Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have caught the attention of athletes worldwide for their numerous health benefits. Some of those benefits include  inflammation control, cognitive support and neuroprotection, post-injury muscle maintenance, and enhancement of training adaptations and recovery from exercise.

BLOG: Fish Oil and Muscle Growth

As athletes push their bodies to the limit, many have wondered if increasing EPA and DHA might help them reach the next level. Research on the effects of EPA and DHA on athlete populations is ongoing, and it’s essential to understand the potential benefits and risks before incorporating a new supplement into an athlete’s routine. This article will explore the current evidence and potential risks and discuss whether athletes would benefit from more EPA and DHA.

 

What Are Omega-3s and Where Can I Find Them?

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are fatty acids with a double bond at the third carbon atom from the methyl end of the fatty acid chain. Since the human body cannot insert a double bond in that position, omega-3s cannot be produced in the human body and must be obtained from dietary intake.

Plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, green leaves, and vegetable oils contain omega-3 fat ALA, so intake of ALA is rarely an issue. ALA can undergo metabolic conversion into EPA and DHA; however, the conversion rates are low at 0.2% to EPA and 0.05% to DHA. Therefore, obtaining EPA and DHA directly from food sources is vital for meeting individual needs. However, this can be challenging since EPA and DHA are only found in high amounts in oily fish and select microalgae species.

BLOG: Do All Fish Have Omega-3s?

Some fish, including mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring, and trout, are generally accepted to contain higher amounts of EPA and DHA. Yet, even amongst these fish, omega-3 content can vary wildly. Evidence demonstrates that the omega-3 content of fish can be highly variable based on the metabolic profile of the fish, their maturity, their living conditions, the food they were fed, and the time of year they were caught.

Furthermore, evidence demonstrates the perceived unattractive taste and smell of fish is one of the main reasons for their low consumption, even among athletes. Lastly, the possible presence of heavy metals in fish may affect the perception of safety and frequency of their consumption. Although the health benefits of eating fish appear to exceed the risks, supplementation may be required to meet optimal levels in some populations.

 

What Are the Recommended Intake Levels for the Average Person? And What About Athletes?

There is no dietary reference intake for EPA and DHA, yet several guidelines have been set for the general population by other authorities. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend 250mg/day of combined EPA + DHA.

Other organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, have higher recommendations at 500 mg/day of EPA + DHA. Yet, with so many variables impacting the amount of EPA + DHA in the diet, some authorities are beginning to highlight the need to assess individual omega-3 status to determine if intake is truly adequate.

BLOG: Female Athletes and Omega-3s

As Harris and von Schacky proposed, the Omega-3 Index is the sum of EPA and DHA expressed as a percent of total fatty acids found in the blood. Omega-3 Index values >8% are considered optimal, values between 8% and 4% are deemed insufficient, and values <4% are considered deficient or high risk. Scientists are beginning to recommend assessing status over intake because consuming the recommended amounts of fish does not always translate into an ideal Omega-3 Index.

For example, Jackson et al. assessed over 3,400 adults and found that to achieve an Omega-3 Index ≥8%, one would need to consume fish three times per week and consider additional supplementation. Thus, based on the current data, EPA + DHA intake may be required in amounts well above current guidelines.

Further, existing studies also indicate that, like the general population, professional and amateur athletes have lower than desirable Omega-3 Index levels (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The question remains whether athletes will require higher amounts of omega-3s than the general public due to the stress their bodies undergo regularly. What is clear is that most people, including athletes, are likely not reaching optimal Omega-3 Index levels from food alone.

 

Recent Research Review Reports the Benefits of Increasing EPA and DHA Intake for Athletes

Tomczyk et al. published a review in November 2023 that provides an overview of the effects of EPA + DHA relevant to athletes and discusses the pros and cons of EPA + DHA supplements for this population. This review provides an in-depth explanation of the underlying mechanisms that allow EPA + DHA to profoundly affect human health and performance so that no further mechanistic explanation will be provided here. However, let’s look closer at the impacts of EPA + DHA on outcomes for athletes reported in the review.

Athletes’ Health. Some of the most robust evidence supporting the use of EPA + DHA in athletic populations pertains to their impact on health. Some of the ways EPA + DHA may impact an athlete’s health, and therefore exercise performance, include supporting cognitive function, enhancing neuroprotection, and supporting recovery after injury.

