In this post we will have a look at Omega-3. This is a fatty acids that we hypothesize can enhance reaction time and speed for athletes. We will start from the beginning and go through the basics of this fat and function in the body.
Poly unsaturated fats contains several (poly) double bonds. These bonds makes the fatty acid bent instead of straight as a saturated fat. You can compare it with matches that you use to make a fire. Straight once are saturated acids with a polar “head”. If you break it, but it is still connected as one piece, you have a bent stick that looks like a fatty acid with a double bond. It bends the fatty acid. Also it is a weak point for attack from radicals and other reactive compounds. Therefor unsaturated fats need more protection of antioxidants to not be attacked and broken into pieces. This is true both inside and outside the body. The laws of physics and chemistry are universal (at least as long as we don’t approach the speed of light).
Function of omega-3
All cells in the body (and bacteria also for that matter) have a cell membrane that surrounds the cell. Water can pass in and out of the cell membrane but most other molecules cannot. They need to be transported through a door that is open. If you think of the matches and put several of them next to each other with the head pointing in the same direction (they are parallel) you have the structure of a cell wall. They are tightly stacked together just as penguins in the arctic stands next to each other. If we introduce the bent match that was partly broken it cannot be put in as tight as a straight fatty acid. There will be some space between the matches (fatty acids) if some of them are bend. It is this space that the cell uses to build doors (transporter protein) that lets in and out molecules. Different doors are used for different molecules even though some share the same gate. These transporters (doors) in and out of the cell are essential. Long chain Omega 3 are used for this (DHA/EPA). They are called long chain because they are longer than a “regular” fatty acids (regular = 18 carbons). Since they are bend they need to be longer to reach to the other side of the cell membrane. Shorter bent fatty acids like ALA (alpha linolenic acid, an omega-3 found in plants) cannot be used in the same way as long chain omega-3.
Omega-3 are especially important for
– Reaction time / Cognitive
– Muscle mass and Strength
The omega-3 group of fats all have one thing in common. They have a double bond on carbon 3. That is what the name means. In the same way as omega-6 has a double bond on carbon number 6. Neither omega-3 nor omega-6 can be synthesized in the body. They have to be provided in the diet. All other fats can be synthesized from carbohydrates if needed. Modern diet in western world contains about 10-20 times more omega 6 (common in plant based oils and other industrial produced fast foods) than omega-3. From an evolutionary and biochemical point of view the data points at that a 1:1 ratio of omega 3 and 6 are optimum for health and performance. If the diet contains one type of omega 3 all the other omega 3 can so some extent be synthesised from that one.
ALA <–> EPA <–> DHA
However, this conversion seems sufficient to sustain life but not for optimal performance or health. Especially the elongation of omega-3 is limited, that is the capability to make EPA/DHA from ALA is poor. There might also be an individual component here as well. This is known biochemistry and the question you might ask is how this translate into practical effects that can be measured on the physiological level?
Omega 3 physiological effects
You might have heard that omega-3 is discusses in heart disease, brain disorder and actually a large number of health conditions. We will not cover them all here but we will highlight a few facts that brings us into the use for martial arts. In brain and nerve cells omega 3 is the most common fatty acids (in other tissue it is saturated fat followed but monounsaturated fat). This is due to the great need of many ion channels (doors) in the cell membrane for brain neurons. When a signal is sent ions (sodium and potassium) flushes in and then out of the doors as the signal propagates. For fast and accurate signalling many doors are better than just a few.
For more details see this video (or search “action potential animation” if the link is gone)
This is one reason why it has been postulated that omega-3 is good for the heart. If the heart makes a mistake and beats incorrect it quickly needs to get back in phase. All the ions that flushed out must be brought back before the next wave comes. Many doors (ion channels) will speed up this. However, these kind of studies are long term and clouded with noise from other life style factors that also contribute to heart health. The protective effect on the heart is seen in some studies but not all. Simply because of the limitations associated with these types of studies clouded with interference.
We might also look at brain disorders and mental illness since omega-3 is a major component of the brain. These illness also progress over long periods of time so clinical trials are cumbersome to do. Fortunately for scientist, there is a group of people that only consume ALA and therefor have lower levels of EPA/DHA compared with average. This group makes an excellent reference for testing the biochemistry of omega-3. Vegetarians/vegans that do not supplement with long chain omega 3 have lower levels of EPA/DHA. Studies do show this group are more associated with mental illness of all kind compared with omnivores. This support the biochemistry experiments, however, it is not proof since the data are based on correlation studies (se chapter about “interpretation of scientific data” for more info). It could be so that there is something else in the vegan lifestyle that makes them more acceptable to mental disorders and not necessarily low levels of EPA/DHA.
EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and anxiety disorders. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Nov.
Nutrition and health – the association between eating behavior and various health parameters: a matched sample study. PLoS One. 2014 Feb.
Study citation “Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.”
Omega 3 for the athletes
You may postulate that higher omega-3 levels would be associated with faster and better signalling in the neurons. Can this be quantified in a more direct way than heart or brain issues? Something suitable for a randomized control study what takes weeks and not years?
It can, reaction time and speed of cognitive thinking are excellent parameters to measure. Have any one done this? Not only has it been done, it has been tested on martial arts athletes who already are known for their fast reaction time. Could additional omega-3 in a randomized control study (see more in chapter about “interpretation of scientific data) show faster reaction time compared with placebo (the group that gets water capsules without omega-3).
Yes, recent studies on martial artists and other elite athletes confirm that only after a few weeks of supplementation the reaction time is faster and cognitive problem solution skills are also enhanced. Just after a few weeks. That is amazing. Not only does it confirms we got the biochemistry theories correct for omega-3 but it is also great that the studies have been done on athletes that already possesses high skills and fast reaction time.
Omega-3 is found in marine based foods and also in wild and grass fed animals. Generally, if the needs are covered with proper food it is preferable. Still, if you feel the need to use supplements they are well documented. Most omega 3 supplements contains vitamin E as antioxidant (alpha-tocopherol). Preferably the supplements should contains mixed tocopherols and not just the alpha variation. This is how vitamin E exist in nature. You might also want to take some vitamin c with the fish oils since vitamin E is quenched in several steps and by the end vitamin C stops the chain reaction.
Sources of long chain Omega-3
– Supplements (fish/krill oil)
– Wild fish
– Meat from wild animals
– Grass fed beef
Claimed effect: Improve reaction time and general health parameters
Scientific support: Well documented (5/5)
Practical support: Omega-3 might not be the “hottest” subject athletes talk about but have not heard anything negative (4/5)
Effect of Omega-3 and Policosanol Supplementation on Attention and Reactivity in Athletes. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009.
DHA- rich fish oil improves complex reaction time in female elite soccer players. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 2011.
Study quote: “DHA could be a beneficial supplement in sports where decision making and reaction time efficiency are of importance”
Omega-3 fatty acids modify human cortical visual processing–a double-blind, crossover study. PLoS One. 2011.
DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2013.