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Why did we add Omega-3’s?

Omega fatty acids may be the single most important addition to your supplement regimen.  This macronutrient powerhouse helps ensure proper immune function, reduces inflammation, promotes muscle growth, increases efficiency of the cardiovascular system and provides greater mental acuity. Like all omega fatty acids, omega 3′s are not produced naturally by the body and must be obtained through diet or supplementation. Omega 3′s are usually the toughest fatty acids to attain through diet alone. 

Why do we only have Omega 3 Fatty acids and not Omega 6 and 9?

Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are classified as “essential fatty acids” (EFA’s) meaning our bodies do not produce them naturally and we must obtain them from external sources like food or supplementation.  Omega 9 fatty acids can be produced by the human body from unsaturated fats and are therefore not conditional on us consuming them from external sources.

Omega 3 fatty acids are generally the most difficult to come by through diet alone- cold water, oily fish are the primary source. 

Omega 6 fatty acids on the other hand are readily available in most North American diets (poultry, eggs, wholegrain breads, avocado, nuts) which means that people usually have more than enough Omega 6. 

What can EFA’s do for athletic performance?

The role of EFAs in modifying gene expression and stimulating the phenomenon of fuel partitioning now appears to be scientifically beyond doubt. But how does this translate into athletic performance? Can athletes expect to benefit from metabolic changes brought about by higher intakes of EFAs? Anecdotal reports of increased human performance on high EFA diets abound, but this is a relatively new area of research and hard scientific evidence is thin on the ground.

In 2001 Dr Udo Erasmus (considered by many to be a crusader for the health benefits of EFAs) carried out a study with 61 Danish athletes. After eight weeks of supplementation with a 2:1 blend of omega-3/omega-6 oil, the athletes (selected from a wide variety of sports) showed a significant increase in HDL (healthy) cholesterol levels, a more favourable ratio of HDL to LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol and lower levels of fasting triglycerides. A large percentage of the group also reported subjective improvements in endurance and recovery. However, subjective measurements are notoriously prone to the placebo effect, which means that the results should be interpreted with caution.

Meanwhile, a well-controlled study carried out on football players in 1997 showed no increase in VO2max or anaerobic threshold when diets were supplemented with 2.5 grams per day of omega-3 from fish oils (19). However, the dose of omega-3 used was very small, and the fuel partitioning effects of EFAs described above could only be expected to improve endurance and reduce body fat – parameters which were not assessed in this study.

Turn to animal and ‘in vitro’ studies, though, and things begin to look much more promising. In a study carried out last year, scientists studied the effects of omega-3 fat supplementation on swimming performance in rats (20). By comparison with a control group of unsupplemented rats, there was a 300% rise in the ‘swimming muscle’ levels of FABP, a protein that binds fatty acids and transports them to the mitochondria for oxidation, but no increase in muscle triglycerides. The researchers concluded that this effect was probably due to an up-regulation of the fatty acid metabolism genes via the PPARα mechanism discussed earlier.

In a study on rat muscle fibres, high omega-3 and omega-6 diets produced 16-21% more muscle tension and up to 32% greater endurance during high frequency stimulation(21). Moreover, when these rats resumed their standard diets for a period of six weeks, their muscle function returned to the level of un-supplemented rats.

Rat studies on EFAs and body composition also look promising. In a Japanese study, very young rats were fed for four months on a diet containing one of the following (22):

  • 12% perilla oil (very rich in omega-3);
  • safflower oil (very rich in omega-6);
  • olive oil (rich in mono-unsaturates);
  • beef fat (rich in saturated fats).

The amount of food consumed and the weight gained was the same in all four groups, but the amount of fat stored, the number of fat cells and fat cell volume were all significantly lower in the omega-3 and -6 groups. Furthermore, the genes involved in fat cell differentiation were significantly down-regulated in the omega-3 group by comparison with the olive oil and beef fat groups! Intriguingly, some human research points to a synergistic effect between endurance training and EFA metabolism. Earlier this year, scientists studying the phenomenon of ‘uncoupling’ in human muscle mitochondria found (as expected) that the genes coding for uncoupling proteins (the ones that stimulate thermogenesis via uncoupled respiration) were activated by omega-3 fats. What surprised them, however, was that after endurance training the stimulating effect of omega-3 fats was even stronger. In other words, omega-3 oils seem to stimulate thermogenesis most effectively in muscles that are endurance-trained!

So where does all this leave athletes? Although there’s a dearth of well-controlled double-blind studies on the interaction of EFA and genes in humans, there’s no doubting the weight of evidence accumulating from animal and in-vitro studies. Numerous studies have demonstrated that western diets containing significant amounts of processed foods and saturated or chemically-altered fats are very low in EFAs, particularly omega-3 fats, creating an unbalanced ratio of dietary omega-6:omega-3 (23). Typically, this ratio in modern diets is between 10:1 and 25:1, although the World Health Organisation recommends a ratio of between 5 and 10:1. Some nutritional researchers recommend an even higher proportion of omega-3, with as much as a third of total EFA intake from omega-3.