Studies in amateur, elite, and professional athletes have reported improvements in cognitive performance, such as improved complex reaction time and efficiency, decreased fatigue, enhanced state of vigor, and improvements in mood with supplementation.

Furthermore, studies in human subjects exposed to repetitive head impacts, such as athletes in contact sports, have noted potential neuroprotection with EPA and DHA supplementation.

BLOG: Omega-3 and Sports: New Review Scores Benefits for Athletes

Finally, several studies have been published recently demonstrating that applying EPA + DHA may be useful during recovery by mitigating skeletal muscle atrophy and attenuating declines in skeletal muscle volume and mass in athletes who may be immobilized due to injury. While more research is needed in these areas before definitive recommendations for athletes can be made, the current evidence is promising.

Recovery from Exercise and Training Adaptations. In addition to playing essential roles in athletes’ health, EPA + DHA may play a role in post-exercise recovery by promoting muscle remodeling and repair, acting as anti-inflammatories, and playing a role in immunity. Various studies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) have reported that, at varying doses, EPA + DHA reduce subjective muscle soreness after exercise, which can therefore improve performance in following events.

Moreover, some human studies have found EPA + DHA supplementation may enhance training-induced adaptations, including enhanced resistance training adaptations and improvements in oxygen kinetics. Typical EPA + DHA doses seen in the studies that resulted in health or training benefits for athletes commonly fall between 2-4g/day.

 

Are There Any Potential Adverse Impacts of DHA and EPA Supplementation on Athletes? 

While EPA + DHA supplements up to 3g/day are generally considered safe, assessing the possible risks of starting a new supplement is always important. The most common concern with taking an omega-3 supplement is related to gastrointestinal (GI) disturbance. While many can use omega-3 supplements with no complaints; some report an increase in fishy-tasting “burps” or nausea and diarrhea onset. Although uncomfortable, this is rarely a severe side effect and can be managed by lowering the dose or stopping the supplement.

Another potential risk that has been discussed amongst the scientific community is the alteration of platelet function with omega-3 supplementation and the consequent increased risk of bleeding. While the effects of omega-3s on blood characteristics may, in theory, increase risk of bleeding, clinical studies conducted up to this point have not confirmed this theory. For example, a study conducted on over 1500 patients who were due to undergo cardiac surgery were randomly assigned to receive a placebo or high doses of EPA + DHA (up to 10g/day). The researchers found no increase in bleeding risk in the supplemented group, so the potential concerns about bleeding may be unwarranted. However, there is always a chance of supplements interacting with prescribed medications, so be sure to speak with a healthcare provider to ensure supplementation will not interfere or interact with personal medication routines.

Lastly, athletes should consider the quality of the supplement. When choosing an omega-3 supplement, consider chemical form, dosage, source, and supplement quality verification. Unlike pharmaceuticals, the FDA does not analyze supplements before they are sold to consumers. Therefore, it is possible for manufacturers to misidentify prohibited substances on labels or omit the information altogether.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency encourages all athletes to do their due diligence, work with medical and nutrition professionals, and choose third-party tested supplements to reduce the risk of adverse side effects or disqualification from sports due to contaminated products.

 

Conclusion

Current evidence suggests that most athletes are not consuming enough EPA + DHA to reach an Omega-3 Index >8% and provide health and performance benefits. Given the various health benefits and low risk of increasing EPA + DHA in the diet, athletes with a less than optimal Omega-3 Index may benefit from increasing EPA + DHA through food or supplementation.

VIDEO: Omega-3 & Athletes

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This test is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent or mitigate any disease. This site does not offer medical advice, and nothing contained herein is intended to establish a doctor/patient relationship. OmegaQuant, LLC is regulated under the Clinical Laboratory improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) and is qualified to perform high complexity clinical testing. The performance characteristics of this test were determined by OmegaQuant, LLC. It has not been cleared or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Sign up for our Newsletter and save 10%*

Join our mailing list to get the latest news and updates from OmegaQuant.

You have successfully subscribed! Use code NEWSLETTER10 to receive 10% off your next purchase*.