I promise it’s not a fishy story……..

Fats have been given a bad rap in the past taking the heat for the rise in obesity and illness however over the last number of years it has become far clearer that fats are an essential macronutrient for a number of reasons that will be addressed throughout this blog. Along with the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for health & performance, the following points will be discussed;

  • Types of Fat
  • What are omega-3 Fatty Acids?
  • Four main health benefits of omega – 3
  • The Benefits of omega-3 for athletes

Types of Fat

Fats are classified into three groups, which are saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources. The advice would be to keep the first category of fats (saturated fats) to a minimum as they are the fat’s that have been linked with chronic diseases such as heart disease. Polyunsaturated fatty acids can be further categorised into omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, a good thing whereas, Omega-6 fatty acids can be viewed as pro-inflammatory, with over consumption not being a good thing! Today, in Western diets, we tend to consume more Omega-6 than Omega-3. Studies indicate that a high intake of omega-6 can have a negative effect on health. In terms of omega-6, the main sources are foods such as vegetable oils which tend to be present in many foods, particularly those that are processed.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that can be sourced from certain foods and also in supplement form. Omega-3 fatty acids have many health and performance benefits including, enhanced cognition, immunity, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and recovery. In addition, Omega 3 fatty acids are best known for their anti-inflammatory benefits. One key area for athletes that this is important could be during rehabilitation from injury or from an operation. Our diets are not as rich in the foods which omega-3 can be found in, examples being oily fish, nuts, seeds, and avocado. As well as being linked to good health through its potential effects on reducing inflammation, omega-3 foods and supplementation have reached the world of sport nutrition, where most athletes rely on nutrition strategies to improve their training and performance!

4 Main Health Benefits of Omega-3

A healthy and balanced diet is essential to achieve  optimal health correct functioning of our  immune system. Additionally, some dietary factors have been found to have immune-regulatory properties, including micronutrients such as fatty acids. The impact of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) on the immune system has been investigated for decades.

The most common Omega-3 fatty acids are, α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in nuts and seeds whereas EPA and DHA are the main components of fish oil.


Inflammation is a normal component of the body’s defence mechanisms that provides protection from infection and other aspects of the defence system. Inflammation is involved in the processes of tissue repair such as recovery from an intense training session. Part of the adaptation from training is the damage that is caused to the tissue. The process of repair will help recover the muscle and help with muscle protein synthesis.

Inflammation may be classified as acute or chronic and it is the latter that appears to be the issue when we look at its relationship with longer term chronic diseases. In some cases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and asthma, the central role of inflammation to the disease is well recognized. Individuals with these conditions have lots of inflammatory cells at the site of disease activity (e.g. the joints, the intestinal mucosa, the lungs) and they have elevated levels of inflammatory mediators at those sites and circulating all around the body. The ability of omega-3 fatty acids to down‐regulate several aspects of inflammation suggest that these fatty acids might be important in determining the development and severity of inflammatory diseases.


Within athletic situations the initial 2-3-day period post exercise is commonly defined as the acute exercise recovery period and is considered crucial in optimizing subsequent athletic performance and minimizing risk of soft tissue injury. Omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to accelerate the muscle repair process by reducing the inflammatory response to muscle damaging exercise. Consequently, fish oil supplements have been evaluated to differing extents and with varying success in a range of inflammatory conditions and further work also warranted to better understand the optimum dose of O3FA and/or ratio of EPA to DHA for muscle adaptation and recovery across a range of sporting contexts.

Female Health (PMS)

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a range of mood, behavioural and physical symptoms that can impact daily functioning in the period before menstruation. Up to 95% of women of reproductive age suffer from physiological premenstrual symptoms, with 30-40% suffering from PMS and up to 10% seeking treatment due to symptom severity. An increase in inflammatory mediators such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes, which are released by omega-6 fatty acids prior to menstruation due to a drop in progesterone levels, are believed to contribute to the symptoms experienced by individuals with PMS. Research has indicated higher than average levels of omega-six in those with premenstrual syndrome. Pro-inflammatory omega-6 are blocked by anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Indeed, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have a positive effect on the symptoms of PMS in the general population.

Benefits of Omega-3 for Athletes

Omega-3 have anti-inflammatory properties such as reduced formation of blood clots, (antithrombotic), and widening of the blood vessels (vasodilatory)  Excessive radical formation and trauma during high-intensity exercise leads to an inflammatory state that is made worse by the increased amount of omega-6 fatty acid that are in our diets, although this can be counteracted by EPA and DHA.

Several research studies have assessed the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on muscle damage, inflammation, and metabolism during exercise, and the evidence is mounting around the impact of omega-3 supplementation on exercise performance. A recent systematic review identified 32 studies related to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and various markers of physiology and performance in athletes (Lewis et al., 2020). Overall, a positive association between omega-3 supplementation and reaction time, skeletal muscle recovery. Supplementation has also been shown to play a role in muscle development, especially in conditions such as recovering injury (immobilization following a leg break) and energy restriction (making weight).

There is also research in the prevention and treatment of concussion. Although still in early research, there is a growing body of strong preclinical evidence and clinical experience that suggests that benefits may be possible from aggressively adding substantial amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids to optimize the nutritional foundation of Traumatic Brain Injury, concussion, and post-concussion syndrome. Early and optimal doses of Omega-3, even in a preventative setting, may have the potential to improve outcomes from this potentially devastating problem.

Athletes’ diets have been shown to contain sub-optimal levels of omega-3 using both dietary based assessment and blood results. Interestingly, no Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for omega-3 have been established. However, several dietary recommendations exist. The European Food Safety Authority recommends 0.25 g EPA + DHA daily (European Food Safety Authority, 2012). The American Heart Association recommends that healthy individuals meet omega-3 needs through eating at least two servings of fish weekly, but that individuals with coronary heart disease target 1 g EPA + DHA daily and those with elevated serum triglycerides aim for 2-4 g EPA + DHA each day. It has been suggested that for most athletes, ingesting approximately 1–2 g/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 an athlete.

 The Effects of Omega-3 on Muscle Strength

Some evidence of the benefits of the addition of omega-3  supplementation has been seen in older adults where it has been observed that improvements in muscle strength (but not muscle mass) following 18 weeks of resistance training was enhanced with omega-3 supplementation in older women. This was not seen in in older men. Consistent with this observation, omega-3 supplementation (2 g/d fish oil) during 13 weeks of resistance training resulted in greater strength gains compared with training alone. In comparison to older adults, relatively few studies have measured changes in muscle mass and/or strength with Omega 3 supplementation in younger athletic populations. Where there is also interest that affects muscle is in situations where muscle is immobilised (injury). The muscle breakdown associated with periods of muscle disuse is due, in part, to an impaired stimulation of MPS.

Mackerel, salmon, trout, sardines are all good examples that can be incorporated into meals and snacks. Include other foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados to increase amounts and add variety. If you are not fond of fish or eat it infrequently the addition of a Omega 3 supplement may be of benefit.

Sharon Madigan RD, PhD, FFSEM (Hons)


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