Despite our food being an enriching source of nutrients and full of goodness we don’t make utmost use of this naturally available health source but try to achieve the same through other means such as supplements and likewise. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains-authentic nutrient source-have been taken for granted and now, we are victims of serious nutrient deficiencies and health-related problems. Due to continuous breaching of these nutrient sources we have landed ourselves in a state where supplementation has become indispensable for a majority of individuals.
A majority of the population are regular consumers of multivitamin supplements on a daily basis. Vitamin D and vitamin B deficiencies are on a rise for which supplements have once again become mandatory otherwise this can result in serious health consequences. Another group of supplements that’s especially crucial for vegetarians and vegans are fish oil supplements that have been steadily used for lowering blood triglyceride levels in all individuals including athletes. So, what’s so special about these supplements that makes it a favourite of athletes too? The very fact that they contain omega-3 fatty acids which cannot be produced by our body but must be added via the food that we consume. Omega-3 fatty acids have been proposed for protecting the heart, improving mental life, easing inflammation and lengthening life and deficiencies have created innumerable problems right from arthritis and mood disorders to cancers, cardiovascular diseases and more. The most recent fascination on omega-3 supplementation is the fact that these have been proudly presented as an ergogenic aid for athletes for improved athletic performance.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Sharks, swordfish, tilefish and albacore tuna are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids but they come with a statutory warning that these might be loaded with toxic substances. Hence, controlling the consumption of these fish is always recommended to avoid effects due to mercury overload and so. Fish oils are made from the tissues of oily fish and are overloaded with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which are forms of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) which exert anti-inflammatory properties. Interestingly, though fish is the best source for omega-3 they too don’t produce it but acquire it by consuming microalgae or fish that’s enriched in omega-3 fatty acids. Sometimes called as vitamin F due to its presence in ‘fatty fish’ sea creatures such as krill, algae, microalgae and crustaceans are also excellent sources of n-3 PUFAs. Alpha-linolenic fatty acid (ALA) is also a form of omega-3 but primarily found in soybeans, pumpkin seeds, perilla seed oil, walnuts, flaxseed and canola. But sadly, ALA from food sources must be converted into DHA and EPA before reaping benefits. DHA and EPA have even been named as ‘brain food’ because of their prime participation in cognitive health.
So, fish oil supplements are indeed helpful in preventing illnesses and promoting health but they are not a one-stop solution for all the problems and illnesses as advertised by marketing individuals. With this in mind, let’s look at where we stand with respect to fish oil supplementation and athletic performance.
Fish Oil Supplements & Athletic Performance
Athletes need greater sustenance capacity and energy for maximized performance. Because of this, we have seen that most of them use dietary supplements to increase metabolic capability, delay fatigue, improve muscle hypertrophy and shorted recovery period. Any athletic performance requires a strict exercising routine that exerts physiological stress on the body. The body tries to counter this by going for a joint response by the cardiovascular, pulmonary and nervous system as this increases blood flow and oxygen supply to skeletal muscles. There is a tremendous change in blood flow during rest and exercise-while muscles receive 20% of total blood flow during rest, they receive more than 80% during exercise. In such scenarios ergogenic aids are of utmost use as they aid in improving exercise efficiency and also enhance recovery. Omega-3 are considered as an ergogenic aid here as they are helpful in restricting exercise-induced inflammation and enhancing health of muscle and energy availability.
Intense exercise can lead to oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species (ROS) production occurs due to muscle contraction. This is greater than antioxidant capacity of the muscles and might lead to fatigue development in athletes. There are various experimental studies showing that dietary intake of PUFAs could optimize immune and inflammatory response. The consumption of omega-3 decreases interleukin IL-1 and IL-6 prevents inflammation. Daily prescription of 4 g of n-3 PUFA on young and old subjects for 8 weeks showed significant increase in muscle protein synthesis; another study that administered the supplement for six months showed improved muscle mass and strength in elderly adults. Seven days of 3 g/day of PUFA supplementation decreased post-exercise muscle damage and soreness in individuals who performed eccentric biceps curls. Chronic supplementation of n-3 PUFAs improves neuromuscular activity in animal studies and they are indeed an excellent supplementation for athletes given the fact that they are helpful in recovery during training or competition. A study was conducted on 20 international rugby players for 5 weeks of pre-season training. These players were made to consume a protein-based supplement consisting of n-3 PUFA twice a day or a protein-based placebo to check on muscle soreness, countermovement jump performance and psychological well-being. All the players filled a questionnaire assessing their fatigue, sleep, stress and mood levels every day during the training period. Results showed that PUFA supplement improved better maintenance of explosive power in the rugby players during pre-season training.
