East Jefferson General Hospital

Optimum Performance: Omega 3 and sports
Written by Mackie Shilstone   

It's not often that we give our parents or grandparents credit for the little things they taught us such as to "take that tablespoon of cod liver oil" to enjoy better health.

How right they were, especially if you participate in recreational sports. Fish oil (a source of Omega 3s) consumption dates to the 1700s as a daily wellness tonic.

Early physicians found great success easing their patient's aching joints, much less helping them to regain good health. To this day, I take not only fish oil capsules, but also a teaspoon of cod liver oil in my morning protein shake to help both my heart health and protect my joints from running up and down the tennis court during training sessions with world No. 1 Serena Williams. While I will never reveal a woman's age, I will turn 62 on March 16, so I need all the good health I can get.

My own personal physician, Leonard Kancher, the medical director of The Center for Longevity and Wellness in Metairie, says, "I'm a big believer in Omega 3 fatty acids and feel they play an important part in our overall well-being. And their effects on our athleticism are equally impressive."

Omega 3 fatty acids, composed of the important essential fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are polyunsaturated acids, which are required to maintain good health. Scientific evidence has shown that the human body does not produce enough EPA and DHA to meet its own needs and therefore should be included in the diet or taken as a supplement based on medical guidelines.

The issue we face is that we are getting too many sources of problematic Omega 6s – known as linoleic acid – in our diet such as sunflower, safflower, soy and corn oil. While Omega 6 is not necessarily a bad thing, its over abundance in the diet at the expense of Omega 3 has become what I state in my book, "Stop Renting Your Health – Own it, A Three Step Approach" as, "one of the most pressing public health issues of the 21st century."

According to Kancher, "Omega 6 fatty acids (found in just about everything we eat) when in excess have been shown to produce inflammation in the body leading to joint pain. Omega 3 fatty acids, on the other hand, do the exact opposite bringing down inflammation and bringing Omega 6 fatty acids into balance, hence the crucial importance of Omega 3. Think of it as the yin and the yang. "

Right now in this country the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is 15-30:1, when in reality it should be 1-2:1.

So how does the intake of Omega 3s in the diet – from cold- water fish like salmon, sardines, cod, herring, anchovies or mackerel – impact health in sports like the NFL?

A January 2009 study – "Evaluation of Lipid Profiles and the Use of Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acid in Professional Football Players" - which appeared in the journal Sports Health, states the following hypothesis: "Omega 3 essential fatty acid has been shown to improve cardiovascular lipid (blood fat) risk factors and should improve lipid profiles in professional football players to help reduce their recently shown accelerated risk of developing cardiovascular disease."

The study quotes research that demonstrated "82 percent of 233 retired National Football League players under the age of 50 had abnormal narrowing and blockages in arteries compared to the general population the same age."

From first-hand experience working with hundreds of NFL players, I can tell you that these references are to the offensive and defensive linemen, who are in excess of 300 pounds and with waist measurements larger than 50 inches. I have referred to them in media interviews as "the walking dead." Please do not think the problem starts when the player reaches the NFL. The obesity issue begins in high school and just gets worse with age, if not addressed.

The researchers took 36 active NFL players, who were randomly assigned to two groups – one group was provided with fish oil capsules (2200 mg. of mixed DHA, EPA, and 350 mg of other omegas), while the other group served as controls during a 60-day trial. Extensive lab tests were performed pre- and post-test period.

The conclusion was as follows: "Omega 3 supplementation significantly improved the lipid profiles of active players randomized to treatment. These results suggest that fish oil supplementation is an effective way to increase eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) levels in plasma and should be considered as a method to improve modifiable cardiovascular risk lipid factors in professional football players."

Kancher added: "This is why sport people who take Omega 3 supplements report that they suffer less from inflammation and their injuries are not as bad. DHA, one of the two long chain Omega 3 fatty acids, obtained through the consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids is positively associated with cognitive and behavioral performance, as well as retinal stimulation and neurotransmission, all very important, especially in sports that demand long, intense focus and concentration, such as golf, tennis and wrestling."

As with all good things in life, I would be remiss without giving the other side of the Omega 3 story surrounding an issue called lipid peroxidation – effects of the breakdown of Omega 3. The National Institutes of Health says "lipid peroxidation, is a crucial step in the pathogenesis of several disease states in adult and infant patients."

From a recent research paper appearing in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, "it's quite clear that further research is required on whether the potential benefits of Omega 3 PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) supplementation outweigh the potential risks of enhanced lipid peroxidation in athletes engaged in heavy exercise."

When in doubt follow what many health care providers recommend to be to consume two servings per week of cold-water fish, which would provide a combined intake of EPA and DHA of 200-500 milligrams per day.

This same research paper referenced the following statement: "It has been suggested that for most athletes, ingesting approximately 1-2 grams/day of EPA and DHA at a ratio of EPA to DHA of 2:1 would be beneficial in counteracting exercise-induced inflammation and for the overall health of the athlete." Should you decide to purchase a fish oil supplement to fulfill your EPA/DHA requirements, I would suggest that you look for a product with high purity standards such that it would provide a label assay of ingredients upon request to check to see that it is mercury free.

Also, anyone interested in higher levels of absorption and bioavailability in Omega 3 EPA and DHA concentrates should insist on a natural or re-esterified triglyceride omega oil.

When in doubt, always ask your healthcare provider for appropriate supplement recommendations based on your own personal health profile.

Ready to go fishing for better health?