There are many incredible benefits of getting the right amount of fish oil and the other essential fatty acids (EFAs) in your diet. The fish oil fats, EPA and DHA, can help fight stress, promote a healthy physique, and accelerate recovery from training. They are essential for basic wellness, but most people don’t realize two key elements to optimizing fish oil intake:
As awesome as fish oil is, it needs to be consumed in the correct ratios with other fats. More is not better. And if you’re not reducing your intake of other more inflammatory fats, you may not reap the cool benefits of fish oil.
Second, it’s smart to think about dietary fat within the context of the other two macronutrients, protein and carbs, and your overall diet. Adding fish oil to a crappy diet or unhealthy lifestyle may help but it’s in no way a magic bullet that will solve your problems.
#1: Fat Loss: Fish oil may help you lose body fat if you’re overweight.
Getting adequate fish oil in your diet may help you lose body fat, especially if you’re overweight. First, fish oil is anti-inflammatory and may reduce stress, which are two factors that can help you improve body composition.
Second, the fatty acids EPA and DHA in fish oil may increase insulin sensitivity. Insulin regulates blood sugar use, either storing it as fat, or using it to replenish muscle glycogen (the muscles’ energy source).
If you have poor insulin sensitivity—something that is common if you are overweight—you will have a very difficult time losing fat. Of course, besides getting enough fish oil, eating a lower carb diet will also improve insulin sensitivity, and to lose fat, it’s necessary to make sure you create a calorie deficit.
Research shows small benefits on lowering body fat from fish oil. For example, a recent meta-analysis that used only RCTs found that most studies showed that overweight subjects reduced waist circumference and lost an average of 1.3 pounds of body fat compared to controls.
Bottom Line: If you’re trying to lose body fat, ensuring you get EPA and DHA in your diet either by eating oily fish a few times a week or taking fish oil is a smart move.
#2: Muscle: Fish oil increases protein synthesis and preserves muscle mass.
When you increase insulin sensitivity, it’s a good bet you’re going to improve protein synthesis in the muscle as well because insulin regulates the passage of nutrients, hormones, and chemicals into muscle cells. So it is with fish oil.
Research shows that taking a few grams of fish oil a day increases protein synthesis by as much as 30 percent, producing a significant muscle building effect. Fish oil enhances both the mTOR pathway that produces muscle growth and muscle cell membrane signaling.
This evidence is leading scientists to use fish oil as a key treatment for sarcopenia, which is the debilitating loss of muscle that occurs with aging and diseases such as cancer.
Bottom Line: Whether you’re trying to pack on muscle, strip down body fat, or just gettin’ older, getting enough fish oil in your diet will help make it happen.
#3: Fight Stress: Fish oil lowers cortisol and counters mental stress.
Maybe one of the most fascinating benefits of getting enough fish oil in the diet is how it reduces our experience of stress.
Scientists have known since 2010 that fish oil lowers cortisol. More recent studies show fish oil reduces the heart rate and sympathetic nervous system response to stress as well. Normally when you suffer anxiety, your heart rate and blood pressure increase and your nervous system gets activated, leading to the release of catecholamine hormones.
But a series of studies have found that fish oil inhibits adrenal activation and reduces neurovascular reactivity—a combination that may be behind how fish oil promotes heart health.
Bottom Line: Getting enough fish oil in your diet is a no-brainer if you’re stressed out or have high cortisol.
#4: Cardiovascular Health: DHA & EPA lower triglycerides, reduce the vascular response to stress and protect the heart.
What’s cool about fish oil is that it is a great way to protect the heart because it has a number of cardiovascular benefits. First, there’s strong evidence that fish oil can reduce triglycerides (the amount of fat in your blood) by 15 to 30 percent, which can lead to less inflammation in the arteries of the heart.
Second, as you saw above, fish oil lowers heart rate and blood pressure, particularly when you’re stressed out, both of which are key for preventing heart disease.
Finally, because fish oil can promote optimal body composition and insulin health, it aids secondary factors that lower heart disease risk.
Bottom Line: People with high triglycerides, high blood pressure, or heart disease may benefit from supplementing with fish oil in addition to eating oily fish a few days a week.
#5: Recover Faster: Fish oil improves the immune response to intense exercise.
A recent review found that athletes and people who are in shape might benefit from fish oil more than untrained individuals because of how it improves the immune response.
Studies show fish oil improves natural killer cell activity and muscle cellular health after intense workouts. Fish oil may also reduce waste production after muscle damaging eccentric exercise, which could reduce post-workout muscle soreness (DOMS). Anecdotal reports agree that fish oil is useful for fighting DOMS, though studies directly testing pain post-workout have shown iffy results.
Bottom Line: Fish oil may be useful for anyone who is under extra stress, such as when training at high altitudes, in extreme temperatures, or without complete recovery.
#6: Reduce Inflammation: Fish oil reduces joint pain, improves digestion, and supports bone health, among other benefits.
Inflammation is very damaging to the body, directly increasing disease risk and delaying recovery from injury. It is why we feel pain in our joints as we age. It’s a primary factor in heart disease. And it gets in the way of everything from proper digestion to body composition.
Of course, fighting inflammation needs to be a multi-faceted project. This means that besides using fish oil, you should take other actions that are anti-inflammatory as well such as working out regularly, eating a whole foods diet with plenty of vegetables, and not doing inflammation-causing things like running around overwhelmed all the time or drinking excessively.
Bottom Line: Fish oil will help you move and feel better by lowering inflammation and improving cellular health and hormone balance.
#7: Healthy Skin & Hair: Fish oil can reduce blemishes, protect you from sunburn, and make your skin and hair smooth.
Fish oil can make over your appearance, improving hair and eye health and giving you a better complexion. There’s also evidence that improving the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat in your cells can lead to less risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
The key is to eat fewer foods high in omega-6 fats, vegetable oils like soybean, corn, safflower, and canola, and abolish any processed foods with vegetable oil added. Then, you want to make sure your getting your omega-3s by eating fatty fish frequently or supplementing with fish oil.
Bottom Line: Besides getting enough fish oil in your diet, reduce your intake of omega-6 fats in an effort to get the ratio between them as close to one as possible.
#8: Athletic Performance: Fish oil may raise testosterone and aids endurance performance.
Some studies show improved endurance performance in athletes with fish oil supplementation due to how fish oil affects blood flow—a key factor in athletes who need as much oxygen and nutrients to reach their muscles to power long-duration, intense exercise.
Fish oil also may reduce the muscle inflammatory response to endurance workouts, leading to faster recovery and the ability to train hard more often.
Emerging evidence suggests it might also improve testosterone levels, supporting muscle mass gains and boosting athletic performance. Research is in the early stages so this is not established yet, but omega-3 supplementation in animals improved androgen synthesis. Interestingly, another fat that is not an EFA, conjugated linoleic acid was found to increase hormone release in female animals.
Either way, it’s certain that optimizing fat intake by getting a variety of fats from whole sources is key for hormone balance and athletics. Adequate intake of both saturated and monounsaturated fat are the strongest predictors of testosterone levels in healthy men, indicating that optimizing your overall diet is step one. Then you can fine tune by making sure your omega-3 and -6 ratios are right.
Bottom Line: Fat is a key but often overlooked part of any serious athlete’s diet. Improve your performance by giving it and the omega-3 fats as much attention as you do to protein and carbs!