In this article:
- What are essential fatty acids (EFAs)?
- Omega-3's and the thyroid: an emerging relationship
- What do omega-3's do for you?
- Food sources of omega-3's
- What about omega-3 supplements?
- Side effects to taking omega-3's
The thyroid is the metabolic powerhouse of the human body. This two-inch-long gland near the nape of your neck plays a vital role in your cardiac, digestive, reproductive, neurological, and musculoskeletal functioning. When your thyroid hormone production drops, your body processes slow down and change. Hypothyroidism can affect many different systems in your body and usually requires treatment with thyroid hormone replacements.
However, proper nutrition also plays a role in supporting thyroid function. By reducing dietary stress, you are likely to reduce the inflammation that can worsen autoimmune reactions or interfere with thyroid function. Recent research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may be one piece of the puzzle.
What are essential fatty acids (EFAs)?
Many of us grow up to think of dietary fats as bad for our health. Those of us who grow up in a household that purchases low-fat foods at the market may have engrained the idea that all dietary fat is harmful. And indeed, some fats are detrimental to health. However, some fats are necessary for overall wellbeing.
Before looking at the different types of fats, it is essential to understand why fat is good. Fat is an energy source. When food is scarce or we are severely ill, our bodies can survive off the energy stored in fat tissues. Fat is a crucial component of building and repairing cell membranes and is necessary for vitamin and mineral absorption. It is also high in caloric content, meaning that foods high in fat have more calories than other food types.
There are specific fats necessary to have in your diet for long-term health. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are the "good" fats. Monounsaturated fats are typically from plants and research finds that they decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. Foods that contain monounsaturated fats include:
- Vegetable oils (olive oil, peanut oil, avocado oil, etc.)
- Nuts and nut butters (almonds, cashews, pecans, peanut, and almond butter, etc.)
- Seeds (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, etc.)
Polyunsaturated fats are also known as "essential fats" because the body cannot make these fats naturally though they are necessary for normal body functioning. Therefore, we must rely on eating foods that contain polyunsaturated fats to receive their benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of essential fatty acid that is considered a polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3's further divide into three primary essential fatty acids:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Again, what makes essential fats so valuable is their benefit to our overall health and wellbeing. We need to obtain them by eating the right foods.
Saturated fats and trans fats are the two types of "bad" fats, as they can be potentially harmful to our health. Studies have indicated that they may increase LDL cholesterol levels—your "bad" cholesterol. Therefore, you should eat saturated fats in minimal quantities. This type of fat is in:
- Animal fat (such as beef or pork)
- Oils that are solid at room temperature (coconut oil, palm oil, etc.)
- Dairy foods high in fat content (sour cream, butter, cheese, ice cream)
Avoid trans fats, as they may increase inflammation. Heart disease, stroke, and diabetes may also link to trans fatty acids. This harmful type of fat is in:
- Fried foods
- Baked goods
- Processed snacks
- Vegetable shortening
To recap, the right kinds of fats are essential to our overall health and wellbeing. Some fats, such as omega-3's, have demonstrated that they can help repair and restore damaged tissues.
Omega-3's and the thyroid: an emerging relationship
Autoimmune disorders, heart disease, digestive issues, cancers, and chronic pain are on the rise. In fact, in the United States, 12% of the population lives with a thyroid disorder. Many of these disorders and diseases are rooted in inflammation.
Before assuming that inflammation is the "bad guy," it is important to acknowledge the benefits of inflammation. A healthy immune response to injury and infection is inflammation. The inflammatory response drives tissues to heal and fight illness. When the inflammatory system becomes overactive or inappropriate, it can harm tissues. We can see the harmful effects of excess inflammation in thyroid dysfunction, such as hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's Disease.
Research suggests that inflammation may play a more significant role in thyroid dysfunction than previously thought. Controlling inflammation is one of the key ways to help manage the symptoms produced by an unhealthy thyroid. Besides weight management, dietary modifications, stress reduction, and medication, studies also suggest that omega-3's may help reduce inflammation in the thyroid gland.
