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Not Just Another Fish Story | Muscle & Body Magazine

Over the last 30 years, I have worked with thousands of professional athletes. From innovative training regimens to proper nutrition, each athlete knew that what I recommended was always rooted in science. Whether you are a professional athlete or someone who is extremely serious about weightlifting or training, the same science applies.

Over the last few years of emerging research, science is showing that an extra edge we may all need comes from omega-3 fatty acids. We have long known that omega-3 fatty acids can have powerful positive effects on our health, but now we are seeing that it may play an even greater role than originally thought in an athlete’s ability to train and maximize results.

Omega-3 fatty acids include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are commonly found in cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, in nuts such as walnuts, and in flaxseed. (Note that fish oil is a better source than walnuts or flaxseed due to its absorption and utilization.) Omega-3 is an essential fat that is considered part of the polyunsaturated fats. These are the healthier fats that are shown to help the cardiovascular system, metabolism, the nervous system, chronic diseases and the circulatory system. The benefits we’re seeing from omega-3 fatty acids seem to affect almost every area of the body.

Brain Booster

For athletes in particular, there are two primary benefits of omega-3 fatty acids I would like to point out. The first is that omega-3 fatty acids promote an anti-inflammatory response in the body. As the muscles are torn down through working out, signals are sent to start the repair process. It is thought that EPA and DHA get in the way of chemicals and signals needed for inflammation and can promote the anti-inflammatory process through what are known as mediator chemicals. A healthier repair system allows for better muscle growth, less soreness after the workout and increase joint range and function.

The second benefit is the positive effects omega-3 fatty acids have on cognitive function. In a recent article published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers compared a group who were given omega-3 fatty acids and policosanol supplements that are used to lower cholesterol levels against a placebo control group. Both groups were members of the Italian Federation of Traditional Karate and were reported to have competed at the national level. All were given an “Alert and a Sustained Attention reaction time test” on Days 1, 21 and 42. After 21 and 42 days, the group receiving omega-3 and policosanol was said to have exhibited “improved mood state and reactivity” that was “due to a central nervous system effect” while the placebo group showed no changes.

A 4-To-1 Balance 

To get the maximum health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, it is important to know how much you need in your daily diet and the importance of balancing omega-6 with omega-3. As a general rule, it’s recommended that you get at least two-to-four servings of omega-3 fatty acids per week. The easiest and best way is to have these servings (about 4 oz each) come from one of the cold-water, fatty fish.

Omega-6 is also an important component of health at the cellular level, as it aids the blood clotting function and reduces inflammation. It comes from many nuts and seeds and the oil that is derived from it.

Too much omega-6 fatty acids, however, can be extremely harmful. High levels of omega-6 can cause the blood to clot too much, making the blood thicker or more “sticky,” as it is often referred. This thickening is considered one of the primary reasons for heart disease.

I recommend a ratio of about 4-to-1 of omega-6 to omega-3. A typical American diet is extremely high in omega-6 because fast foods and many pre-packaged foods are cooked in these oils. According to studies, Americans, on average, have a ratio in the range of 20-to-1 of omega-6 to omega-3. This correlates to the increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many other chronic health disorders.

One final note is that people often question if fish-oil supplements can have the same health benefits as eating sources of food naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids. The short answer is that directly eating from these high-source foods is always your best bet because it is absorbed in the body at a much higher rate than supplements.

If you are not consistently getting at least two-to-four servings of cold-water fish, which is about 500 mg of a combination of EPA and DHA, then consider taking a high-quality fish-oil product. Choose one derived from a triglyceride-based process versus an ethyl ester–based formula. The American Heart Association recommends 500 mg of combined EPA and DHA for those without a history of heart disease, 1,000 mg if there is a history of heart disease, and 2,000–4,000 mg of combined EPA and DHA for individuals with a high triglyceride level (blood fat) under medical supervision. Remember, supplement intake should be based on your health needs and can interact with prescription drugs you are taking.

Take The Test

Knowing your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 can also help you determine if you have an appropriate balance of the fatty acids. You may want to consider a simple finger-prick home blood test that will give you the results you need. Remember, you want a 4-to-1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Test information can be found online at omega3test.com, and if you enter “NORDIC3” in the offer code box during checkout, you can get this test at a significantly reduced rate.

To access the studies used for this column, go to muscleandbodymag.com.