Omega-3s may protect brains in American Football athletes

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© skynesher / Getty Images
© skynesher / Getty Images

Related tags brain injury Traumatic brain injury Brain health American Football omega 3 Omega-3 supplements

High-dose omega-3 supplements may give NCAA American Football athletes protection from repetitive head injury as well as conferring cardiovascular benefits, suggests a new study.

Repetitive sub-concussive head impacts (RHI) over the course of a season were associated with increases in levels of serum neurofilament light (Nf-L), a biomarker of nerve fiber (axonal) injury and a surrogate marker of head trauma.

However, daily DHA, DPA, and EPA doses of 2,000 mg, 320 mg, and 560 mg, respectively, throughout pre-season and the full season attenuated these Nf-L increases, according to data published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

The elite college athletes receiving the omega-3 supplements also had significantly higher Omega-3 Index scores, and improved omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, compared to athletes in the control group.

“Our findings provide crucial information on [omega-3] supplementation and a surrogate biological marker of head trauma in a population known to sustain RHI,”​ reported researchers from Baylor University, Wake Forest School of Medicine, the University of Kansas Medical Center, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, West Virginia University, Texas Christian University, the University of Guelph, the University of Wisconsin, and the Mayo Clinic Health System.

“Similar elevations of Nf-L have been reported following RHI in other contact sport athletes. These data suggest that those other contact sport athletes may also benefit from [omega-3] supplementation, primarily since most athletes do not obtain enough dietary [omega-3] and have relatively low levels of [omega-3].”

Traumatic brain injury

This is not the first time that omega-3s have been linked to beneficial outcomes for people suffering from, or at risk of head trauma.

Indeed, a 2016 review by Dr Michael Lewis from the Brain Health Education and Research Institute in Maryland concluded that, “Although further clinical trial research is needed to establish the true advantage of using [omega-3s], there is a growing body of strong preclinical evidence and clinical experience suggests that benefits may be possible from aggressively adding substantial amounts of [omega-3s] to optimize the nutritional foundation of concussion and TBI [traumatic brain injury] patients.”​ (Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 35, Issue 5, pp. 469-7​). 

The new study provides some of the clinical trial research to support the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for brain health, and was welcomed by Harry Rice, PhD, VP of regulatory & scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). Commenting independently on the study’s findings, Dr Rice told NutraIngredients-USA: "For the last several years, I've been following the research led by Dr. Oliver on omega-3s and the potential neuroprotective benefit for athletes participating in concussive sports. The most recent results provide yet further evidence of such benefits.

"While I agree with the authors that further research is needed, sports related head trauma is an enormous issue that needs to be tackled, sooner rather than later. Given the safety profile of omega-3s, coupled with the wealth of associated health benefits, athletes, who we know tend to have low levels of omega-3s, should be counseled to increase their fatty fish intake and probably to take an omega-3 rich oil supplement." 

Study details

For the multi-site, non-randomized trial, the researchers used two male National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) American football teams: The team that received the omega- 3 supplements was an NCAA Division I team; and the control team was an NCAA Division III team. The supplement used in the study was the commercially available product called Mindset by Montana-based Struct Nutrition. The company also funded the study.

Thirty-one athletes received the omega-3 supplements during pre-season and throughout the regular season, while 35 athletes at the Division III team did not receive supplements but were monitored just the same.

The results showed that the omega-3 supplemented athletes displayed significant increases in plasma levels of EPA (111% increase) and DHA (110% increase). DPA levels decreased by a small amount (10%). As a result, the Omega-3 Index increased from about 4.3% at the start of the study to almost 7.5% at the end of the season.

Omega-3 brain © Getty Images Obencem
© Obencem / Getty Images

In the control group, EPA levels increased by about 55% over the course of the season, but no significant increases in DHA were reported. Indeed, the Omega-3 Index for the control group decreased​ during the season.

Looking at levels of Nf-L, the researchers found that these had increased by 50% in the control group at the end of the preseason training and remained high throughout the season. The omega-3 group, on the other hand, did not experience significant increases in Nf-L levels, said the researchers.

“The most novel finding of the current study was that [omega-3] supplementation likely attenuated elevations in serum Nf-L observed over the course of a season, specifically in the treatment group categorized as starters,” ​they wrote. “… the current study is the first to demonstrate a reduction in Nf-L following [omega-3] supplementation containing the combination of DHA, EPA, and DPA in ASF [American-style football] athletes, which given the unique attributes of each [fatty acid], may provide a more substantial benefit.

“Further studies are warranted to examine the differential effects of those [omega-3 fatty acids],” ​they added.

Source: Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition
2021, 18​, 65. Doi: 10.1186/s12970-021-00461-1
“The effect of omega-3 fatty acids on a biomarker of head trauma in NCAA football athletes: a multi-site, non-randomized study”
Authors: J.L. Heileson, et al.

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