Omega-3s Protect Brains During Trauma

man holding a football

You may have heard about or seen the movie “Concussion” starring actor Will Smith. In it, he played Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who fought to bring attention to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that has been plaguing football players with greater-than-ever frequency.

CTE is the result of recurrent head traumas (concussions) occurring over the course of many years or decades. These repeated impacts cause the brain to slowly lose mass and deteriorate over time. The brains of people with CTE have also been found to contain high amounts of tau—a protein closely associated with Alzheimer’s disease. An overabundance of tau collapses the usually straight highways where nutrients and other important materials travel throughout the brain. When these highways become twisted and tangled, they can no longer carry essential components to brain cells, causing them and whole regions of the brain to die.

Some of the signs and symptoms of CTE include cognitive impairment, impulsive behavior, aggression, depression, short-term memory loss, difficulty with walking or movement, speech problems, and dementia.

For a long time, CTE was thought to exist mainly in boxers, who obviously take many blows to the head over the course of their careers. But now we know it can afflict anybody who suffers repeated concussions and head traumas. As you can imagine, athletes who engage in contact sports such as rugby, soccer, ice hockey, and football are especially at risk, even if they wear helmets.

While concussions may not seem like a “big deal” because they’re so common (and even expected) in professional sports, studies are finding that even one concussion can lead to long-term or permanent changes in the brain, and there are likely much more common undiagnosed sub-concussion traumas that cause brain injury.

In one study, researchers measured the effects of concussions on Canadian hockey players using MRIs of the brain. Even in players who had sustained just one concussion, the researchers noticed inflammatory changes in their brains. Additionally, significant differences were seen in the white matter microstructure between the players who had suffered concussions at some point in their lives vs. those who had never had a concussion. These differences may be the result of the brain’s inflammatory response to the head trauma.1

Omega-3s and Brain Trauma

Researchers are just now beginning to understand the wide-reaching impact of CTE. Along with developing state-of-the-art helmets that may help to better protect the brain, research is discovering that perhaps what athletes ingest can offer them some substantial protection as well.

National Public Radio recently did a piece on two studies published in January that examined the impact of college football on levels of a blood marker of brain injury called neurofilament light.

There were two aspects of these studies that really got my attention. First, starting college football players had much higher levels of this blood marker than both backup players and members of the swim team. So even though most of these starting players had no evidence of concussions (as determined by doctor examination or brain scans), there was still strong evidence that brain damage was occurring in athletes who took the most hits.2

The second study utilizing these same football players was designed to determine whether omega-3 fatty acid supplements could protect the players from that brain injury as measured by neurofilament light. This study followed 81 college football players, starting in the summer of 2014 and continuing over the course of the football season (for a total of 189 days). They were randomly assigned to take either 2, 4, or 6 grams of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, or placebo.3

The results showed that, regardless of dosage, the players who took the DHA had less neurofilament light in their blood compared to those on placebo. Impressively, there was a 40% reduction in those on the DHA protocol! This shows the strong potential of DHA in protecting the brain against constant traumas endured during contact sports.

While more research needs to be conducted in this area, it’s highly possible that DHA fights the brain inflammation associated with head injury. DHA could also be adding to the brain lipids (fat) necessary to enable the brain to heal. It is important to remember that the brain is 60% fat, particularly DHA, so it needs DHA to make and connect all its neuronal circuits.

With few side effects to speak of and a multitude of protective anti-inflammatory and brain building benefits, supplementing with omega-3s may turn out to be one of the smartest choices an athlete can make.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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