When it comes to general health and athletic performance, some of the most exciting research over the past few decades has come out supporting the benefits of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation from fish oil.
While there are multiple forms of omega-3 fatty acids, the three most abundant forms are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fish oil specifically references the combination of DHA and EPA from marine animal sources, and the most promising research has come from the study of fish oil and its effects on the human body.
To understand how omega-3 fatty acids work, let’s start with how they’re classified. ALA is classified as an essential fatty acid, meaning the body requires it for normal function, but it cannot be adequately synthesized on its own. Once ALA has been consumed, it is further converted into EPA and DHA, but it has an extremely poor conversion rate. That’s why fatty fishes such as salmon, anchovy, herring, and sardines — or supplementation in the form of fish oil — have been staples of many diets for decades.
Only recently, though, has the research begun to catch up and explain why these fatty acids are so beneficial. And athletes are learning that while ALA is an important nutrient for normal, healthy body function, DHA and EPA provide even greater benefits.
Overall, fish oil intake has been directly linked to improvements in vision, increased cognitive abilities, and lower risks of ADHD in developing infants. In general populations, fish oil supplementation has been shown to improve blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and lower rates of heart disease. More recently, research has come out supporting fish oil supplementation for improving body composition and enhancing athletic performance in the form of positive body composition changes and improvements in hormonal profiles.
One of the most underrated benefits of fish oil is its synergistic relationship with vitamin D. Vitamin D is fat-soluble, meaning it requires a fatty acid to serve as a source of transport through the body. Thus, the indirect effect of fish oil is facilitating the direct effects of vitamin D, namely hormonal regulation and bone health maintenance. Additionally, vitamin D plays an important role in neurotransmitter regulation. Research from Dr. Rhonda Patrick and Dr. Bruce Ames supports this by suggesting that “optimizing vitamin D and Marine omega-3 fatty acid intake may help prevent and modulate the severity of brain dysfunction.”
Reaping the Benefits of Omega-3s
When it comes to fatty fish consumption and fish oil supplementation, there’s one thing experts can agree upon: Everyone disagrees on how much daily omega-3 intake is optimal. For general health purposes, the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish twice a week, which is a great starting point. But for a more active person, that recommendation is too low.
Daily intake of fatty fish or fish oil should be based on an individual’s goals. For example, to improve athletic performance, 6 to 8 grams per day of combined EPA and DHA has been shown to be extremely beneficial. For reduced anxiety or weight loss, 3 grams a day has been found to work. While a good goal for the general population is consuming 1 to 3 grams of combined DHA and EPA per day, meeting with a nutritionist is the best way to come up with a plan for your personal needs.
Once athletes know how much omega-3 fatty acids they need in their individual diets, here are the top 5 benefits they will notice after making those healthy eating changes:
1. Reduced inflammation:
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered potent anti-inflammatory agents. While inflammation is a healthy and essential response to stress, an inflammatory response that’s too great or that lasts too long can lead to long-term chronic issues. Improving the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet by increasing DHA and EPA consumption has been directly correlated to an improved inflammatory response and a reduction of inflammatory diseases.
2. Improved athletic performance:
Athletes have long believed in the performance-enhancing benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Research supports that omega-3 supplementation improves the anabolic effect of training and counteracts muscle loss. Additionally, fish oil can help counteract the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
3. Reduced anxiety:
There is a direct correlation between anxiety and low levels of DHA and EPA. While further research is needed for validation, it’s not difficult to intuit that an improvement in DHA and EPA levels likely would lead to lower anxiety levels, which would be especially beneficial for athletes who suffer from performance anxiety.
4. Increased muscle mass:
Fish oil has been linked to increases in fat-free mass. The muscle-building properties of fish oil can be explained by research showing a direct increase in the body’s anabolic response to insulin and amino acids. This same research finds that fish oil has also been shown to increase muscle protein concentration and muscle cell size in healthy adults.
5. Fat loss:
Regular exercise combined with fish oil supplementation has been directly linked to improvements in body composition via fat loss. This can be attributed to the positive effects of fish oil on blood sugar regulation, decreases in cortisol, and improvements in liver function.
The benefits of including sufficient omega-3s in a healthy diet through fatty fish or fish oil supplementation, especially for athletes, are clear. Consult a nutritionist to discover the amount of omega-3s you should incorporate into your diet to see the most improvement in your athletic performance.