power of omega-01

The Anti-Inflammatory Power of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Bob Murray, PhD, FACSM | Sports Science Insights, LLC | Crystal Lake, IL | Member, ENHANCED RECOVERY Scientific Advisory Board

Regular sports training improves the strength and function of skeletal muscle due to the many gradual adaptations that take place inside muscle cells.  Those performance-enhancing adaptations occur in response to a variety of training-related stimuli such as temporary fatigue, periodic accumulation of lactic acid and other metabolites, increased body temperature during training, and local inflammation that often occurs after training.  Inflammation has usually been considered to be a negative response and, when uncontrolled, it is.  But tightly controlled inflammation is an essential part of how muscles recover, repair, regenerate, remodel, and adapt to training.(Peake et al. 2017)

Inflammation is a normal response to infections, cuts, and bruises, as well as to exercise-induced muscle damage that results from eccentric muscle contractions and hard physical training.  In the case of infections, the initial inflammatory response involves killing the invading bacteria or viruses, relying on many types of cells in the immune system (e.g., granulocytes) along with the numerous chemicals (e.g., cytokines) those cells release.  In the case of muscle damage that results from exercise, the inflammatory response is targeted towards removing damaged cells and related debris, setting the stage for muscle repair and remodeling.  In both cases, if the inflammatory response is too severe or lasts too long, healthy cells are damaged, prolonging healing and recovery time.(Calder, 2013)

Inflammation following exercise-induced muscle damage involves five events:

  1. Increase in blood flow to the site of damage.
  2. Increase in the permeability of the capillary walls so that fluid and molecules can move to the site of injury.
  3. White blood cells (leukocytes) move from the bloodstream to the injury site.
  4. The leukocytes release chemicals such as prostaglandins, histamine, endocannabinoids, and cytokines such as IL-6 that enhance the inflammatory response but are essential to repair and recovery.
  5. Eventual release of anti-inflammatory factors that control the extent of inflammation.  These factors include anti-inflammatory cytokines (e.g., IL-4 and IL-10) and other chemical signals that ensure that the inflammatory response is proportionate to the extent of damage.(Calder 2013)

These inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses result in the pain, swelling, and impaired function that are common with exercise-induced muscle damage. 

Consuming omega-3 fatty acids (DHA, EPA, and ALA) on a regular basis helps prevent the excess inflammation that can slow healing and recovery time.(Calder, 2013) 

Omega-3s have a number of different benefits in that regard:

  • Omega-3s limit chemotaxis, reducing the movement of pro-inflammatory factors to the site of injury.
  • Omega-3s reduce the adhesion molecules inside blood vessels that are responsible for attracting and moving leukocytes from the blood to the injury site.
  • Omega-3s decrease the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids such as certain prostaglandins.
  • Omega-3s increase the production of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids such as endocannabinoids.
  • Omega-3s enhance the production of resolvins and protectins, molecules that help reduce inflammation.
  • Omega-3s blunt the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α and IL-6.

Consistently consuming omega-3s in the diet is key to their anti-inflammatory benefits.  When the omega-3 content of the diet is increased, the incorporation of omega-3 fatty acids into cell membranes throughout the body starts in days and peaks in weeks.(Calder 2013)  Unfortunately for most athletes, daily intake of omega-3s is very low, typically less than 500mg per day.  For example, Ritz et al. (2020) reported that omega-3 status was suboptimal in 1,528 male and female NCAA Division I athletes, consistent with other findings that most Americans do not consume sufficient omega-3 fatty acids in their diets.(Blasbalg et al., 2011)  Only 6% of the athletes in the study by Ritz et al. consumed more than 500mg/day of omega-3s.  ENHANCED RECOVERY Omega-3 Sports Recovery Drink contains 1600mg of omega-3s in each 8-oz serving. 

The anti-inflammatory characteristics of omega-3s may also play a neuroprotective role in the brain by reducing the structural damage to the axons of nerve cells and limiting the programmed cell death (apoptosis) that occur in cases of concussion.(Barrett et al. 2014)

In summary, it is abundantly clear that the combination of strength training and good nutrition is the most effective way to improve muscle mass, strength, and functional performance.  However, excess inflammation that is sometimes associated with hard training creates resistance to normal anabolic stimuli such as increased levels of insulin and amino acids in the bloodstream following feeding, reducing muscle protein synthesis and limiting gains in strength and mass, as shown in recent studies on laboratory animals.  Lab animals that consumed a mixture of omega-3s and alpha-lactalbumin (a component of whey protein) were protected against the negative effects of inflammation.(Sumi et al. 2020)

Much remains to be studied about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in athletes, but there is growing evidence of omega-3 benefits to limiting excess inflammation, reducing muscle soreness, and stimulating muscle protein synthesis.(Philpott et al. 2018)  ENHANCED RECOVERY Omega-3 Sports Recovery Drink contains 820mg DHA, 550mg EPA, and 230mg ALA along with 20g of whey protein and other ingredients known to support muscle recovery, repair, regeneration, and remodeling.

Barrett EC, McBurney MI, Ciappio ED. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation as a potential therapeutic aid for the recovery from mild traumatic brain injury/concussion. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(3):268-277.

Blasbalg TL, Hibbeln JR, Ramsden CE, Majchrzak SF, Rawlings RR. Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Amer J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(5):950-962.

Calder PC. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes: nutrition or pharmacology? Brit J Clin Pharm. 2013;75(3):645-662.

Peake JM, Neubauer O, Della Gatta PA, Nosaka K. Muscle damage and inflammation during recovery from exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2017;122(3):559-570.

Philpott JD, Witard OC, Galloway SDR. Applications of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for sport performance. Res Sports Med. 2018:1-19.

Ritz PP, Rogers MB, Zabinsky JS, et al. Dietary and biological assessment of the omega-3 status of collegiate athletes: a cross-sectional analysis. PloS One. 2020;15(4):1-16.

Sumi K, Ashida K, Nakazato K. Resistance exercise with anti-inflammatory foods attenuates skeletal muscle atrophy induced by chronic inflammation. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2020;128(1):197-211.