With Super Bowl 53 approaching this weekend, there is a bright light on football, so recent research into football players who might need more omega-3s is rather timely.
You’ve seen the headlines regarding concussions and football, that repeated head injuries (i.e. concussions) are either underreported or underdiagnosed, and definitely undertreated. While various football leagues have instituted new policies that aim to protect players in the form of new rules and training requirements, there’s one form of protection not many people are thinking about.
This simple nutritional solution — omega-3s, EPA and DHA — could play key roles in protecting the hearts and brains of football players. Regarding the latter, omega-3s could offer protection for players at the time of a concussion, as well as years down the road if they progress further into a devastating disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been identified primarily in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, much of what we have learned about CTE has come from the research of Dr. Ann McKee, director of the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank.
In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation says a study published in 2018 by researchers at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank found that 190 of 202 football players (94%) studied who played in college or the NFL have been diagnosed with CTE. Among players who played in college but did not play professionally, CTE was diagnosed in 86% (57 of 66 football players).
As recently as a few weeks ago, it was reported by the Chicago Tribune that several former football players are suing the NCCA for failing to protect them from head injuries sustained during their college careers. The article said recent lawsuits allege that the NCAA knew as far back as the 1930s that head injuries required special attention, but failed to require schools to have concussion policies until 2010.
The article also indicated that most of these plaintiffs have an uphill battle, so only time will tell how this will all play out. In the meantime, there is new research that underlines how omega-3s could be put on the front lines of defense against head injury, along with several other precautionary measures.
The omega-3 status of college athletes is very rarely measured, which is what prompted a group of researchers to survey the Omega-3 Index in football players at four major universities—Texas Christian University, University of Utah, University of Missouri, and University of South Carolina.
Published in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Athletic Training, these researchers evaluated the Omega-3 Index of more than 400 NCAA football players. About 34% of athletes had an Omega-3 Index considered high risk (<4%), and 66% had a risk considered intermediate (4%–8%). None had a low-risk Omega- 3 Index (>8%). This is very much in line with the typical omega-3 status of average Americans.
The researchers in this study believe the Omega-3 Index is a simple, minimally invasive test of omega-3 status that could have substantial benefits for these athletes now and in the future.
“Although further study is warranted to determine if the deficiency is indeed due to diet and not physical activity, the likelihood of the latter is unlikely given similar reports among athletes and the United States at large. Regardless of the cause of these low levels, efforts to increase tissue EPA and DHA levels in athletes should be considered because football athletes may experience unique health concerns, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and exposure to repetitive head impacts,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.
“Whether this would include promoting increased consumption of oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc) or the use of omega-3 supplements (or both) is a topic for further discussion. In either case, the risks of increasing EPA and DHA intake are virtually nonexistent, and the potential benefits appear to be substantial,” they added.
Research published last July showed similar results, although in a smaller group of 112 subjects. In a poster presented during the American College of Sports Medicine Conference, it showed that the average omega-3 index was 4.35% among the football players evaluated. According to a Nutraingredients-USA article discussing this research, revelations like this have led to the use of omega-3 products in professional sports leagues like the NFL, NBA and NHL.
The article went on to say that college teams are not allowed to give their student athletes omega-3 supplements. As a result, Chelsea Burkart, president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association said, “These are Division 1 athletes, so they all have access to training tables. They have some of the best food and nutrition advice available. And they are still not getting enough omega-3s.”
Still, Burkart believes there could be strong support for omega-3 supplements if they are certified by a third party. One company currently offering this type of certification is NSF International, which created a screening program for nutritional products to make sure, first and foremost, they are free of banned substances.
NSF International led the development of the nation’s first truly independent testing standard and product certification program strictly for dietary supplements, NSF/ANSI 173. NSF International’s Certified for Sport program builds on that dietary supplement standard, with the main goal of helping athletes make safer decisions when choosing sports supplements. MLB, NHL and CFL clubs are permitted to provide and recommend only products that are Certified for Sport. Certified for Sport is also recommended by the NFL, PGA, LPGA, CCES, CPSDA and many other sports organizations.
Among all of these recent developments, it seems big changes could be on the horizon. Just last week, an HeroSports.com reported that representatives from the five biggest NCAA conferences — ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — will meet to vote on several proposals that will impact the student athletes at their schools. Eighty voting members — 65 representatives from each of the Power Five schools plus 15 Power Five student-athletes — will discuss recruiting, mental health and, you guessed it — or maybe you didn’t — omega-3 fatty acids.
In its “Proposal 2018-19,” the Big 12 conference said it wants the NCAA to allow schools to provide omega-3 fatty acids to student-athletes.
This would be a revolutionary step for an organization like the NCAA, as it currently only offers students supplements like vitamins and minerals as well as some select protein and carbohydrate supplements. For now, there is nothing stopping student-athletes from purchasing their own omega-3 supplements. And given the large upside to increasing omega-3s in the body, it would make a lot of sense for anyone training at a high level to make sure they are getting enough of the right omega-3s—EPA and DHA—by testing their Omega-3 Index.