Fish Oil for Physical Fitness: The Next Best Workout Partner
What supplements do you take to support your fitness goals? Talk to any athlete or visit your
favorite fitness website, and you’ll get a long list of different capsules and powders that help
to support the development of muscle strength, endurance, recovery, and general health. As
a naturopathic doctor, I make it my job to know what supplements, backed by science and
research, are best to help those looking to enhance their fitness efforts.
When making recommendations for my clients, I usually focus on a healthy diet and
lifestyle, which is always the best place to start when it comes to improving and
enhancing your athletic ability. In addition to this, I also recommend a variety of fitness-
enhancing products, including protein powder, vitamins and minerals, individual amino
acids, and electrolytes solutions. While these recommendations are not new to the world
of fitness, there is one recommendation I often make that is not typically thought of when
it comes to improving your athletic ability: fish oil.
Fish oil is an excellent source of the omega‑3 essential fatty acids known as
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and is a wonderful
addition to any fitness regime, due to its influential role in improving athletic performance
as well as overall general health. Omega‑3 fatty acids are known as “essential,” because
they are needed by the body for numerous physiological functions; however, the body can
only make minimal amounts of these fats, making it essential that you get them from food
or supplementation. Typically known for its positive effect on cardiovascular health and
mood balance, as well as for its potent anti-inflammatory action, fish oil is also a great way
to boost your efforts at the gym, helping you reach your fitness aspirations faster than you
can say “long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid.”
So, next time you’re at the health food store stocking up on your favorite protein powder
or branched-chain amino acids, make sure you grab a bottle of high-quality fish oil if you’re
looking to make the most out of your gym membership. Here are my top 5 reasons why
fish oil is the supplement you’re missing from your athletic regime.
1. It Supports Muscle Growth
In order to build muscle,
we need protein, as it
provides the amino
acids necessary for
synthesis. However, as
important as protein is,
if we lack the ability to incorporate these amino-acid building blocks into our muscle cells, all that protein powder you’ve stocked up will be for naught.
Fish oil’s benefit in muscle building is found in its ability to support insulin’s role in muscle protein synthesis. Insulin is a functional protein (similar to a hormone), released by the pancreas into the bloodstream in response to the carbohydrates and proteins we eat. Once released, insulin travels to various bodily tissues, including our muscles cells, which are lined with insulin receptors, allowing amino acids to enter. This signal then instigates the biochemical reactions that increase protein synthesis, and therefore muscle growth.
A recent study of participants aged 25–45 demonstrated that supplementing with 4 g/d
of fish oil concentrate, providing a daily dose of 1.86 g EPA and 1.5 g DHA for eight
weeks, had a significant increase in the anabolic (muscle-building) response to amino
acids and insulin due to an increased activation of the mTOR/p70‑S6K signalling
pathway, considered integral for muscle protein anabolism and muscle-cell growth.
This research suggests fish oil’s supporting role in the relationship between insulin
and muscle protein synthesis; it may just
be your new best weight-lifting partner!
2. It Works to Prevent Muscle Breakdown
Increases in muscle mass are integral for any athlete looking to become stronger, faster,
and more agile in their sport. Maintaining your gains, however, is just as important when
it comes to reaching your fitness goals. Our muscles undergo a continuous process of
anabolism (building up) and catabolism (breaking down), and if this becomes imbalanced,
leaning towards a catabolic state, such as with certain health conditions or prolonged
fasting, this can result in the loss of muscle mass and weakness.
According to the research, fish oil appears to decrease muscle protein catabolism, due
to EPA’s effect on the ubiquitin–proteasome system, which plays a role in the breakdown
of muscle, helping to preserve the gains you’ve made by putting hours in at the gym.
The anticatabolic effects of fish oil have also been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol
is our stress hormone and, when chronically elevated, it can lead to a breakdown of
muscle tissue as well as many other detrimental effects. Controlling our reactions to stress
is integral for both our general health and our fitness.
3. It Increases Muscle Strength
What if I told you that
you could get stronger just by taking your fish
oil every day? While
lifting heavier weights
at the gym may not be that simple, a study of almost 3,000 adults (aged 59 to 73 years) showed that the consumption of fatty
fish was highly
increased grip strength: 0.43 kg in men and 0.48 kg in women for each additional portion of fatty fish consumed per week. Along these
same lines, a six-month randomized study reported that daily fish oil supplementation (1,200 mg EPA + DHA) significantly improved physical performance measured in
Additionally, in a 90‑day trial where women were randomly assigned to three groups
(strength-training only; strength-training plus fish-oil supplementation [~400 mg EPA
+ 300 mg DHA]; or fish-oil supplementation for 60 days prior to training, then strength-
training plus fish oil supplementation) found that while strength-training alone
increased muscle strength, this effect was greater in the groups who were given the
supplemental fish oil.
4. It Reduces Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage
If you’ve ever had a hard workout and suffered muscle pain and soreness as a result,
you know the agony of exercise-induced muscle damage. In order to have the gains
that got you in the gym in the first place, you need to push your muscles beyond their
normal boundaries; however, this also creates microscopic muscle fibre damage.
While this is essential to create increases in size and strength, it can also produce
soreness and loss of physical function, impairing performance and continuity when it
comes to an athlete’s training regime.
Typically, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are prescribed to help
alleviate these symptoms and exert their pain-reducing effects by inhibiting the
conversion of arachidonic acid (an omega‑6 fatty acid) to proinflammatory
molecules, which contribute to our pain response.
When it comes to fish oil, research has shown that omega‑3 fatty acid
supplementation can actually decrease levels of arachidonic acid within our cell
membranes, thus reducing the conversion of this fatty acid to proinflammatory
molecules, helping to prevent the onset of exercise-induced muscle damage.
So if muscle pain and soreness postworkout are leaving you on the couch more
days than not, it might be time to incorporate some fish oil into your daily routine
to have you hitting the gym even after your toughest workout.
5. It Strengthens Bone
While muscles are critical for any athletic activity, it’s literally
our skeletal system
that holds it all
together, providing the structural framework
by which our muscle
can function and work towards our athletic
calcium and magnesium, are often used for their bone-supporting abilities, but did you know that omega‑3 fatty acids also play a role in bone health?
Research has shown that higher red-blood-cell omega‑3 levels may reduce the risk of
hip fractures and promote higher bone mineral density as well as positively affect
calcium-regulating hormones, helping to keep bones healthy and strong. Mooove over,
milk: There’s a new healthy bone supplement in town!
We all know that it takes effort to get physically fit and achieve our athletic goals. While
there is no substitute for putting in the time it takes to get into top physical shape, there
are many products and supplements that can help you reach your goals by using science
to enhance our own physiology. Protein smoothies, creatine powder, and other
commonly known fitness-enhancing products may already be part of your fitness regime;
however, you might want to make some room in your fridge for fish oil to further support
your fitness and general health.
Alison Chen, ND
A Canadian board-certified and licensed Naturopathic Doctor
from Toronto, Ontario, she believes invaluable health-care
integrates Western science with traditional holistic energetic