Flaxseed or Steroids?

Why did Marion Jones and Barry Bonds think they were taking flaxseed oil?

Marion Jones. Click image to expand.
Marion Jones

Marion Jones, who sprinted and jumped her way to five Olympic medals, admitted last week that she took performance-enhancing steroids. According to Jones, her trainer gave her a substance she thought was flaxseed oil, but later realized was THG. Like Jones, Barry Bonds has denied knowingly taking steroids, stating that he also thought he was taking flaxseed oil. Why would athletes take flaxseed oil anyway?

Because they don’t like fish. Flaxseed oil contains omega 3 fatty acids, which help maintain cardiovascular health, but doctors usually recommend fish oil for the same benefits. Our bodies take the alpha-linolenic acids found in flaxseed oil and convert them into other omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish oil: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The strongest scientific evidence for benefits from omega-3s suggests they decrease the amount of fat in our bloodstream and help reduce the risk of a heart attack. They are also believed to strengthen muscles and bones, and they may keep tissues elastic so that blood vessels can maintain a lower blood pressure and the heart doesn’t need to pump as hard. These health benefits make DHA and EPA especially attractive for athletes.

Flaxseed and fish oils might also help an athlete to recover from injuries. The omega-3s affect the production of cytokines, which are involved in regulating inflammation in the body. And they increase the body’s sensitivity to the effects of insulin, which allows fatigued muscles to absorb more glucose, amino acids, and other nutrients needed for repair.

Flaxseed oil does have some chemical compounds that fish oil lacks. The lignans found in seeds, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains are thought to have antiviral and antibacterial purposes. They also help maintain a healthy cholesterol level.

On the whole, though, it may not make a lot of sense for athletes to take flaxseed oil instead of fish oil, since many scientists believe individuals differ in how efficiently they convert the omega-3 fatty acids in flax into EPA and DHA. According to a 2002 study from the British Journal of Nutrition, women turn just a third of the flaxseed fatty acids into the good stuff; men were even less successful. It’s much easier to pop a fish oil pill, which delivers EPA and DHA straight to the body.

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Explainer thanks Jose Antonio of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Roger Clemens of University of Southern California, Lisa Hark of University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Hector Lopez of Physicians Pioneering Performance.