I’m sure by now you’ve heard about it, but if it still conjures up ideas of grandma spooning out the cod liver oil, you might need to take another look at this staple supplement.
What it is: Fish oil is oil. From fish. Generally, the best fish oils will come from smaller fish, farmed in an ethical manner. Fish oil is incredibly rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), as well as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA and EPA generally come from marine animal sources (from the algae that fish eat) and ALA is generally found in plant sources like nuts and seeds.
Our bodies can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, but the conversion rate is pretty low, and we can’t usually get all the DHA and EPA we need just from those plant sources. You can get what you need from dietary intake if you eat a fair amount of oily fish, like salmon and sardines, but many choose to supplement.
What it claims:
- Improved cardiovascular function
- Enhanced cognitive function
- Stronger bones
- Better immune health
- Decreased inflammation
- Lower triglyceride levels
- Improved muscle growth
- Better communication time between brain and body
As athletes, there are some claims that might be of particular interest to our needs. Some studies claim that fish oil improves muscle gains when training, decreases muscle soreness, enhances protein synthesis resulting in improved strength gains, helps you stave off the derby-plague, and sharpens your reaction time when performing your sport.
Sounds pretty great, right?
Does it work?
The question, as with all supplementation, is more – does it work for you?
Let’s dig a little deeper into the claims above:
Fish oil can have positive results when it comes to brain and heart health.
Fats complete for space in our cell membranes. Too much saturated fat and the membranes become more rigid. With more Omega-3 in our diet, the fatty membranes around our brains are more fluid, and messages can travel more easily – this sounds good when it comes to the quick reaction time we need as athletes.
Research has shown that Omega-3 fatty acids can decrease triglyceride levels, slow growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and help to prevent irregular heartbeats. In a sport (like derby) where cardiovascular fitness is important, making sure that we’re getting enough Omega-3s should be a priority.
While the heart and brain health effects of fish oil have been pretty well researched, the rest of the claims aren’t quite as well-documented. There’s some information out there suggesting that Omega-3s might make muscle cells more insulin sensitive post-exertion, hence increasing protein synthesis (and bettering gains and recovery), as well as some pretty good proof of anti-inflammatory properties – but more study is likely needed.
Should I take it?
Best answer – it won’t hurt (unless you’re someone for whom it’s contraindicated). It’s got some helpful properties, and will likely make you more aware of your dietary fat balance, which is an important component of healthy eating.
Quick Fat Review – our dietary fats break down into saturated (animal products), monounsaturated (seeds, nuts, olives, avocados) and polyunsaturated fats. Your daily fat intake should be evenly balanced between the three. Polyunsaturated fats break down into two kinds of fatty acids – Omega 6 (plant oils, like corn, soy and vegetable) and Omega-3s (marine oils). We should aim for an even balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6. In North America, our ratio looks a lot more like 1:20, given that processed food contains a ton of vegetable oil, and the meat that we eat often feeds on corn and soy. Generally, we are pretty deficient in Omega-3s, and fish oil is a pretty good way to get them. However, you could just increase your consumption of oily fish if you’d prefer whole foods.
Some people shouldn’t take fish oil – those whose stomachs rebel, those who are allergic to seafood, those who are on blood thinners or other conflicting medications, or those who are very prone to bruising. Given that fish oil makes a lot of claims may or be not be substantiated, you should use your judgement and do what’s right for you.
If you choose to supplement, here are some tips:
- Aim for somewhere between 1-9 grams of oil from fish daily (usually 3-5 is good for most people) – an 8 oz piece of salmon contains about 3.75 grams of EPA+DHA (as does a tbsp fish oil). The FDA recommends no more than 2g from a supplement.
- Look for high-quality fish oil suppliers who use fish discards which don’t contribute to depleting fish stocks, and that use ethical farming sources.
- Avoid cod liver oil (sorry, Grandma).
- Look for oils using smaller fish (herring, mackerel) as they tend to contain lower level of environmental toxins like mercury.
- Keep an eye on your expiry dates, buy smaller bottles, and keep your oil in the freezer (up to 100 days) – it won’t freeze, and it’ll stay fresher longer. Keep your open oil in the fridge no longer than 40 days.
Where to buy:
There are tons of places to buy good fish oil, and your local health food store is a good place to start.
I’m fond of Ascenta’s line of oils. The flavours are great (THEY EVEN OFFER CHOCOLATE) and you can hide the texture in a smoothie if you have trouble choking it down. I’m also fond of taking the oil as a liquid instead of in a capsule, as the capsules tend to lead more to fishy burps, which are gross.
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