While many of us think of omega-3 fatty acids as being good for heart health, new research shows omega-3s also provide benefits for athletes.
What are fatty acids?
Fatty acids, which are long chains of carbon, are classified as saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated fats contain omega-3s and omega-6s. Although there is wide variability between people, most Americans consume 10 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Most experts agree a healthier ratio would be closer to 2:1.
Reduce omega-6s, increase omega-3s to achieve balance
One approach to restoring balance of omega levels is to decrease intake of omega-6s and increase intake of good sources of Omega-3 fats.
Fish and fish oil supplements are the richest source of omega-3s — the main two are called EPA and DHA.
Oils like soy, corn and safflower are rich in omega-6s. Replacing these oils with other oils rich in omega-3s such as flaxseed, or omega-9s found in olive and canola, will also help improve the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
Reduce muscle soreness
Omega-3 fats have also been shown to augment blood flow to muscles during exercise, decrease muscle soreness by 35%, reduce swelling, and increase range of motion after damaging exercise.
Burn fat and slow muscle loss
Studies also show that increasing omega-3 levels enhances insulin sensitivity, which improves fat burning in muscles and inhibits fat storage. Emerging work is even showing that omega-3s may regulate muscle growth and help during extended periods of rest by slowing the loss in both muscle and bone. This could apply for athletes during breaks in training or layoffs due to injury where muscle loss could be significant.
In recent studies, omega-3s in combination with exercise was shown to maximize fat loss. In addition, subjects who supplemented with fish oil decreased blood triglycerides by 14%, increased high density lipoprotein (“good”) cholesterol by 10% and improved the functioning of blood vessels. All these lines of research on omega-3s point to better recovery and improved health for athletes.
How much to take?
Omega-3 levels vary by individual, as does how individuals respond to omega-3 intake. There are commercial tests available to check levels, which might be prudent. A general guideline, however, is to aim for 500 mg of EPA plus DHA per day, and a more optimal level might be 1,000-2,000 mg per day. This could be achieved by consuming one serving of fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines and herring) every other day, but many people might find this challenging or have concerns about contaminants in fish.
Eating some fish and taking fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA may be the most economical and easiest way to boost your EPA and DHA intake.
A proper balance of omega-3s and omega-6s is vital for good overall health. Not only do omega-3s provide benefits for the heart, they also help support athletic performance and recovery.