Exercise provides a platform for infectious agents to enter the body and cause diseases due to alterations in immune functions (this is the work of pro-inflammatory cytokine production, decreased neutrophil function and NK cell cytotoxicity). Studies show that n-3 PUFA supplementation decreased IL-6 production in athletes. A study focused on the immune functionality of fish oil supplementation on athletes who underwent endurance training-16 male subjects underwent a six-week double blind placebo supplementation trial involving two groups (fish oil or placebo oil). Each of them visited the research team twice-during the first visit they underwent a maximal exercise test and during the second they performed 1-h of endurance exercise on a cycle ergometer. Results showed that fish oil supplements reduce increase in peripheral blood mononuclear cell production. Immune levels are suppressed after performing high-intensity exercises and such decline in immunity levels increases the risk for upper respiratory tract infections. There are several studies that support the fact that n-3 PUFA supplementation can combat such infection risk.
A study defined asthma in elite athletes as ‘sport asthma’ that’s nothing but respiratory symptoms and bronchial hyperresponsiveness without allergic features. Some athletes, such as those involved in sports such as skiing and long-distance running/cycling that require intense breathing. Likewise, swimmers too face this issue due to inhalation of chlorine derivatives in the swimming pool. Eskimos exhibit low asthma rates as they consume more of omega-3 fatty fish. Studies show that n-3 PUFA intake reduces asthma rates because of its anti-inflammatory mechanism: Supplying asthmatic patients with 3.2 g of EPA and 2.0 g of DHA daily for 3 weeks reduces eicosanoids and pro-inflammatory cytokines concentration. Yet another study that supplied the same supplement combination and an anti-LT medication showed that both the supplement and the medication were independently effective in attenuating airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction. Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction improved when individuals were supplied with n-3 PUFAs.
Effects on Joint Pain
Joint pain is a common complaint for athletes especially those participating in sport with joint torsional movement such as football, volleyball and tennis or increased articular impact loading such as football, running and basketball. There is an increased chance of developing osteoarthritis in athletes when they are involved in playing a sport that has rapid acceleration/deceleration or causes high impact on joints continuously. Joint pain is the result of infiltration of inflammatory cells and n-3 PUFAs could help preserve joint health. A New Zealand study reported reduced inflammation in animal and human trials with 89% decrease in pain symptoms and 91% increase in quality of life.
Studies & their Supporting Evidences for Fish Oil Supplementation
Nieman et al. supplied 23 cyclists with 6 weeks of fish oil supplementation to check their effect on exercise performance, inflammation and immune measures. Results showed that the supplement increased blood levels of EPA and DHA but had no impact on exercise performance, inflammation and immune response. Poprzecki et al. showed that supplementing men with omega-3 for 6 weeks increased antioxidant activity. Omega-3 supplementation improves muscle flexibility in endurance athletes and in younger adult athletes it contributes to lower peak heart rate, reduces resting heart rate variability and oxygen consumption required while exercising. But there are several other studies showing not much improvements in markers of inflammation, performance and immunity. Another study on young men and women performing endurance exercise showed that supplementing with krill oil did not impact immune function nor affect markers of exercise performance.
Though fish oil supplements decrease triglyceride levels in athletes and nonathletes we need more concrete studies to show that they are an effective ergogenic aid for exercise performance. For those consuming fish, it is advantageous as it increases fish oil intake but too much of it is also hazardous to health. Get in touch with your physician for the recommended dosages of the supplements.
Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Benefits & Endpoints in Sport: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6357022/
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation: Helpful for Exercise? https://www.uws.edu/omega-3-fatty-acid-supplementation-helpful-for-exercise/
Fish Oil Supplementation & Athletic Performance: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2012/09000/Fish_Oil_Supplementation_and_Athletic_Performance.9.aspx?WT.mc_id=HPxADx20100319xMP
Fish Oil: Friend or Foe? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fish-oil-friend-or-foe-201307126467
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