By Dr. Julia Gonen
Many athletes take dietary supplements to help improve performance. These supplements may provide a variety of benefits such as increasing strength, power, speed, or endurance or alternatively, by altering body weight or body composition or decreasing inflammation. Fish oil is one of the most common supplements that athletes are taking for these very powerful reasons.
Why fish oil?
We obtain omega-3’s from a variety of sources such as various nuts and seeds and fish. The types of omega-3 fatty acids from cold water fish are EPA + DHA which other sources do not contain (such as flax oil). These types of good fats become part of every cell membrane in our body and allow nutrients and waste products to pass in and out of cells more easily. They also shunt our biochemical pathways towards a reduction in inflammation.
A diet with higher omega-3 fats will from cold water fish will decrease inflammation, versus a diet high in omega-6 fats (corn, vegetable, safflower, sunflower oils, soy etc.) which may actually be a cause of pain and promote inflammation.
A diet higher in omega-6 fats is correlated with virtually all disease:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome & IBD
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psychiatric disorders
- Autoimmune diseases
The typical Canadian diet is 15 - 25 times higher in omega-6 than omega-3 fats. Anthropological evidence shows that our paleolithic ancestors ate a diet roughly with a ratio of 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fats. This changed during the Industrial Revolution when we began to refine grains products and seeds into oils.
We also need to ensure certain nutrients to help the body to finish the conversion of omega-6 fats to the lesser inflammatory pathway. These nutrients include magnesium, zinc, and vitamins C, B3, and B6.
Why not just take Ibuprofen when I have pain or inflammation?
Some people are chronic users of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen, aspirin, Celebrex…) to decrease pain and inflammation. This may put you at increased risk for serious side effects. Fish oil and other natural ways to decrease inflammation are safer, effective and wiser long term strategies for a healthy life. The way that NSAIDs work is by blocking the biochemical pathway from omega-6 fats to inflammatory compounds in our body. So a much safer and healthier way to decrease inflammation would be to drastically decrease omega-6 fats while increase omega-3 fats in your diet thus decreasing the NSAID intake which we know has numerous serious potential side effects including gastrointestinal bleeding, ulcers, high blood pressure, kidney problems, liver failure, heart problems, water retention, and is the 15th leading cause of death in the U.S.
Benefits of Fish oil:
Omega-3 fish oil can help with exercise recovery in a few ways:
- Reduction in Joint Pain – 17 randomized, controlled trials showed that fish oil can significantly reduce joint pain intensity, as well as morning stiffness, and the pain and tenderness in joints associated with arthritis and inflammation.
- Reduction in Exercise Induced Muscle Damage and Soreness - fish oil consumption can reduce the time it takes to recover between training sessions, improving performance.
- Fat Metabolism – improvement in body composition, as well as fat burning & thermogenesis (the burning of excess fat to produce heat). Omega-3 fish oil supplementation has been shown to decrease body weight, BMI, and waist circumference, while the addition of omega-3 to exercise may accelerate weight loss. These good fats shunt glucose (from carbohydrate metabolism) towards glycogen storage/synthesis rather than fat storage & triglyceride synthesis.
- Anti-inflammatory - Fish oils are a safe alternative to NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories which cause stomach erosion & kidney toxicity)— they shunt biochemical fatty acid pathways towards less inflammatory/anti-inflammatory directions. EPA from Fish oil suppresses inflammatory pathways caused by cheap omega-6 oils, trans-fats (hydrogenated), sugar, alcohol, stress, smoking, pollution, viral infections, chronic disease (i.e. diabetes) etc.
- Cardiorespiratory function – fish oil improves the heart’s ability to pump blood and deliver oxygen to muscles when needed the most and may also improve lung function while exercising. The Physician Health Study was a Case-Control Study that looked at Low Red Blood Cell Omega-3 (EPA + DHA) levels and sudden cardiac death. The subjects in the highest quartile for EPA + DHA levels were at a 90% lower risk of sudden cardiac death.
- Increases muscle strength & athletic performance - studies have shown increases in speed, muscle strength and grip strength in those consuming EPA + DHA from fish oil.
- Strengthen Bones – omega-3 fats have a synergistic effect with aerobic exercise to improve bone mineral density.
- Protein Synthesis and Muscle Growth – omega-3 fatty acids in conjunction with anabolic stimulus (Crossfit, protein, insulin) improves protein metabolism as well as increases muscle protein synthesis.
- Brain Health - studies have shown that people with the highest levels of omega-3 fats from fish oil, had better preservation of their brain as they aged than those with the lowest levels (less shrinkage over time). Higher levels of DHA are associated with better attention and frontal cortex function.
- Lower cortisol levels - omega-3 fats increase our ability to deal with stress. They help to lower cortisol levels (stress hormone) and also help to alleviate anxiety, mental stress and depression.
Caution: Fish oil may increase the risk of bleeding and should not be taken if on any blood thinning medications, if you have a bleeding disorder ,and caution must be taken in diabetics. Please consult Dr. Julia, our Naturopath if you are on any medications or have any conditions which you are concerned that may interact with fish oil before taking.
Dr. Julia, our Naturopath, can order red blood cell omega-3 testing to ensure that you are getting the maximum benefit from your omega-3 fish oil supplementation and to determine whether you are eating too many ‘bad fats’ relative to your good fats in your diet.
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