A legal ergogenic aid that’s actually healthy? Yes. You may even be using it already, but probably not enough. Here’s the science.
You already know that fish oil improves your health, shoring up your cardiovascular system, decreasing systemic inflammation, and increasing insulin sensitivity.
You might also know about studies showing how taking fish oil, or more specifically, omega-3 fatty acids, leads to better reproductive health – higher testosterone levels, more robust testicles, and an increase in the quantity and quality of sperm. (3) You might even know omega-3 fatty acids help with cognitive disorders, including depression. (1)
Here’s what you may not know: fish oil is an ergogenic aid for athletes. This is based largely on the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to change the functional capacity of muscle cells.
Athletes have used omega-3 fatty acids, either knowingly or unknowingly, to inhibit the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) pathway, which is associated with increased inflammation. Most athletes don’t know that these fatty acids, when introduced into cell membranes, also alter cell membrane fluidity, thereby modifying cell function and protein activities.
That means that together, those two mechanisms enhance training adaptations in athletes, including strength, power, endurance, and exercise recovery. Those are the findings of scientists from the University of Stirling who conducted a meta-study on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on sports performance. (5)
The main driver of muscle hypertrophy is increased muscle protein synthesis (MPS) brought about by exercise and proper nutrition (adequate protein). Omega-3s further sensitize skeletal muscle to this exercise and protein.
This concept was validated when Smith et al. showed that dietary omega-3s potentiated the response of MPS to amino acid infusion. Although they didn’t see any change in the basal rates of MPS, they observed post-prandial (right after a meal or infusion) increases in MPS, which is when it counts. They also noted an uptick in the activity of mTOR, a major regulator of muscle growth.
Similarly, the same scientists who compiled the meta-analysis found that 4 weeks of 5 grams/day of omega-3s stimulated focal adhesion kinase (FAK), a signaling protein that regulates MPS. They also found that while it takes about 2 weeks to see an increased incorporation of omega-3s into muscle cell membranes, the levels continue to increase after 4 weeks with no ceiling in sight.
Those test-tube analyses are fine, but let’s look at some real-world stuff. First up is a study involving omega-3s and older adults who underwent 6 months of either omega-3 supplementation (3.36 g/day EPA + DHA) or corn oil supplementation (Smith et al., 2015).
The omega-3 groups exhibited increased thigh muscle volume, handgrip strength, and 1-RM strength. In contrast, the corn oil group exhibited no changes other than, I assume, weight gain, a damaged cardiovascular system, and additional inflammation.
Another study found that 2 grams of omega-3s a day increased peak torque with 90 and 150 days of supplementation. The omega-3-enhanced group displayed training-induced improvements in neuromuscular function and time delay between the onset of muscle activation and muscle force production in the biceps femoris and the vastus lateralis (the muscles got quicker).
Now, these last two studies were conducted on older people who couldn’t be classified as athletes. Oddly enough, there’s only very limited research on the role of muscle growth in actual athletes, despite the positive results seen in blood chemistry studies and studies using older individuals.
Omega-3 fatty acids positively affect endurance in several ways:
- Rodent studies show omega-3 fatty acids increase the expression of PGC-1 alpha, a key regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis. That means that fish oil leads to more mitochondria, and more mitochondria equates to increased ATP synthesis. That’s good because ATP is the energy currency of the cell.
- While human studies on omega-3s and mitochondrial biogenesis are still scarce, one study on obese individuals showed that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation stimulated the formation of more mitochondria (Laiflesia et al., 2016).
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle, leading to increased carbohydrate oxidation, which reduces the amount of oxygen used to meet the demands of ATP production, thus leading to increased exercise capacity (Cole, et al., 2014).
- Eight weeks of omega-3 supplementation in cyclists led to reduced oxygen cost during a cycling time trial, as compared with placebo (Hingley, et al., 2017).
- Five weeks of omega-3 supplementation in Australian-rules football players led to significantly lowered heart rate during steady-state submaximal exercise (Buckley, et al., 2009).
