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Omega-3s for Exercise: Trials Find Muscle and Breathing Benefits
Twin clinical trials find that omega-3s may reduce muscle soreness after exercise, and may improve lung function in athletes 10/14/2009 By Craig Weatherby
 Anyone watching the U.S. Open Tennis Championships last week will have witnessed the brutal demands that burden the human body during intense, extended exercise.

One of the key concerns about overdoing it — especially for athletes who perform over several days is the common athletic affliction called “delayed onset of muscle soreness” or DOMS.

Key Points
  • Omega-3 fish oil was clinically shown to ease delayed muscle soreness, compared to placebo.
  • Fish oil improved lung function among young male wrestlers in a clinical trial.
  • No other treatments are proven to treat or prevent delayed muscle soreness.
The pain of DOMS can dampen enthusiasm for exercise, and its underlying cause (microsopic muscle damage) can prevent peak performance.

The key symptoms of DOMS are pain and tenderness to the touch, plus inflammation, swelling and a loss of strength and mobility in the affected muscles.

Since these signs can last up to 14 days, DOMS is particularly troublesome for athletes who compete in multi-day events.

You can count on experiencing DOMS if you have been stretching and constricting a muscle at the same time (like when a tennis player lands, or running downhill), performing new exercises, or during higher-than-normal intensity training or performance.

Unsurprisingly, DOMS tends to be more severe at the beginning of a training season and when you resume exercise after a period of reduced activity.

Icing muscles after exercise is not shown to help, and although massage and aspirin-type anti-inflammatory drugs seem to ease the pain of DOMS, neither prevents DOMS-related performance deficits (Cheung K et al. 2003; Barnett A 2006; Howatson G, van Someren KA 2008).

A recent mouse study suggests that curcumin, the powerfully anti-inflammatory pigment in turmeric, may ease DOMS (Davis JM et al. 2007).

This last finding leads us to the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s and the positive results of a recent clinical trial.

Omega-3s may bring multiple athletic benefits
Back in 2006, we reported on research highlighting omega-3's unique performance benefits (see “Wild Salmon Excels for Sports and Fitness”):

According to fitness expert and Olympic weight lifting medical advisor Mauro Di Pasquale, M.D., omega-3 fatty acids exert positive influences on IGF-1: a growth hormone essential to childhood growth that elicits anabolic effects in adults:

Omega-3 fatty acids enhance blood flow, and play an important role in the production of the molecule hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the red blood cells. Sufficient hemoglobin levels are important for athletes, to ensure that oxygen and nutrients reach the muscles.

Also, waste products (e.g., carbon dioxide and lactic acid) will be removed with greater efficiency if hemoglobin levels are sufficient.

Note: the studies conducted to date do not show that supplemental omega-3s increase oxygen transport. Instead, all things being equal, it appears that athletes need ample omega-3s to ensure optimal oxygen supplies to their muscles.

What causes and suppresses delayed muscle soreness?
Build up of lactate (lactic acid) in muscles was long suspected as a key cause of DOMS, but that seems unlikely.

We now know that blood and muscle lactate levels return to normal within 30 or 40 minutes, while the pain and tenderness of DOMS don't begin to appear until eight to 36 hours after exercise ends.

The most widely accepted theory is that DOMS is initiated by microscopic tears that occur to the muscle fibers, which trigger the two direct causes of discomfort and performance deficits:
  1. A painful inflammatory response by the body;
  2. Increased levels of free radicals, which cause oxidative damage to muscle cells (McBride JM et al. 1998).
Intensive exercise typically generates the unstable, cell-damaging compounds called free radicals that damage cell membranes, including the membranes of muscle cells.

Free radicals also “turn on” cellular switches that trigger inflammatory responses liable to worsen damage to muscle cells… especially if the inflammation is too strong or persists too long.

To date, research hasn't yet revealed the best way to recover quickest from DOMS, but given what we know about DOMS, research has focused on anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents.

Omega-3s are known anti-inflammatory agents as well, which is why attention has also focused on these broadly beneficial fatty acids.

Because omega-3s are generally anti-inflammatory, and since exercise yields inflammation and resulting muscle damage, it's been thought that omega-3s from fish and fish oil might reduce secondary muscle damage and delayed-onset muscle soreness.

Inflammation and muscle soreness; The role of omega-3s and omega-6s
Most of the available evidence shows that the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found only in seafood (EPA and DHA) can moderate excessive inflammation.

These findings hold obvious implications for prevention and reduction of excessive inflammatory responses to the muscle breakdown that occurs naturally during exercise.

Omega-3s tend to dampen excess inflammation, while omega-6 fatty acids tend to magnify inflammation and keep it going longer.

(Depending on the context, omega-6s can also exert anti-inflammatory effects, but they are generally pro-inflammatory.)

One consequence of the average American's extremely excessive intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids is that their bodies' inflammatory responses are too strong and last too long.

Pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats abound in the cheapest and most commonly consumed vegetable oils - corn, soy, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, canola - which are used in most processed and prepared foods. In addition, the grain-fed meat and poultry products that dominate the food supply are very high in omega-6s compared with grass fed livestock.

For more on this, see “Report Finds Americans Need More Omega-3s and Less Omega-6s.”

When we first reported on this subject back in 2006, one of the two extant studies showed possible muscle-recovery benefits from a combination of omega-3 DHA, vitamin E, and the food-borne antioxidants called flavonoids (Phillips T et al. 2003), while another found no reduction in DOMS among subjects taking fish oil  (Lenn J et al. 2002).

Now, a research team in Iran has published the encouraging results of a small randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (Tartibian B et al. Clin J Sport Med 2009).

If you'll excuse a pun, these findings tip the scales in favor of fish oil as an anti-DOMS ally.

Clinical trial shows that omega-3s may suppress muscle soreness
In this Iranian study, 27 men who had not participated in any exercise program for 60 days were asked to do bench-stepping in a way known to cause “eccentric muscle loading”, wherein the muscle lengthens as it contracts, frequently causing muscle damage and resulting DOMS (This kind of movement is typical of tennis and running).

Before beginning the exercise, the men were assigned to take either fish oil (high in omega-3 EPA and DHA) or placebo pills.

The researchers measured indirect markers of muscle soreness, including perceived pain, thigh circumference (an indicator of muscle inflammation), and range of motion in the knee joint.

Compared to the placebo and control group, the men in the omega-3 fish oil group showed significant improvements 24 and 48 hours following the exercise.

Second study shows omega-3s benefits for athletes' lung function
The same Iranian team that conducted the muscle soreness study also tested the effects of omega-3 fish oil on lung function among college wrestlers (Tartibian B et al. J Sci Med Sport 2009).

Forty healthy young male wrestlers were randomly assigned to take fish oil or placebo pills.

The participants performed wrestling training up to 95 percent of maximum heart rate, three times a week for 12 weeks.

The men in the fish oil group took 1,000 mg of omega-3s from fish oil per day for 12 weeks, while those in placebo were told to avoid fish and omega-3s.

The wrestlers' pulmonary (lung) functions were measured at the beginning and end of the study, and the results indicated that consuming omega-3s had a significantly positive effect on six key lung function variables ( FEV1, FVC, VC, MVV, FEF25-75, FIV1), while no significant changes were observed in two (FEV1% and FIV1%).

As they wrote, “The results of the present study suggest that consuming omega-3 during intensive wrestling training can improve pulmonary function of athletes during [exercise] and in [the] post-exercise [period]” (Tartibian B et al. 2009).

Clearly, more research is needed before fish oil is proven as a way to reduce DOMS and ease breathing.

But many sport doctors and trainers already recommend omega-3 fish oil, including Mary Dinehart-Perry M.S., R.D., of the USA Triathalon organization, whose report on the Iranian DOMS study attracted our attention.

Given the known anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s, and the other exercise benefits of fish oil (see the sidebar titled “Omega-3s' multiple athletic benefits”), it certainly can't hurt to try taking fish oil daily… your sore muscles and struggling lungs may thank you!

  • Barnett A. Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes: does it help? Sports Med. 2006;36(9):781-96. Review.
  • Cheung K, Hume P, Maxwell L.  Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Med. 2003;33(2):145-64. Review.
  • Davis JM, Murphy EA, Carmichael MD, Zielinski MR, Groschwitz CM, Brown AS, Gangemi JD, Ghaffar A, Mayer EP. Curcumin effects on inflammation and performance recovery following eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2007 Jun;292(6):R2168-73. Epub 2007 Mar 1.
  • Howatson G, van Someren KA. The prevention and treatment of exercise-induced muscle damage. Sports Med. 2008;38(6):483-503. Review.
  • Lenn J, Uhl T, Mattacola C, Boissonneault G, Yates J, Ibrahim W, Bruckner G. The effects of fish oil and isoflavones on delayed onset muscle soreness. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Oct;34(10):1605-13.
  • McBride JM, Kraemer WJ, Triplett-McBride T, Sebastianelli W. Effect of resistance exercise on free radical production. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998 Jan;30(1):67-72.
  • Phillips T, Childs AC, Dreon DM, Phinney S, Leeuwenburgh C. A dietary supplement attenuates IL-6 and CRP after eccentric exercise in untrained males. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Dec;35(12):2032-7.
  • Tartibian B, Maleki BH, Abbasi A. The effects of ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids on perceived pain and external symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness in untrained men. Clin J Sport Med 2009 Mar;19(2):115-9. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0b013e31819b51b3
  • Tartibian B, Maleki BH, Abbasi A.  The effects of omega-3 supplementation on pulmonary function of young wrestlers during intensive training.  J Sci Med Sport 2009 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]

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