What do omega-3's do for you?
As one of the most widely studied nutrients, omega-3's have potent health benefits in the human body. Research mainly concentrates on the role of omega-3's in cardiovascular health. Omega-3's help lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglyceride levels and improve factors that help blood coagulation. These benefits reduce the incidence of heart attacks and life-threatening heart rhythms.
Research also suggests that omega-3's can help support thyroid function. Studies have found that omega-3's can decrease inflammation that compromises thyroid function. EPA and DHA, two fatty acids that help make up omega-3's, create resolvins. Resolvins are metabolic byproducts of omega-3's that help decrease inflammation in tissues. Therefore, increasing your intake of omega-3's may make more resolvins, which may reduce inflammation in your body.
This relationship between omega-3's and inflammation may be particularly beneficial for people with autoimmune thyroid disorders such as Hashimoto's. In Hashimoto's, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland and causes inflammation. The resulting inflammation releases thyroid antibodies and may lead to hypothyroidism. Omega 3 fats provide cellular membrane integrity, which protects them from becoming damaged and enables your cells to communicate well with each other.
Remember, the thyroid gland is the metabolic powerhouse of the body. Incorporating more omega-3s in your diet may help optimize your overall thyroid health and some of the symptoms associated with thyroid disorders, including:
- Brain fog
- Digestive issues such as leaky gut and constipation
- Dry skin and hair thinning
- Cardiovascular health including high blood pressure
- Improved metabolism
Food sources of omega-3's
Food is the primary source of omega-3's. If we do not eat foods that have omega-3's, we do not get them. Our human ancestors had a diet that was rich in omega-3's. However, food culture in the United States has led to a decrease in omega-3 intake. With an emphasis on convenience and tastebud satisfaction, Americans may be less likely to eat foods rich in omega-3's. Because our bodies require these essential fatty acids, it's beneficial to incorporate the following foods high in omega-3's into our diet:
- Coldwater fatty fish and other seafood (salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, and herring)
- Plant oils (flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds)
- Fortified foods (certain brands of dairy products, juices, and soy drinks)
Eat a recommended two servings of fish per week to get the necessary amount of omega-3's in your diet. Incorporating more fish into your diet may inadvertently decrease the amount of less healthy foods you eat, such as red meats or processed foods. Consider meeting with a nutritionist if you need support in understanding or implementing or understanding your nutritional requirements.
What about omega-3 supplements?
If the foods listed above won't appear on your plate regularly, omega-3's come in supplemental form. Fish oil is one of the most common supplements that people take to increase their omega-3 fatty acids. When looking for a supplement, remember that not all supplements are created equal. Therefore, some may have different dosing or may combine with other vitamins and minerals. Strong evidence suggests that omega-3 deficiencies cause several health issues. Taking higher doses of omega-3 supplements does not necessarily prevent disease and better your overall health.
The Office of Dietary Supplements through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not test or analyze supplements. Furthermore, it does not recommend a specific brand. If you wish to add in an omega-3 supplement, check-in with your doctor to recommend the appropriate dose and brand for you.
Side effects to taking omega-3's
Fish oil supplements and other omega-3's are generally safe when taken as recommended. Some side effects may arise when taking fish oil, including:
- Loose stools
High doses of fish oil may increase your risk of bleeding and stroke. There are also medication interactions that may occur, especially if you take an anticoagulant (such as Coumadin) or anti-platelet drugs, herbs, or supplements. Please talk with your doctor about adding fish oil to your regime, so they can review your medication list to look for any potential risks of interactions. Finally, people with fish or shellfish allergies may be at risk for allergic reactions if they take fish oil. However, the data on fish and shellfish allergies is inconclusive at this time.
A note from Paloma Health
Many nutritional factors may benefit the thyroid gland. Indeed, the role of food and how our diet impacts our bodies is still a great mystery. The above information does not diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent diseases. We recommend that you work with your Paloma Health care team to learn how to optimize your thyroid health.