“Eat more fish.” It’s the resounding refrain from almost every doctor and nutritionist out there. And no wonder: there was literally Thousands from studies published since the early 1970s showing that consuming more omega-3s (via fish or supplements) can reduce the risk of heart disease, relieve joint pain, and improve mood. ((1) (2) (3rd)
That just scratches the surface of what omega-3 fatty acids are supposed to do in the body. There is also promising research showing the potential of high doses of omega-3 fatty acids to reduce symptoms of ADHD in children, prevent age-related cognitive decline, and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. ((4th) (5) (6th)
For all of the omega-3s talk, there is surprisingly little information about the benefits omega-3s can have for athletes and bodybuilders, but that is now changing. Here we break down what these healthy fats are, what they do in the body, and how they can help you improve your workouts.
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What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential long-chain polyunsaturated fats that the body cannot produce independently. Omega-3 fatty acids must be consumed through foods, supplements, or beverages.
The two best studied and bioactive omega-3 fatty acids are Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These omega-3s are found primarily in seafood (including oily fish like salmon, tuna, anchovies, and mackerel, as well as shellfish, seaweed, and seaweed). They’re also found in a few other animal sources like grass-fed beef and dairy products. The body uses DHA and EPA to build cell membranes (especially in the brain and eyes), produce hormones, and support many other important physiological functions.
The third type of omega-3, called Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in certain plant foods – including flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and canola oil. This type of omega-3 is generally used for energy purposes, but ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in minimal amounts, with rates reported between five and 15%.
How do omega-3 fatty acids work?
Omega-3 fatty acids have a long, flexible structure that makes them ideal for building cell membranes throughout the body, especially in the brain and nervous system. As part of cells, they serve as lubricants, facilitate better communication between cells and support cell metabolism and gene expression. In the brain, this means that omega-3 fatty acids optimize neuron function (also known as sharper thinking), protect against cell death (also known as defense against brain fog and cognitive decline), and increase production of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine (improve your Mood and motivation).
Omega-3 fatty acids work similarly in other parts of the body: In muscles, omega-3 fatty acids can improve nerve signals, thereby strengthening muscle contractions, protecting them from muscle wasting, and helping the production of hormones that are essential for building new muscle fibers.
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Omega-3 fatty acids also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show that they can block inflammation in several ways. This makes omega-3s a superstar nutrient against risk factors for heart disease. However, this benefit can also help recover from exercise and reduce muscle soreness.
What Are the Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids offer numerous health benefits, as discussed in the previous sections. However, this article examines the ways in which omega-3 fatty acids improve physical performance, as demonstrated in the study:
Omega-3 fatty acids strengthen and relax blood vessels by increasing nitric oxide production. This allows oxygenated blood to circulate more efficiently to the muscles and heart, improving endurance and reducing fatigue during long workouts. In one study, this effect helped elite cyclists who ate 1.3 grams of omega-3s daily for three weeks to improve their maximum oxygen uptake (a key indicator of endurance) significantly more than those who were given a placebo . ((7th)
Increased muscle gains
There is promising research showing that omega-3 fatty acids can actually increase mTor signal transmission, thus helping to increase muscle mass. Omega-3 fatty acids also increase insulin sensitivity, which can further support muscle building. One study found that resistance-trained subjects who were given three grams of omega-3-rich krill oil increased lean muscle mass by 1.4 kg, or 2.1%, from baseline over an eight week period, while those who received the same exercise program , no placebo gains were given. ((8th)
In addition, omega-3s have been shown to protect against muscle wasting even during weight loss and preserve your hard-won gains when you take a day off or cut fat. ((9And because omega-3s also aid mental focus and activity, they can also help strength athletes find the energy and focus to do more reps, which leads to better muscle building. ((10)
Better muscle regeneration
This is where omega-3s really shine. The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids reduce muscle damage and inflammation immediately after exercise, and help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness. ((11) (12) This, in turn, can help you recover faster after a hard workout and get back to workout faster.
What Are the Best Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Fish and other seafood are the best food sources for the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. The main sources include high-fat cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, herring, cod, trout and mackerel. Seaweed, seaweed, and some shellfish like shrimp and krill are also good sources.
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Plant-based omega-3 in the form of ALA is found in walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, soybeans, hemp seeds, and kidney beans. Nutritionists recommend doubling the recommended intake of plant sources when not consuming direct EPA and DHA sources, as the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is low. ((13th)
Who Needs Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Everyone! The body cannot make these healthy fats, so getting them through your diet is important. The FDA recommends that adults eat at least 8 ounces or two palm-sized servings of fish per week to get the 500 to 1000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids the body needs to optimize basic physiological functions.
People who don’t eat fish regularly, or who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, should consider an omega-3 supplement. Look for fish or krill oil for the highest levels of DHA and EPA. Or algae-derived dietary supplements are one of the best 100% vegan sources of DHA and EPA.
How Much Omega-3 Fatty Acids Do You Need?
The recommended daily allowance for omega-3 fatty acids is 1.6 grams per day for adult men and 1.1 grams per day for adult women. For athletes, experts recommend aiming for one to two grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day with an EPA to DHA ratio of 2: 1.
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Food sources are considered to be the best way to increase your omega-3 intake. However, if you’re not eating fish or want an extra helping hand, there are numerous dietary supplements to choose from in the market. Most omega-3 supplements are dosed with 1,000 mg of fish oil with different amounts of EPA and DHA. So read the label carefully and aim for at least 500 mg of EPA and DHA. Fish oil can go rancid quickly. Therefore, pay close attention to the expiry date. Quality is the key here.
The bottom line
Omega-3s can help you workout harder, get longer, and jump back faster. This is possibly the extra momentum you need to help you meet your lean gain goals. There are no known disadvantages to omega-3s. And hey, if a few chunks of fish a week can help you get the next PR for the bench press or pull off the final rep, that’s a pretty good reason to put salmon on the menu tonight.
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- Philpott JD et al. Influence of n-3 fatty acid supplementation from fish oil on changes in body composition and muscle strength during short-term weight loss in men with resistance training. Front Nutr. 2019, July 16; 6: 102.
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- Tinsley GM et al. Effects of fish oil supplement on post-resistance muscle soreness. J Diet Suppl. 2017, Jan. 2; 14 (1): 89-100.
- Ochi E et al. Influence of eicosapentaenoic acid-rich fish oil supplements on motor nerve function after eccentric contractions. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017, July 12; 14: 23. doi: 10.1186 / s12970-017-0176-9.
- Saunders AV et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diet. Med J Aust. 2013, August 19; 199 (S4): S22-6
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