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Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants protect the brain in sports disciplines with frequent head injuries

Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants protect the brain in sports disciplines with frequent head injuriesContact sports like football and boxing are associated with frequent blows to the head that can cause physical traumas and long-term effects. However, a new study that is published in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that high-dosed supplements of omega-3 fatty acids can protect against the damage caused by head traumas in American football. There is even a positive effect on cardiovascular health and joints. Excessive training and high performance sport can also increase the risk of oxidative stress that is linked to acute injury, inflammation, and subsequent development of neurological disease. It is therefore also important to get plenty of antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E plus selenium and zinc if you engage in sport at a high level.

American football has its roots in rugby and because body tackles are allowed, collisions with blows to the head are a frequent and natural part of the game. Regular soccer, boxing, and other sports disciplines, however, can also result in head traumas. The force of impact and the number of blows to the head in connection with different types of sport are linked to the risk of developing neurological disorders that can impair motor skills or cognitive skills. Several studies have revealed that retired elite athletes are at a substantially increased risk of developing neurological diseases. A study of 7,000 male soccer players from the Italian first and second division teams showed that they had a significantly increased risk of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a serious condition that affects the motor neurons in the motor cortex, brainstem, or the spinal cord.

Omega-3 fatty acids and their role in the brain

It is commonly known that omega-3 fatty acids are essential and that the brain contains larger concentrations of these fatty acids than you find in other parts of the body. The omega-3 forms EPA, DHA, and DPA are incorporated in the cell membranes where they carry out various physiological functions. The omega-3 fatty acids are engaged in a biochemical interaction with omega-6 fatty acids and it is vital to ingest these different fatty acids in the right balance. Too little omega-3 sets the stage for cellular dysfunction, inflammation, and the development of different diseases. Earlier studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids taken as supplements have a positive effect on people who suffer from or are at increased risk of sustaining head trauma

The new study reveals new effects of omega-3 in connection with head traumas

In the new study, 31 players from the American football club NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) were given daily supplements of omega-3 before and during their practice season. The relatively large doses included 2,000 mg of DHA, 560 mg of EPA, and 320 mg of DPA. Thirty-five other players from the same football team did not receive supplements and served as a control group.
During the course of the study, the scientists measured levels of omega-3 fatty in the players’ blood, their omega-3/omega-6 ratio, and blood levels of Nf-L (serum neurofilament light), which is a biomarker of nerve fiber damage and a possible marker of head trauma.
All players in the supplemented group had significantly increased blood levels of all three types of omega-3. Their so-called omega-3 index went up from around 4.3 percent to around 7.5 percent at the end of the study. What the scientists also observed was that the players in the supplemented group did not show signs of elevated levels of the biomarker Nf-L, which is an indicator of damaged nerve fibers. In the control group that did not get omega-3 fatty acids the omega-3 index dropped during the same period and levels of Nf-L among the players went up by around 50% during the practice season and remained high throughout the entire period.
The new study is the first to show that high-dosed omega-3 supplementation can lower levels of Nf-L, thereby suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids taken in the tested dose have the potential to reduce neurological damage caused by head traumas in connection with sport. Fish oil also turned out to have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system and it also prevented inflammation that is linked to aching joints.

Sport that induces oxidative stress increases your need for antioxidants

We all know how important is to exercise regularly. Still, overdoing it – and engaging in high performance sport – can increase the risk of oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Oxidative stress also increases the risk of acute injuries, inflammation and the development of neurological diseases. Therefore, taking supplements of the relevant antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E plus selenium and zinc may be good for preventing acute and chronic injury.


J.L. Heileson, et al. The effect of omega-3 acids on a biomarker of head trauma in NCAA football athletes: a multi-site, non-randomized study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2021

Stephen Daniels. Omega-3 fatty acids may protect brains in American Football Athletes.

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Understanding how omega-3 dampens inflammatory reactions. ScienceDaily 2017

Christina Nocella et al. Impairment between Oxidant and Antioxidant Systems: Short- and Long-Term Implications for Athletes´ Health. Nutrients 2019

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