Updated: May 28, 2020
Personally, I am someone who has always met supplements of any form with a significant degree of scepticism, often encouraging and reminding athletes whom I am fortunate to work with, that as the name suggests, they are designed to ‘supplement’ your diet.
In other words, just because something comes in the form of a pill or powder, does not mean it is going to be any more effective (perhaps even less so!) than what you would otherwise glean from a the food source that it originates from.
Therefore, I have always taken the view that if you can get it from natural sources, do so.
This in turn leads me on to some reading I have been mulling over of late, and in particular that of the role of omega-3 and omega-6, the relationship between them and the impact they have on both exercise performance as well as our day to day health and well-being.
As someone who would not eat oily fish as often as I perhaps should, omega-3 has been one of the few supplements, alongside whey protein, which I have used consistently over the last number of years, understanding it’s importance and the role it plays in my general health and well-being, alongside other performance benefits.
Role of Omega-3 in aiding performance: Benefits
Immune health: Ensuring one has the best chance of optimising the most important factor of your training- continuity and consistency.
Reduced chronic inflammation: in order to adapt to stimulus imposed on the body by training, inflammation is required. However too much can see this adaptive process hindered.
Improved neuromuscular function: The ability for our muscles to contract powerfully and fire in sequence, is of vital importance to performance. Also associated with coordination and reaction times.
Vasodilation: Enabling the blood to flow through our veins, arteries and capillaries and carry the required nutrients to our cells more efficiently will see a lower cost associated with exercise at any intensity.
Improved metabolic flexibility: Allowing your body to rely on both fat and carbohydrates as a fuel source.
Increased endurance capacity: oxygen cost of exercise has been linked to omega-3 supplementation.
Improved mitochondrial function: The engine of the cell. The better these guys are at doing their job, the faster we will go!
Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, trout)
The Importance of the Ratio: Omega 6:3
Unfortunately, my reading revealed I was most likely not consuming enough Omega-3, and that the supplement I was taking was in all likelihood, close to useless. As I then progressed further down this rabbit hole, I encountered information regarding the importance of omega-6: omega-3 ratio.
Critically, these essential fats cannot be produced by the body and therefore are required from our diet. As a result of typical western diets high volumes of omega-6 versus that of omega-3 is common (on average in Europe around 15:1, with values as high as 30:1 not uncommon).
Numerous sources of literature however quote the ideal ratio as being below 4:1, in turn suggesting that for many of us, there is a gain to be had, benefits associated with those listed in the table above.
It must be stressed here, that omega-6 is not ‘bad’, in fact it is related to many health benefits, such as a reduction of the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering harmful LDL cholesterol, as well as increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin and thereby ensuring that blood sugar levels are kept in check.
It also encourages inflammation, which as aforementioned, is beneficial to a point as part of the adaptive process by which we improve, hence why it is not a case of ‘one or the other’.
Therefore, the way by which to tip this ratio in favour of the omega-3’s is not to cut out omega-6, given its own importance, but to increase your intake of omega-3, which will address the imbalance given the way it interacts with the omega-6 within the cell.
Our typical diet provides an abundance of omega-6, and little omega-3, seeing the ratio out of balance and in turn our bodies, from a performance perspective, not optimised to deal with and adapt to the stimulus we work so hard out on the road to create, hence why such a supplement is something to be considered for many of us.
Neil Parsley, a world renowned strength and conditioning coach, has echoed such thoughts and is a strong proponent of the importance of this ratio and of omega-3 for athletes.
Not all supplements are created equal:
Worth noting, is that not all Omega-3 supplements are created equal, in fact research has shown that up to 90% of fish oils on the market have been shown to have been rancid. Dr. Colin Robertson, a world leading exercise physiologist and sport scientist, also highlighted the processing which omega-3 goes through between being extracted from the source and turned into supplement form and the importance of the impact this has on the polyphenols, which surround the omega-3 in the solution, often seeing them stripped.
In turn, the absence of these polyphenols which would otherwise act in protecting the omega-3, results in it being destroyed being by the enzymes in our gut, meaning that by the time they reach the surfaces of our intestines where they are absorbed into the bloodstream, they are few and far between. Therefore, little of the omega-3 in the supplement actually reaches the cell.
This reinforces that, a high quality source with these all important polyphenols still intact is vital if you are too see any benefit at all and make headway in addressing the imbalance.