Fish Oil Supplementation: Benefits for a Sports Person

Fish oil is obtained from tissues of oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, etc). Fish oils contain omega-3 fatty acids- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA); which are known to reduce inflammation and improve hypertriglyceridemia.

Omega 3 fatty acids were distinguished as beneficial for health after the research of Bang and Dyerberg from Denmark. They led their research by living in Greenland and observing the diets of Eskimos. Both of them reported that Eskimos consumed large amounts of fat and yet there was no sign of any type of heart disorders which are normally linked with high-fat diets. They concluded that Eskimos consumed diets that comprised of fish and other seafood which were rich in a healthy type of fat, today called omega-3. Professor Saldeen from Sweden has also done extensive research on omega-3 and has concluded that fish oils were extremely favorable to health and also were missing in Western diets.

The physiological action of omega 3 fatty acids is such that it replaces the omega 6 fatty acids in cell membranes. Thus when EPA or DHA from fish or fish oil is consumed it benefits in the following manner- lower synthesis of prostaglandin E2 metabolites and lesser concentrations of thromboxane A2 (potent platelet aggregator and vasoconstrictor); lesser inflammation due to the reduction in the synthesis of leukotriene B4 which is known to induce inflammation; higher amounts of thromboxane A3(weak platelet aggregator and vasoconstrictor); higher concentrations of prostacyclin PGI3 (active vasodilator and inhibitor of platelet aggregation) and a higher amount leukotriene B5 which does not cause inflammation.

Therefore the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids are multiple. They are helpful for the following-

With regard to mental health, fish oils can reduce depression, sadness, lethargy, anxiety, and nervousness. Adequate amounts of omega-3 are linked to a reduced risk of macular degeneration of the eyes that leads to permanent damage. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for normal brain development in infants. During pregnancy, EPA and DHA are linked to several benefits which include higher intelligence and a lower possibility of ADHD, autism, etc. Ideal for heart functioning, omega 3 fatty acids aid the heart function by lowering triglycerides, reducing BP, increasing HDL, preventing blood clots and plaques in arteries and even reduce inflammatory markers. The oxygen delivery to the heart is improved by omega 3 fatty acids. The role of EPA and DHA is recognized for metabolic syndrome as omega 3 fatty acids can improve insulin resistance. They can also reduce fatty infiltration of the liver (NAFLD).

Inflammation is a natural response to infections. However, inflammation also leads to cancer, heart disease, etc. Omega 3 fatty acids help reduce inflammatory substances. Omega 3 fatty acids increase fatty acid oxidation. They increase the production of antioxidant enzymes (catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and superoxide dismutase).  They can also fight auto-immune diseases. The risk of Multiple sclerosis can be lowered with supplementation of omega 3 fatty acids. Rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis all benefit from the use of omega 3 fatty acids. Aging-related changes and the decline of mental faculties can be delayed by omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids help improve sleep and are good for healthy skin.

The actions of omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial to athletic performance. The benefits of fish oils for sportspersons are manifold. During exercise, the increase in superoxide radical (O2-) levels cause a disturbance to the muscles; which will affect performance. Omega 6 fatty acids increase inflammation whereas omega 3 reduces inflammation. Therefore incorporating fish oil concentrates rich in EPA and DHA will thwart the effects of inflammation in the muscle. For athletes, the guidelines could include fish oils EPA and DHA in the diet. An important dietary modification could be reducing the intake of omega 6 fatty acids (corn oil, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, and soybean oils) and increasing the omega 3 fatty acids (olive oil and canola oil). A supplementation of EPA and DHA can help prevent inflammation in muscles.

Due to severe training and exercise, athletes are prone to bronchoconstriction. Bronchoconstriction is the medical term for the narrowing of the airways that occurs in an asthma attack. Fish oil can suppress bronchoconstriction which has been recognized to be due to the anti-inflammatory properties of EPA and DHA. Bronchoconstriction can cause asthma-like symptoms like wheezing, abnormal breathlessness, cough, etc. Bronchoconstriction may be caused due to exercise hyperventilation. It has been suggested that dehydration of the airways may be the origin of inflammatory mediators (histamine, neuropeptides, amino acid metabolites, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins) which cause bronchial smooth muscle contraction. Also, frequent high-intensity exercise may release inflammatory cytokines and thereby contribute to the development of bronchoconstriction. Studies have shown that supplementation of EPA and DHA could decrease bronchoconstriction in athletes. Omega 3 fatty acids in the diet had improved pulmonary function too. Other beneficial effects were the significant decrease in leukotriene E4, 11β-prostaglandin F2, LTB4, tumor necrosis factorα, and interleukin-1β.

Research studies have reported the effect of omega-3 fatty acids in improving cardiac function. Therefore these can help the athlete for improving and maintaining performance. During exercise, EPA and DHA are particularly known for preventing fatigue, helping recovery and performance along with maintaining immune function. EPA and DHA are also postulated for a role in preventing muscle fatigue as well as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).  About the supplementation of EPA and DHA for bettering muscle strength, there is no conclusive evidence. There are many studies done on this. However, there are results that say that it is effective and some who say that omega 3 fatty acids do not help improve muscle strength. Yet it can be concluded that there are other advantages of using omega 3 fatty acids for athletes.

Thus, we can conclude that EPA and DHA may have an encouraging function for preventing exercise damage and improving muscle function. However, due to lacking evidence of the exact dosage, it is difficult to suggest a dose for supplementation of EPA and DHA. We can definitely say that including food sources of omega 3 fatty acids will help sportspersons. Consuming more fish (sardines or anchovies), particularly oily fish will provide omega 3 and protein in the diet. More research on a larger sample size is needed to suggest that fish oil supplementation benefits athletes. Also, the ratio of EPA to DHA, the dosage and the concerns of using them for vegetarian athletes have to be addressed.

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