Omega-3s for Athletes
Over 18 million Americans take omega-3 supplements. That’s almost 8 percent of our adult population. Most of these people know about the benefits of omega-3 supplements for their heart, brain, and joint pain, but these powerful little nutrients help with so much more than that. Omega-3s are being used as part of a comprehensive approach for sports medicine due to the wide body of research showing benefits in so many relevant areas for athletes and workout enthusiasts.
In this article you will learn:
- What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
- What Are Good Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
- How Do Omega-3s Help You As An Athlete?
- How Does Omega-3 Fish Oil Help Increase Muscle Growth?
According to Dr. Douglas Kalman, Director of Sports Nutrition at Florida International University, he states:
“Most people do not realize that the only essential food macronutrients we need are proteins and fats, specifically the body needs essential amino acids and essential fatty acids to live, thrive and be healthy, excluding or limiting these foods often leads to sub-optimal health and performance.”
Omega-3s are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Omega-3s are considered to be the healthiest of the polyunsaturated fatty acids. In fact, there is a massive amount of research discussing the impact of PUFA ratios on overall health and disease prevention. It has been estimated that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in their diet. Unfortunately, the average Americans are estimated to eat a ratio of around 10:1 to 20:1.
That means people are consuming at least 10 times the amount of omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats! Ideal ratios are recommended to be around 2.3:1. This is based on research showing that increasing the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet, decreases disease risk and inflammation. In order to accomplish this, we need to increase our intake of foods high in omega-3 and decrease our consumption of common refined foods (typically high in soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil) and grain-fed meats high in omega-6. Taking a fish oil supplement is a great way to boost your omega-3 intake!
Many varieties of cold-water fish have been shown to be the best natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Many people think that all fish are considered a good source of omega-3s, but this is far from the truth. It takes approximately 60 ounces of farm-raised tilapia to get the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids found in 4-8 ounces of wild-caught salmon.
Some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids (that are also low in mercury) include wild salmon, trout, mussels, sardines, herring, anchovies, and shad. While tuna is high in omega-3 fats, it is notoriously high in mercury. Try and have wild canned salmon instead of canned tuna so you can increase your omega-3 fatty acids without the high mercury exposure.
Omega-3 fats are also found in plant sources such as chia, flax, hemp, and walnuts. However, it is important to note that our bodies cannot adequately convert most of the omega-3 found in plants to the usable EPA and DHA form. Therefore, the most popular and potent omega-3 supplements will come from fish oil.
There has been a lot of talk about the health benefits of canola oil since it is high in omega-3 fats. Unfortunately, canola oil is often genetically modified, chemically extracted, and highly processed. This leaves you with rancid fats (we will talk more about rancid fats later) which are inflammatory and thus have the opposite effect on our health. For this reason, an anti-inflammatory diet only includes cooking oils that are minimally processed and carefully extracted.
There is quite a bit of research now being done on the use of omega-3 fish oils for athletes. The following infographic shows some of the main areas of research.
According to contemporary research, the most promising benefits of omega-3 supplementation for athletic performance includes the improvement of:
- Protein metabolism
- Recovery time by decreasing soreness and stiffness
- Heart rate and blood pressure
- Alertness and reaction times
- Bone health
- Inflammatory respiratory conditions
There is also some evidence that fish oils can improve lung function in young healthy athletes as well. One study discusses the importance of fish oils for healing sports-related injuries. The majority of evidence in this area is on fish oil’s significant impact on pain and inflammatory markers.
Dr. Kalman states, “Research has shown that those who are very physically active may have higher levels of inflammation in their body… omega-3 fats have been proven to reduce this while also having a positive impact on overall health profiles.”
In older adults, fish oils have also been shown to improve strength and performance. Inflammation is the underlying cause of most diseases and can impact just about anything in the body. The elderly population typically has higher rates of inflammation in their body. Athletic performance is certainly impacted by inflammation. It now makes a lot of sense why older adult populations can have so many sports-related benefits from fish oils. This will likely also translate to other populations that have any form of chronic inflammation (e.g., those with autoimmune conditions).
Decrease exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness
Muscle soreness and pain is very typical for those who push their body with intensive exercise. Pain and soreness can certainly derail your routine and impact your ability to perform. Doctors commonly prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in these cases, but fish oils may be a viable and safe alternative. This is not surprising since one of the most known benefits of fish oil is its impact on inflammation.
The big question is, “Have fish oils actually been proven to help prevent exercise-induced muscle soreness, stiffness, and pain?” Absolutely! Research studies have shown that not only do fish oils decrease exercise induced inflammation, they also improve feelings of sorenesstypically felt 24-48 hours after a workout.
It is not yet fully understood how fish oils increase muscle growth, but it is believed to be at least partly due to its positive impact on insulin sensitivity. Most people only think about insulin controlling blood sugar, but insulin plays a major role in protein metabolism as well. Certainly, there are many research studies showing that fish oils can have an anabolic effect and may be an effective addition for older adults to increase muscle growth. However, results are not conclusive since some research has not shown fish oils to improve muscle protein synthesis.
The research regarding the ability of fish oil supplementation to increasing strength is mixed. However, studies on the use of omega-3 fatty acids in the elderly population have shown increases in muscle strength, walking speed, and grip strength.
Cardiac and Respiratory Function
Many people are already aware that omega-3 supplementation is good for our heart. Most people know that fish oil supplements have been shown to improve various lipid markers and decrease inflammation associated with cardiovascular risk. How about cardiac health for athletes?
There is actually quite a bit of evidence showing that fish oils can improve heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, pulmonary markers, and whole body oxygen consumption during and after exercise. Unfortunately, this does not always translate to increases in performance.
Increase Bone Strength
Athletes run the risk of injury since they are often pushing their body to the limits. Keeping your bones as strong as possible can help prevent injury and keep you on the field. Ironically, research shows that exercise is one of the most powerful ways you can reduce your risk of osteoporosis, so you are already halfway there! Guess what else has been linked to osteoporosis? Inflammation! That’s right, inflammation has been linked to being part of the underlying cause of osteoporosis. Sure enough, there have been research studies showing that when you combine exercise with omega-3 fish oils, you can enhance the strength of your bones.
Strengthen Immune System
Many people already know that omega-3 fish oils are powerful anti-inflammatories. It makes sense then that fish oils can positively impact common exercise-induced immune conditions such as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) and upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). It is important to note that the only benefits for URTI was in the number of days that the subjects had symptoms, severity and frequency of URTI, and did not change with supplementation. In healthy young individuals, research is mixed. Some studies have shown immune benefits while others have not.
Many types of competitive athletes require a sharp mind to outsmart and outmaneuver their opponent. Plenty of studies have shown that fish oils can help a long list of neurological conditions that are linked to inflammation (including depression and anxiety).
What about the brain-power needed to perform on the field? One study has found that fish oils can improve attention and reduce reaction times in soccer players. Similarly, a study availableon the benefits of fish oil for attention and reaction times in general had similar outcomes.
When you get injured the immune system goes through a cascade of complex processes in order to work on healing the injured tissue. Long chain fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, are the building blocks of these compounds created to help the healing process. For this reason, it is commonly recommended for athletes and workout enthusiasts to take fish oils regardless of if they have a current injury or pain. The majority of evidence in this area is on fish oil’s significant impact on pain and inflammatory markers.
In summary, there are plenty of reasons to expect that Omega-3s can help professional athletes perform better. In competitive athletics, even the smallest advantage can make the difference between winning and losing. Omega-3s can also help an athlete stay in condition and maintain good health.