Breaking News: These fatty acids are now being recognized as ergogenic aids. Here's the science.
You probably know all about the various ways fish oil can improve your health. You know about how it shores up your cardiovascular system, how it decreases systemic inflammation, increases insulin sensitivity, and in general has beneficial effects on almost any malady you can think of.
You might also know about recent studies that show how fish oil, or more specifically, omega-3 fatty acids, can lead to better reproductive health – higher testosterone levels, bigger, more robust testicles, and an increase in quantity and quality of sperm. (3)
You might even know that omega-3 fatty acids help with cognitive disorders, including the mental plague of the 21st century, depression. (1)
If you do know all that, consider yourself a fish oil scholar-in-residence. A gilded 18-inch Pacific sardine hung from a heavy chain is on its way to your home. Wear it around your neck proudly, but take it off before you operate a snow blower, woodchopper, or lathe.
Regardless of your apparent breadth of knowledge on all things fish oil, it's possible you don't know that the results of several studies have suggested that fish oil can be used as an ergogenic aid for athletes, a finding based largely on the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to change the functional capacity of muscle cells.
Modified Cell Membrane Fluidity
Athletes of all kinds have used fish oil, either knowingly or unknowingly, to inhibit the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) pathway, which is associated with increased inflammation.
Most athletes don't know, though, that these fatty acids, when introduced into cell membranes, also alter cell membrane fluidity, thereby modifying cell function and protein activities.
That means that together, those two mechanisms suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can enhance training adaptations in athletes including strength, power, endurance, and exercise recovery. At least those are the findings of scientists from the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom who conducted a meta-study on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on sports performance. (5)
Omega 3s and Hypertrophy/Strength
The main driver of muscle hypertrophy is increased muscle protein synthesis (MPS) brought about by exercise and proper nutrition (adequate protein), and omega-3s are thought to further sensitize skeletal muscle to this exercise and protein.
This concept was validated in 2011 when Smith et al. showed that dietary omega-3s potentiated the response of MPS to amino acid infusion. Although they didn't see any change in the basal rates of MPS, they observed post-prandial (right after a meal or infusion) increases in MPS, which is when it counts. They also noted an uptick in the activity of mTOR, which is a major regulator of muscle growth in us mammal types.
Similarly, the same scientists from the University of Stirling who compiled the meta-analysis I mentioned above found that 4 weeks of 5 grams/day of omega-3s stimulated focal adhesion kinase (FAK), a signaling protein that regulates MPS.
These same researchers found that while it takes about 2 weeks to see an increased incorporation of omega-3s into muscle cell membranes, the levels continue to increase after 4 weeks with no ceiling in sight.
Those test-tube analyses are fine, but let's take a look at some real-world stuff. First up was a study involving omega-3s and older adults who underwent 6 months of either omega-3 supplementation (3.36 g/day EPA + DHA) or corn oil supplementation (Smith et al., 2015).
The omega-3 groups exhibited increased thigh muscle volume, handgrip strength, and 1-RM strength, whereas the corn oil group exhibited no changes other than, I assume, weight gain, a damaged cardiovascular system, and additional inflammation.
Another study found that 2 grams of omega-3s a day increased peak torque with 90 and 150 days of supplementation. The omega-3 enhanced group displayed training-induced improvements in neuromuscular function and time delay between the onset of muscle activation and muscle force production in the biceps femoris and the vastus lateralis (the muscles got quicker).
However, in the interest of being a straight-up guy, I need to point out that these last two studies were conducted on older people who couldn't be classified as athletes. Oddly enough, there's only very limited research on the role of muscle growth in actual athletes, despite the positive results seen in blood chemistry studies and studies using older individuals.
Omega-3s and Endurance-Based Athletes
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to positively affect endurance in a number of ways:
- Rodent studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids to increase the expression of PGC-1 alpha, which is a key regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis. That means that fish oil leads to more mitochondria and more mitochondria equates to increased ATP synthesis. That's good because ATP is the energy currency of the cell.
- While human studies on omega-3s and mitochondrial biogenesis is still scarce, one study on obese individuals showed that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation did indeed stimulate the formation of more mitochondria (Laiflesia et al., 2016).
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation has been shown repeatedly to increase insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle, leading to increased carbohydrate oxidation, which reduces the amount of oxygen used to meet the demands of ATP production, thus leading to increased exercise capacity (Cole, et al., 2014).
- Eight weeks of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in cyclists led to reduced oxygen cost during a cycling time trial, as compared with placebo (Hingley, et al., 2017).
- Five weeks of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in Australian rules football players led to significantly lowered heart rate during steady-state submaximal exercise (Buckley, et al., 2009).
Omega-3s and Exercise Recovery
As every weightlifter knows, repeated eccentric muscle contractions cause damage to muscle fibers, and muscle damage sure as heck impairs subsequent lifting sessions and/or sports activity.
