Omega-3 supplementation plays an important role in health and performance throughout life. These nutrients are most often associated with heart health, but they do far more than that. The following are 9 important benefits omega-3s play in the health of the very young, very old and everyone in between. Read this, then go take your fish oil!
1. Increased Protein Synthesis
Omega-3s are most well-known for their effects on inflammation and heart health, but they actually have a powerful effect on increasing protein synthesis, one of the key factors in muscle growth.
Of the two most important omega-3s, DHA and EPA, it appears EPA has the most significant effect on protein synthesis.
This muscle-stimulating effect occurs when combined with amino acid or protein consumption, not when consumed alone. In fact, research has shown that protein synthesis can be increased by 30% when omega-3s are combined with a sufficient amount of protein or amino acids, compared to amino acids or protein alone!
These kinds of results have been shown in healthy young, middle aged and older men and women.
2. Decreased Protein Breakdown
Muscle growth is a result of increasing protein synthesis and/or decreasing protein breakdown. The regulation of protein breakdown is controlled by a different process than protein synthesis, and evidence shows omega-3s, especially EPA, reduces protein breakdown. In other words, EPA plays two unique roles in muscle growth. It stimulates protein synthesis and reduces protein breakdown by acting on completely different mechanisms in muscle metabolism.
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3. Enhanced Immune Function
It’s a huge bummer when you get sidelined from your training and nutrition program because you’re sick. This is another area fish oil can play an important role in fitness and performance. It’s been shown to support the function of white blood cells which are key cells in your immune system.
4. Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Excessive body fat, or adipose tissue, disrupts the body’s ability to manage blood sugar and maintain insulin sensitivity in muscle and fat tissue. Supplementing with omega-3s has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, but the mechanisms by which it happens are still being uncovered.
5. Improved Nutrient Delivery to Cells
Higher intakes of omega-3s actually change the composition of the cell membrane. A higher percentage of omega-3s in the cell membrane allows for an easier flow of nutrients in and out of the cell. The percentage of omega-3s in the cell membrane can easily be measured through a finger stick blood test.
6. Increased Metabolic Rate
The ability for omega-3s to boost metabolism is more theoretical than proven at this point. However, as a cell’s health improves, due to the improved nutrient delivery mentioned above, the thought is that it may allow for an increased metabolic rate.
7. Reduced Inflammation
Omega-3s are most well-known for their heart health benefits. Their heart health benefits are most related to the effect of omega-3s on inflammation.
When quality fish oil is taken at efficacious dosages, they have a significant effect on the body’s inflammatory response. For example,
“In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways.”
The habit of taking fish oil every day has a positive effect on more than 1000 genes that regulate inflammation!
Those who do a lot of chronic cardio or large amounts of endurance training should make their omega-3 supplementation a top priority.
8. Reduced Triglyceride Levels
If you eat a diet close to what’s discussed on this site, your triglyceride levels should be well under control. That said, EPA has been shown to support lower triglyceride levels. That’s actually how Lovaza, the pharmaceutical fish oil, became a prescription medication. There really isn’t anything special about it. It’s a high-quality, high-concentration fish oil that was created to treat a specific condition.
If you do have elevated triglycerides, or you have a family member who isn’t ready to make dietary changes, supplementing with fish oil can help improve his or her lipid profile quickly. Of course, a reduced-carbohydrate, low-sugar diet will drop triglyceride levels the fastest.
9. Improved Brain Health
DHA seems to play an important role in brain health throughout life. DHA is passed from the mother to her unborn baby, and is important for the developing brain. Many studies have shown large differences in later development when comparing babies born from mothers who supplemented with fish oil and those who did not.
For example, at 2.5 years after birth, toddlers of mothers who supplemented with fish oil had significantly improved hand and eye coordination compared to toddlers of mothers who did not supplement.
The effect of DHA on brain health seems to continue throughout life. Some research points at DHA consumption being important at warding off Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive diseases.
What about the studies that say they don’t work?
In recent years, studies have suggested they may not reduce heart disease risk as once thought. As usual, this is a result of the types of studies used. Also, these studies have only pointed at heart health, no all the other benefits mentioned above.
Observational studies haven’t shown a significant effect at reducing heart disease risk. In such a study, groups of people are asked whether they use fish oil or not. Those who say yes are put in the fish oil group and those who say no are put in the non-fish oil group. Many of those who say “yes” to taking fish oil say yes because they have fish oil in their cupboards, not because they remember to take them every day.
The other issue with many of these studies is the low dose that’s considered “using fish oil.” When just a gram of fish oil per day, especially low-quality fish oil is used, it’s unlikely to cause many positive effects.
Also, if you recently read about fish oil increasing prostate cancer risk, and didn’t read my response to this study, here it is: Omega-3s, Prostate Cancer and Misleading Headlines.
How much to take?
One gram of fish oil each day is better than nothing, but probably won’t lead to significant health improvements. That said, the upper end of intake is still to be determined. Many medical organizations remain conservative about how much to recommend, while those in the fitness community tend to be more generous with recommendations.
If you look for an answer to this question, you’ll see ranges from 1 gram per day, to 1 gram per percent body fat per day. To understand what’s best for you, I’d recommend working with a knowledgeable professional. I’d also encourage you to get regular lab work done.
In the studies referenced above, related to muscle growth, participants took 3-4 grams of EPA/DHA per day. That’s 3-4 grams of EPA/DHA, not of total fish oil. Depending on the source and quality, the actual omega-3 content in a fish oil softgel is 20-70%.
For example, this is the fish oil I use, which has 500 mg of EPA and 200 mg of DHA per softgel. That’s 700 mg of EPA and DHA per 1-gram softgel. I take 8-12 softgels per day, which is usually over 6 grams of total EPA and DHA.
Remember that many food products claim “high in omega-3s,” but the main omega-3 fatty acid they contain is ALA. A very small percentage of ALA is converted to EPA, and even less to DHA. Vegetarians must be aware that they can easily miss out on the brain health benefits of DHA by avoiding fish oil and relying only on plant-based ALA for their omega-3 intake.
The total fish oil amount, or the total omega-3 amount, doesn’t matter as much as the total amount of EPA and DHA. Be sure to check the labels.