Helmets ✓ Pads ✓ Cleats ✓ Fish Oils? What’s in your locker? By David Dunne

American Football is without doubt one of the most entertaining sports leagues in the world. During the season, every week is jam packed with audacious plays, outstanding feats of athleticism and massive hits as the giants of the game go toe to toe. For the spectators, this is great entertainment! However, for the players, the brutal battle each week can start to take its toll not only on their bodies, but also on their brains. This is clearly evident by the 271 diagnosed concussions that occurred in the National Football League last year (2015-16), a figure that is up 32% on the previous season. Of these, 234 occurred in games and 37 took place in training. It is no surprise that American Football is associated with the highest incidence of concussion among team sports! But what actually is concussion? And what happens to the brain? Let’s take a closer look.

What is concussion?

Concussion, also known as mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI), is an impact, penetration or rapid movement of the brain within the skull that results in an altered mental state.

What happens to the brain?

Concussion is a complex dynamic process that initiates multiple abnormal responses to the cells in the brain. Energy and oxygen supply to the neurons are weakened causing fatigue and impaired cognitive function. The damaged brain is often incapable of supporting energetically demanding activities and a further injury sustained during this period can cause disproportionate damage. This impairment or interruption of oxygen supply can also play a role in neurological and neurodegenerative conditions affecting the long-term health and wellbeing of the athlete.

So, with concussion a likely occurrence for many players and some form of sub-concussive injury almost guaranteed for the rest, is there anything the players can do to protect their brains? Well, recent research from Oliver et al (2016) suggests that yes there is!

DHA: Brain Armour?
Infographic, DHA Brain Armour

Oliver and his team recruited 81 NCAA Division 1 American Football athletes. They examined the effect of differing doses of the fish oil derived fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) on serum neurofilament light (sNFL) over the course of a season of American Football (off-season, pre-season camp and the competitive season). To quickly bring you up to speed, sNFL is a blood biomarker of axonal damage, which is central to the process of mild traumatic brain injury. It had previously been shown to work in animal studies, but this is some of the first evidence to emerge in athletes.

Here’s what Oliver and his team found:

  • A substantial increase in sNFL corresponded with an increase in training intensity and hours of contact.
  • Supplemental DHA, irrespective of dose (2g, 4g, 6g), may attenuate elevations in sNFL during times of increased contact training.
  • The difference in response between 2g/day DHA compared with placebo suggests a neuroprotective effect of DHA.

This evidence suggests that American Football players (and contact sport athletes in general) may require a higher daily dose of DHA than the average population, not only for the maintenance of normal brain function, but also for its potential neuroprotective effect*.

Orreco routinely measures fatty acid profiles, including DHA, in professional athletes.

*Ensure you seek professional guidance and consult with a doctor or team physician before supplementing your diet.

REFERENCE
Oliver, J.M., et al (2016). Effect of Docosahexaenoic Acid on a Biomarker of Head Trauma in American Football. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 48(6):974-82.

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