As every lifter knows, repeated eccentric muscle contractions cause damage to muscle fibers, and muscle damage sure as heck impairs subsequent workouts or sports activity. However, because omega-3s increase the structural integrity of the muscle cell membrane and inhibit inflammatory actions, they subsequently improve recovery.
A number of studies have verified this theory. All found that varying dosages of fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids either reduced muscle damage over placebo or reduced muscle soreness over placebo.
Brain injury isn’t usually something that happens to lifters, but it’s a big issue in contact sports.
Studies involving the effect of fish oils on traumatic brain injury (TBI) are problematical with humans, but one study of American football players found that ingesting omega-3 fatty acids for a full season led to decreased concentrations of “serum neurofilament light,” a biomarker of head trauma.
There are, however, several pertinent rat studies. One of the pioneering studies of fish oil and TBI found that afflicted rats that were on a fish oil diet before and after induced injury could navigate a maze much faster than the placebo group. (Wang et al., 2013).
Surgeons always tell you to stop using fish oil before an upcoming procedure, the concern being that the omega-3s will “thin” your blood and they won’t be able to stop the bleeding. Similarly, athletes in contact sports are sometimes wary of fish oils, believing they’ll exacerbate bruising.
Contrary to all that, though, a systematic review of different populations, including athletes, found that omega-3 supplementation made no difference in bleeding rates. (Begtrup et al., 2017) If their findings hold up to the test of time, that means that fish oils, even though they reduce platelet aggregation, don’t affect bleeding rates after surgery. Similarly, any concerns about additional bruising appear to be unfounded.
While there are plenty of studies that show the effectiveness of fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids on sports performance and general health, there are also a number of studies that seem to show that fish oil doesn’t do squat.
Unfortunately, the latter, rather than the former, are the ones featured on local news programs. I contend that when fish oils fail to show positive effects, it’s because they used inadequate doses.
Remember that VITAL study that slammed fish oils and their supposed lack of effects on cardiovascular health? They used a measly 840 mg. a day of EPA and DHA (the two most biologically omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil). That’s only a third or fourth of the amount deemed most effective in preventing heart attack or stroke.
Regular people tend to under-dose themselves, too. They buy a fish oil product and don’t pay attention to anything but the number of capsules recommended on the label. There is, however, a huge range of omega-3 content and recommended dosages in fish oil capsules.
Take, for instance, the amount of DHA and EPA in a typical Costco, Kirkland brand fish oil capsule. A serving size contains a combined 250 mg. of EPA and DHA. Most people read the label and pop just one capsule.
Contrast that with a serving Biotest’s fish oil product, Flameout. Each serving has a combined 3,080 mg. of EPA and DHA.
Additionally, each serving of Flameout contains 352 mg. of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid found in high concentrations in the milk of grass-fed cows and valued for its fat-burning and tumor-suppressing properties.
Flameout also has processing standards that most other products can’t compete with at all:
- Flameout is purified by molecular distillation and stringently tested for PCBs, dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metal contaminants.
- Flameout incorporates a self-emulsifying delivery system to make the product virtually odorless and better absorbed so that it doesn’t result in a fishy aftertaste or “fish burps.”
Clearly, dosage matters, as does purity, quality, and a philosophy of intention, which in this case is making a product that gives the biologically active fatty acids it contains the best chance of doing what they’re physiologically capable of doing, whether it be improving health, increasing muscle protein synthesis, facilitating recovery, or improving sports performance.
Flameout undeniably represents all of that.
- Burhani MD et al. Fish oil and depression: The skinny on fats. J Integr Neurosci. 2017;16(s1):S115-S124. PubMed.
- Gertsik L et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Augmentation of Citalopram Treatment for Patients With Major Depressive Disorder. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2012 Feb;32(1):61-4. PubMed.
- Jensen TK et al. Associations of Fish Oil Supplement Use With Testicular Function in Young Men. JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Jan 3;3(1):e1919462. PubMed.
- Mischoulon D.Omega-3 fatty acids for mood disorders. Harvard Health Blog. Oct 27, 2020.
- Philpott JD et al. Applications of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for sport performance. Res Sports Med. Apr-Jun 2019;27(2):219-237. PubMed.