The importance of Omega-3 fatty acid supplements

May 1, 2005 | Featured in the May 2005 Issue

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By: Dean Ochi, ATC, CSCS

Many athletes believe great achievements can be a product of scientific breakthroughs in medical labs. Some scour the Internet, health food stores and other supplement suppliers for pills that promise to turn them into Ray Lewis, Misty May or A-Rod overnight. But, these wonder drugs don't exist. They never will.

Instead, there is a wonder fat—Omega-3 Fatty Acids (O-3FA). This substance is absolutely necessary for your body to function. O-3FA is found in common foods like fish and certain seeds, but most people fail to eat enough of it. Athletes should include O-3FA in their supplementation regimen.

What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are essential fatty acids that bodies require to perform at maximum capacity. They are essential because the body cannot produce them by itself; they must be consumed through food or supplementation. Because of their many health benefits, O-3FA are known as good fats.

How does O-3FA help athletes?
Research indicates that there may be anti-inflammatory benefits to O-3FA. Research is also being conducted to determine whether O-3FA can aid in the reduction of exercise-induced asthma symptoms. Both potential benefits need more research before any recommendations can be made.

What type of athletes benefit most from O-3FA supplementation?
Due to the anti-inflammatory effects of O-3FA, any athlete partaking in intense physical activity and/or constant repetitive motion can benefit. For example, a pitcher who throws an average of five pitches to three hitters for seven innings makes 105 pitches. The repetitive pitching movement can result in inflammation in the shoulder that O-3FA might help reduce. In addition, athletes suffering from exercise-induced asthma may gain some relief from use of the supplement.

In general, how much intake of O-3FA is recommended?
There are two types of O-3FA supplement—one derived from flax seed oil and the other from fish oil. Either type can be found at most health food stores. Most O-3FA supplement labels list EPA (eicosapentaenoic) and DHA (docosahexaenoic), which are the two main forms of the fatty acids in scientific terms. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommendation for O-3FA supplements is 300 mg of EPA and DHA per day. This amount is effective for a healthy heart. No research has proven additional amounts of O-3FA are more beneficial.

How should an athlete evaluate and choose among competing products containing O-3FA?
Again, since O-3FA is a dietary supplement, caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware"). Always buy from a reputable company and use the AHA's recommendation as a guideline for EPA and DHA intake.

Are there any known side effects associated with O-3FA?
Side effects of O-3FA derived from fish oil are a fishy taste in the mouth and belching fish flavors. As with any oil, higher dosages can result in digestive problems, such as loose stools.

What are other results of taking O-3FA?
The health benefits of O-3FA mostly relate to preventing cardiovascular diseases. O-3FA reduces the formation of plaque in the walls of the blood vessels, which helps prevent hypertension (high blood pressure) and sudden cardiac death due to heart arrhythmias (irregular heart beat). O-3FA also lowers triglyceride levels (fat in the blood). Other research has shown O-3FA may reduce the risk of some forms of cancer.

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