receive omega 3 fatty acids lost a significant amount of weight, with sixty-eight percent experiencing ‘clinically severe’ weight loss after esophageal cancer surgery. The patients who were not given omega 3 fatty acids experienced weight loss comprising 100% loss of muscle mass.

“Omega 3 enriched nutrition appears to prevent loss of muscle mass by reducing the amount of inflammatory markers in the blood” say Dr. Reynolds. He suggests that omega 3 fatty acids act to reduce metabolic stress typically seen after surgery. Cancer patients given omega 3 fatty acids also were less likely to develop fever, showing that omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation.

The researchers expect the study results can benefit anyone undergoing major surgery. “Throughout cancer care, many patients undergoing therapy nowadays have a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and studies addressing whether nutritional supplementation with omega 3 for the entire duration of treatment should be considered”, says Dr. Reynolds. “Finally, we do not expect these findings are unique to cancer surgery, and similar benefits may accrue to patients needing complex surgical care for non-cancer problems, for instance liver transplantation or major cardiac surgery.”

Dr Michael Meguid, Professor of Surgery at State University of New York, provided an editorial that accompanied the study. Dr. Meguid suggests that supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids become the “standard of expected norm for the practice of elective complex gut cancer surgery”.

The benefits of the nutritional supplements enriched with a purified form of EPA from omega 3 fatty acids can potentially save health costs by leading to quicker recovery from major surgery, and fewer complications.

Omega 3 fatty acids, used to prevent loss of muscle mass in patients undergoing surgery for cancer of the esophagus, may benefit anyone facing a major surgical procedure. Preventing loss of muscle mass leads to increased mobility and a more rapid return to normal activities of daily living following major surgery.

Trinity College Dublin