by Jeff S. Volek, Ph.D., R.D.
There is no better example of bioactive nutrients with such diverse health-promoting effects as omega-3 fatty acids. Here is a quick review about what omega-3s are, the studies supporting their use and how much to take for health benefits. Fish contains EPA & DHA (omega-3)
Fish and fish oils are rich in the main two omega-3s, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Non-fish oil sources that contain omega-3s include flaxseed, hemp and chia seed oils. These plant sources are rich in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a portion of which your body can convert to EPA and DHA. Increase omega-3s, reduce omega-6
Omega-3s are a constituent of every cell membrane. Our bodies cannot produce them, so they must come from the diet. Yet, because of the abundance in most Americans diets of corn and soy oils (rich on omega-6s), we end up with too much omega-6 relative to omega-3 fats in our cells. This imbalance is connected to a broad spectrum of health problems, including common degenerative diseases. An easy way to restore balance and improve your health is to add omega-3 fats to your diet. Products with omega-6 fats are associated with greater inflammation. Since chronic levels of inflammation are linked to many diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and other joint-related diseases, as well as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, the therapeutic supplementation of fish oil has long-term benefits. Improves heart health
It has long been known that fatty fish consumption can reduce the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease and the heart’s susceptibility to fatal arrhythmias. Fish oil also inhibits platelet function and improves blood pressure, endothelial function, blood vessel health and inflammation. Further, studies show that increasing one’s intake of omega-3s enhances insulin sensitivity, which improves how the body handles fat by promoting fat burning in muscles and inhibiting fat storage. Lower high triglycerides
Many doctors prefer to prescribe drugs to treat high blood lipids, but there are actually quite a few natural methods that are as effective or better and are associated with fewer side effects. For example, fish oils are far better than many drugs at lowering high triglycerides. A review of the findings of randomized, controlled trials showed that omega-3 fatty acids of marine origin consistently lower elevated plasma triglyceride levels in a dose-dependent fashion with greater efficacy in people who had higher triglyceride levels. Enhances lean mass muscle gains
Beyond reducing your risk for disease and improving overall health, fish oil may enhance body composition. Healthy subjects were given 4 grams per day of fish oil (providing 1,600 mg EPA and 800 mg DHA) or a safflower oil placebo. After 6 weeks, the fish oil group showed greater increases in fat free mass and loss in fat mass. The fish oil group also had lower salivary cortisol levels. The changes in cortisol (stress hormone) were significantly associated with changes in body composition. Thus, the lower catabolic stress in the fish oil group as indicated by reduced cortisol levels may partially explain the greater fat loss and increased lean mass. Increases exercise-based fat loss
Overweight subjects consumed fish oil or a placebo (sunflower oil) for 12 weeks. The dose was 6g of oil (1.9g of omega-3 fats) per day. Each group was then split into two more groups: one that exercised three times per week and one that didn’t exercise more than they used to. The investigators noted significant effects in the exercise plus placebo oil group and the fish oil alone group on fat loss. However, the combination of both exercise and fish oil led to the greatest decrease in body fat (almost 4 pounds in 12 weeks). In addition, fish oil supple-mentation decreased blood triglycerides, increased HDL “good” cholesterol and improved the functioning of blood vessels. Improves strength and power
Older women performed 90 days of strength training with or without fish oil (2 grams per day). As expected, the fish oil group had a significant increase in blood levels of EPA (+45%) and DHA (+20%). The fish oil group also showed significantly greater improvements in a spectrum of strength and power tests. The mechanism of how fish oil improved muscle performance was speculated to be related to improved membrane fluidity and potential effects on nerve conduction velocity and activation of muscles. Improves muscle building signaling
Researchers examined the effects of fish oil supplementation on muscle protein synthesis and anabolic signaling in older men and women. Subjects were randomized into either a fish oil (4 grams a day) or control group that received corn oil. After 8 weeks of supplementation the fish oil group showed a marked increase in omega-3s in muscle samples. The fish oil group also showed a two-fold greater increase in muscle protein synthesis in response to an infusion of amino acids. Fish oil supplementation also resulted in a greater expression of anabolic signaling in muscle. Reduces muscle soreness
According to new research fish oil supplementation may help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, more commonly referred to as DOMS. Researchers tested whether supplementing with fish oil had any effect on markers of muscle soreness in response to exercise in untrained subjects. The fish oil group supplemented with 1.8g per day (324 mg EPA and 216 mg DHA) for 30 days, and then performed 40 minutes of bench stepping. Compared to the placebo group, subjects supplementing with fish oil reported less perceived pain 48 hours after exercise. In addition, the increase in thigh circumference (an indication of swelling) was less 24 and 48 hours after exercise. Range of motion in the knee joint was significantly improved in the fish oil group after 48 hours. The findings indicate that fish oil may represent a useful strategy for reducing the symptoms of muscle soreness after exercise and aid in recovery. Minimum and optimum dosages
The response to fish oil supplementation varies between people and some individuals require higher doses to achieve physiological effects. A good minimum dose to start is somewhere around 300 mg of EPA and DHA per day, which is equivalent to about one serving of fatty fish. A more optimal dose would be closer to 1,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA. If you are at high risk for heart disease, stroke or inflammatory condition, then 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg per day may have better effects.