Today, we explore the putative role of Omega-3 fatty acids as a neuroprotective strategy to mitigate brain damage and promote recovery from head injury in contact based sports.
As the demand and physicality of contact based sports such as rugby and American football increase, head injuries (concussion) and exposure to repetitive sub-concussive head impacts (RHI) are becoming more common.
There’s emerging evidence that concussions and RHI are linked to neurological changes and may have long term implications for neurological health. I.e. structural and functional changes in the brain.
Although understudied, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA+DHA) exhibit biological functions that are vital for neurological health. In rodent studies, supplementation of DHA appears to mitigate brain damage and support recovery.
It’s been observed that concussions and RHI reduces brain DHA content, and low DHA levels reduce rates of recovery.
As you can imagine, studying this in humans is difficult – ethically, you can’t knock someone out in a lab and measure how XYZ supplement works.
That being said, a surrogate biomarker for traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be measured in the blood: serum neurofilament light, or Nf-L for short.
It’s been reported that plasma Nf-L levels are influenced by the frequency and magnitude of head impacts as measured by accelerometers in gum shields.
Therefore, Heilson et al (2021) examined the impact of omega-3 supplementation on Nf-L in American footballers over the course of a season. Their hypothesis is that omega 3 supplementation will lower serum Nf-L levels and be neurologically protective.
To compare and contrast, the researchers recruited two NCAA teams and provided one team with an omega 3 supplement, and the other with a placebo.
During the 131 day testing period, the NCAA players took the high dose supplement four times/week.
As expected, EPA and DHA levels increased by 110% through supplementation and in return showed non-trivial changes in Nf-L levels, where Nf-L levels increased significantly in the placebo group and remained elevated throughout the season.
It’s worth noting that the supplement group was NCAA division 1 (D1), where the placebo group was D3, so you’d expect bigger impacts in D1 and therefore heightened risk…and they only saw a low magnitude increase in Nf-L levels.
Ultimately, it appears that omega-3 fatty acids, in particular DHA offers some degree of neuroprotection against TBI’s. Considering that supplementation is well tolerated, I would recommended supplementation alongside a well-balanced diet.