From brains to hearts, muscles and immunity: Review highlights omega-3 benefits for athletes

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / asikkk
© Getty Images / asikkk

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acids Fish oil supplements athletes Sports nutrition systematic review EPA and DHA muscle recovery

The first ever new systematic review of fish oil supplementation research in athletes adds strong support to a wide range of benefits of omega-3 supplementation for active individuals.

The review, which focused exclusively on randomized placebo-controlled trials (RCTs) in athletes, found that fish oil supplements exert positive effects on a range of health end points, including cognition, cardiovascular health, muscle recovery, and immune health.

“We report consistent effects for [fish oil supplementation] on reaction time, mood, cardiovascular dynamics in cyclists, skeletal muscle recovery, the proinflammatory cytokine TNF-alpha, and post-exercise NO responses,”​ wrote the researchers in Advances in Nutrition​.

“No clear effects on endurance performance, lung function, muscle force, or training adaptation were evident.”

“Impressed by the number of identified benefits”

Commenting independently on the study’s findings, Harry Rice, PhD, VP of regulatory & scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), told NutraIngredients-USA: I was impressed by the number of identified benefits. At the same time, I'm a little baffled, because I've read reports of low omega-3 indices in collegiate athletes​. If athletes want to optimize their performance, then it's time they understand the value of omega-3s (EPA/DHA).

“Athletes, like the rest of the population, need to be educated on the benefits of omega-3s. While everyone should have sufficient stores of EPA/DHA, athletes place increased demands on their bodies which may require even higher EPA/DHA intakes than the general population,”​ said Dr Rice.

Review highlights

Soccer © Getty Images Ryan McVay
Benefits were seen across a range of sports, including soccer. Image © Getty Images / Ryan McVay

The reviewers, led by Nathan Lewis from the English Institute of Sport at the University of Bath in England, identified 32 papers that met their inclusion criteria. The athletes ranged in ability from recreational to elite, and included Olympic and professional sports. Omega-3 doses ranged from 300 to 2400 mg/d of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and 400 to 1500 mg/d of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Seventy percent of the RCTs focused on males.

Lewis et al. found that inflammation was the most studied variable in the papers, and while a consistent effect was observed for the attenuation of TNF-alpha production, the data for other markers of inflammation were inconsistent.

Consistent effects were observed for muscle recovery when looking at variables like muscle soreness, counter movement jump, and creatine kinase activity, they added.

In terms of the potential benefits of fish oil supplementation on cognition, positive effects were found for reaction time and mood states, and these were consistent across sports, from rugby to soccer, and from athletics to karate.

Looking at the research gaps, the reviewers called for future studies to measure biomarkers of omega-3 status, and to assess the potential effects of high and low omega-3 status on “neuromuscular performance, bone metabolism, rehabilitation from injury (e.g., surgical compared with nonsurgical outcomes including bone stress), [exercise-induced bronchoconstriction], risk of illness, and risk of sudden cardiac death in athletes.

“Finally, future [fish oil supplementation] studies should include effect sizes and have the supplement analyzed for contaminants and the supplement contents verified independently from the manufacturer.”

Source: Advances in Nutrition
nmaa050, doi: 10.1093/advances/nmaa050
“Are There Benefits fromthe Use of Fish Oil Supplements in Athletes? A Systematic Review”
Authors: N.A. Lewis et al.

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