Omega-3s are a type of fatty acid, a molecule with a long chain made up mostly of carbon and hydrogen. These chains attach to a molecule called glycerol to form a triglyceride, or fat. Another group of fatty acids called omega-6s also bind to glycerol to form fats. The properties of a fat are partially determined by whether there are lots of omega-3s or omega-6s and these fats have different effects on your body.
Most of us get too many omega-6 fats in our diet from sources like corn oil and soybean oil and don’t get enough omega-3s to balance things out. Experts believe a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 creates an imbalance that can lead to low-grade inflammation. The way to remedy this imbalance is to reduce the quantity of omega-6s in your diet, by eating fewer processed food made with omega-6-rich oils. The other way is to increase the amount of omega-3s you consume.
Where do these fats come from? You get omega-3 fatty acids through diet, although you can also get them in supplement form. One type, called long-chain omega-3s, are mainly in fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon, sardines, tuna, and anchovies. You sometimes see these fatty acids referred to has EPA and DHA. These are the two most common and beneficial forms of long-chain omega-3. The other, called short-chain omega-3s, are in plant-based foods, especially walnuts, flaxseed, and sesame seeds. Of the two, the long-chain form of omega-3 has the most research supporting its benefits. Your body can convert some short-chain omega-3s to long-chain ones but the amount is usually under 5%.
Now, let’s look at why you should get more of these fats if you work out.
Boosts Muscle Protein Synthesis
When you strength train, assuming you lift with enough intensity, you break down muscle fibers. In response to this low-grade damage, muscle protein synthesis inside muscle cells turns on to help the damaged muscle fibers repair and rebuild.
As you might expect, muscle protein synthesis is most efficient when you’re young. The reason older people have a harder time building muscle mass is due to “anabolic resistance.” Their muscle cells don’t respond as well to anabolic signals that turn on the synthesis of new muscle proteins. That’s where omega-3s may be beneficial. According to a study, omega-3s increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults, helping them jumpstart muscle protein synthesis. Plus, when they repeated the experiment in younger folks, those around age 40, it boosted protein synthesis for the younger crowd too.
How do omega-3s ramp up the building of new proteins? According to researchers at Washington University, omega-3s make muscle cells more sensitive to the effects of insulin and amino acids. Both amino acids and insulin are important for muscle repair and building new muscle.
Aid in Muscle Recovery
One of the characteristics of long chain omega-3s is they have anti-inflammatory activity. The capacity to calm inflammation comes in handy, especially if you have just completed a hard workout and know you’ll be sore the next day. Some studies show that adding more omega-3s to your diet may help tame post-workout inflammation, also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. The type of exercise most strongly linked with delayed-onset muscle soreness is eccentric exercise. One study involving untrained men showed that taking fish oil daily for 30 days reduced inflammatory markers in response to eccentric exercise. Plus, some studies show omega-3s may reduce muscle soreness and stiffness as well.
Enhance Muscle Strength
Research links consumption of long-chain omega-3s with greater grip strength. In a study, grip strength increased proportionally in a group of older adults with each additional serving of fatty fish they ate. A study in older adults showed that taking omega-3s as part of a strength-training program boosted muscle strength more than doing the same training without supplementation.
Faster Reaction Time?
A fast reaction time comes in handy, especially if you play a sport. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that four weeks of fish oil improved reaction time in female soccer players. Omega-3s help keep membranes healthy, including the membranes of nerve cells and muscle cells. Plus, in another study of healthy, young adults who ate a diet low in omega-3s, supplementation improved their reaction time as well as their memory. This isn’t surprising when you consider that omega-3s are part of the structure of muscle cell membranes and nerve cells. These healthy fats keep the cell membrane of a cell more fluid and help transfer signals from nerve to nerve and from nerve to muscle. This helps signals to be sent more efficiently, which, in turn, can improve neuromuscular function.
How Can You Get the Benefits?
Eat fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon, twice a week to get long-chain omega-3s, the most beneficial form. Plant-based sources of omega-3s are short-chain and need to be converted to the long-chain form. As mentioned, your body doesn’t do that very well. Preliminarily, it looks like the short-chain form, also known as alpha-linolenic acid, may have benefits as well. For example, studies suggest it may protect against cardiovascular disease, although more research is needed. In terms of strength and athletic benefits, the long-chain form, in fatty fish, is the best studied.
Should you take a fish oil supplement? One concern about eating fatty fish is the potential for toxin exposure. Fish, especially larger fish, take up toxins and pollutants from their environment, including heavy metals. When you eat fish, you take in these toxins. That’s where fish oil supplements have an advantage. Fish oil supplements from reputable companies undergo distillation to remove heavy metals. Although fish is high in protein and relatively low in calories, a fish oil supplement may be more appropriate if you’re concerned about exposure to heavy metals.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re getting enough omega-3s in your diet. It could give your workout a boost too!
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