However, because omega-3s increase the structural integrity of the muscle cell membrane and inhibit inflammatory actions, they subsequently improve recovery.
A number of studies have seemingly verified this theory. Corder et al., 2016; Dilorenzo et al., 2014; Jouriss et al., 2011; and Lembke et al., 2014, all found that varying dosages of fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids either led to reduced muscle damage over placebo or reduced muscle soreness over placebo.
Omega-3s and Concussions
Brain injury isn't usually something that happens to lifters, but it's of course an issue in many contact sports.
Studies involving the effect of fish oils on traumatic brain injury (TBI) are problematical with humans, but one study of American football players did find that ingesting omega-3 fatty acids over the course of a full season led to decreased concentrations of "serum neurofilament light," a biomarker of head trauma.
There are, however, a number of pertinent rat studies. One of the pioneering studies of fish oil and TBI found that afflicted rats that were on a fish oil diet before and after induced injury were able to navigate a maze much faster than the placebo group. (Wang et al., 2013).
But Does Fish Oil Makes You Bruise and Bleed Easier?
Surgeons always tell you to stop using fish oil before an upcoming procedure, the concern being that the omega-3s will "thin" your blood and they won't be able to stop the bleeding.
Similarly, athletes in contact sports are sometimes wary of fish oils, believing that they'll exacerbate bruising. Contrary to all that, though, a systematic review of different populations, including athletes, found that omega-3 supplementation made no difference in bleeding rates. (Begtrup et al., 2017)
If their findings hold up to the test of time, that means that fish oils, even though they reduce platelet aggregation, don't affect bleeding rates after surgery. Similarly, any concerns about additional bruising appear to be unfounded.
The "Problem" With Fish Oil
While there are plenty of studies that show the effectiveness of fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids on sports performance and general health, there are also a number of studies that seem to show that fish oil doesn't do squat.
Unfortunately, the latter rather than the former are the ones that seem to be featured on local news programs, right after reporting that Fluffy the cat was safely rescued from the roof of a Mrs. Evelyn Crabtree Cormorant of 1254 Elm Street.
It's my contention that when fish oils fail to show positive effects, it's because of one of two reasons: Either they used inadequate doses, or they used doses that were inadequate. You get the point.
Remember that VITAL study that slammed fish oils and their supposed lack of effects on cardiovascular health? They used a measly 840 mg. a day of EPA and DHA (the two most biologically omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil). That's only a third or fourth of the amount deemed most effective in preventing heart attack or stroke.
Regular people tend to under-dose themselves, too. They buy a fish oil product and don't pay attention to anything but the number of capsules recommended on the label. There is, however, a huge range of omega-3 content and recommended dosages in fish oil capsules.
Take for instance the amount of DHA and EPA in a typical Costco, Kirkland brand fish oil capsule. A serving size contains a combined 250 mg. of EPA and DHA. Most people read the label, assume Kirkland knows what they're talking about, pop just one capsule and then walk down the aisle to sample two, three, or eight Cheddar Bunnies.
Contrast that with a serving Biotest's fish oil product, Flameout®. Each serving has a combined 3,080 mg. of EPA and DHA. That's like a lot more than the Kirkland brand.
Additionally, each serving of Flameout® contains 352 mg. of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid found in high concentrations in the milk of grass-fed cows and valued for its fat burning and tumor suppressing properties.
Flameout® also has processing standards that most other products can't compete with at all:
- Flameout® is purified by molecular distillation and stringently tested for PCBs, dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metal contaminants.
- Flameout® incorporates a self-emulsifying delivery system to make the product virtually odorless and better absorbed so that it doesn't result in a fishy aftertaste or "fish burps."
Clearly, dosage matters, as does purity, quality, and a philosophy of intention, which in this case is making a product that gives the biologically active fatty acids it contains the best chance of doing what they're physiologically capable of doing, whether it be improving health, increasing muscle protein synthesis, facilitating recovery, or improving sports performance.
Flameout® undeniably represents all of that.
- Mansoor Burhani and Mark Rasenick, "Fish oil and depression: The skinny on fats," J Integr Neurosci, 2017, 16(Supp 1): S115-124.
- Gertsik, et al. "Omega-3 Fatty Acid Augmentation of Citalopram Treatment for Patients With Major Depressive Disorder," Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, February 2012, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp. 61–64.
- Tina Kold Jensen, et al. "Associations of Fish Oil Supplement Use With Testicular Function in Young Men," JAMA Netw Open, January 17th, 2020.
- David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, "Omega-3 fatty acids for mood disorders," Harvard Health Publishing, August 03, 2018.
- Jordan D. Philpott, Oliver C. Witard, and Stuart D.R. Galloway, "Applications of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for sport performance," Research in Sports Medicine, Nov. 2018.