We’ve all heard the advice to make sure we’re regularly eating servings of good quality fatty fish, but why? What’s all the fuss about omega 3s?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, where the ‘3’ refers to the position of the final double bond in the chemical structure (which is three carbon atoms from the “omega,” or tail end of the molecular chain). Two types of omega-3 in particular are plentiful in oily fish: EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), which are the most thoroughly researched omega 3s.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
A 20-carbon fatty acid, EPAs main function is to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce systemic inflammation. EPAs have also been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression, as well as help manage cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure levels.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
A 22-carbon fatty acid, DHA makes up about 8% of brain weight and contributes to brain development and function.
While omega 3s are present throughout the body, particularly in the brain, the body cannot produce them on its own, and thus, it must be obtained from dietary sources. Fundamentally, at the heart of its superpower, omega 3s are a great source of good quality fat. Fat has been shown to be vitally important for directly mediating functions including brain function, cognition, cardiovascular health, joint mobility and inflammation.
Let’s start with cognition. What is the relationship between the brain and fat? When we consider the brain and its functions, it’s fitting to start with a discussion about its structure. Arguably the most important ‘food element’ for brain function is fat. A lot of our brain, and a lot of the integrity of our neurons and nerve cells, all fundamentally rely on fat. Simply, this is because the cells in the brain are comprised of structural fat, which makes up a whopping 60% of our brain. Therefore, it is not hyperbolic to say that the foods we eat actually provide the building blocks of the very neurons that allow us to think.
It is important to distinguish that the fat that is used by the brain differs from traditional ‘fat’ across the rest of the body. The brain, and particularly neurons and nerve cells, rely on fatty acids (or phospholipids), which include EPA and DHAs. DHAs, in particular, are an important building block in the brain and improve the communication between neurons, leading to improved cognitive function. DHAs have been shown to reduce brain degeneration, improve short- and long-term memory, reduce brain inflammation (which can cause brain fog), and overall, improve quality of life.
Omega-3s also provide a plethora of benefits systemically. If your goal is to dampen systemic inflammation to allow for greater muscle recovery, increased training loads, increased joint mobility, improvements in cardiovascular health, and reduction in aches and pains, the addition of EPA rich fatty acids to your diet is the way to go. EPAs not only help support the integrity of the respiratory tract, but also help support optimal oxygen delivery to skeletal muscle to support intense oxygen demand during exercise, leading to improved performance outcomes.
In a study of 20 professional rugby players, results indicated that omega 3 supplementation twice daily (in doses equivalent to Ultra Omega) helped reduce muscle soreness and supported in the maintenance of muscle function following exercise-induced muscle damage. Athletes experienced reduced muscle soreness as well as maintenance of explosive power.
EPAs and DHAs are the gold standard omega 3s, which are juxtaposed against the less nutritionally dense omega 6s. While most people are getting enough omega 6s in their diet (and in many cases, too much), most individuals are not getting enough omega 3 in their diet to support their health in the short and long term.
Like omega 3s, omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, however, the last double bond is six carbons from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule making it a precursor to a more inflammatory eicosanoid. While still essential, omega 6s can be more proinflammatory in high doses and can increase the risk of inflammatory diseases. A low intake of omega 3 fatty acids compared with omega 6s may contribute to inflammation and chronic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and heart failure. Chronic, low-level inflammation is known to drive several common diseases, and thus, the addition of EPA rich supplements/food sources supports not only the treatment of existing ailments, but also in improving overall health and performance by combatting pro-inflammatory triggers such as high levels of omega 6s, environmental toxins, stress etc.
This can have substantial impacts on performance, including longer recovery periods, greater susceptibility to injury and illness, reduced training loads and irritability/mood swings. High performance exercise can, at its upper limits, serve as a stressor on the body, and thus, supplementation with Omega-3s helps offset and protect against systemic inflammation that can pave the way for deterioration and disease. Supplementing with both DHAs and EPAs, as well as striving for more high quality dietary sources of omega 3 in one’s diet, fundamentally supports your metabolic flexibility, allowing you to engage in intense physical activity, whist also protecting you from the negative health outcomes associated with high levels of inflammation.
 Black K.E., Witard O.C., Baker D., Healey P., Lewis V., Tavares F., Christensen S., Pease T., Smith B. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to a protein-based supplement during pre-season training results in reduced muscle soreness and the better maintenance of explosive power in professional Rugby Union players. Eur. J. Sport Sci. 2018;18:1357–1367.