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Fatty Acids And The Role They Play In Thyroid Health

Millions of people take fatty acid supplements, and I frequently get asked questions about fish oil supplements, flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil, and other questions pertaining to fatty acids.  So I figured it would be a good idea to discuss some of the functions of fatty acids, as well as how they relate to thyroid health.

I’m going to focus on the two families of fatty acids most people are familiar with.  These are the omega 3 fatty acids, and the omega 6 fatty acids.  These are called “essential” fatty acids because they are important to our health, but the body cannot make these on its own, and so we are required to obtain these fatty acids through our diet.  Many people have deficiencies in these fatty acids, which can lead to numerous health issues.  To make matters worse, many people consume processed fats, as I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with hydrogenated oils.  Although many people know that these types of fats are bad for the body, most don’t know why, and I’ll also discuss this.

There are also saturated fats and unsaturated fats.  And while I’m not going to discuss the molecular composition of these and other fats, the main difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is the number of bonds.  Fatty acids are carbon chains, and at one end of the carbon chain there is a carboxylic acid group, while on the other end there is a methyl group.  Saturated fats have carbons that are joined by single bonds, while unsaturated fats have carbons that are joined by double bonds.  This gives each type of fatty acid different chemical properties, as unsaturated fats are less stable than saturated fatty acids.  Just in case you were wondering about the chemical structure of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, the difference between these fatty acids have to do with the location of double bonds.  Omega 3 fatty acids will have a double bond 3 carbons from the methyl end, whereas omega 6 fatty acids will have a double bond 6 carbons from the methyl end.  For those who want to learn more information about the chemical structure of fatty acids, there are excellent books out there which explain this.  One such book is called “Fats that Heal, Fats That Kill”, which also gives a lot of great information on the importance of fatty acids.

Why Are Fatty Acids Important To Our Health?

There are numerous reasons why fatty acids are important to our health.  First of all, they are the main components of the cell membranes.  So if you want to have healthy cells, then you want to eat healthy fats.  In addition, fatty acids are important for the production of prostaglandins.  Prostaglandins are similar to hormones, and have many important functions.  They are involved in cell growth, vasodilation and vasoconstiction, as well as contraction of the uterus when a woman is pregnant.  They also play a very important role in regulating inflammation, which is very important with autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  So if someone with an autoimmune thyroid disorder has a deficiency in these fatty acids, it is essential to address this in order to restore the person’s health back to normal.

So fatty acids directly and indirectly relate to thyroid health.  They directly relate to thyroid health by being a necessary component of cellular health…and this includes the cells of the thyroid gland.  They indirectly relate to thyroid health in that a deficiency will usually result in inflammation, and the inflammation can continue triggering the autoimmune response, which in turn will cause the release of thyroid antibodies.

Dr. Walter H. Schmitt is a chiropractor with a great deal of knowledge about fatty acids, and he has noticed a relationship between omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and the endocrine system.  He notices that people with hypothyroidism are more likely to have a deficiency in the omega 3 fatty acids, while people with hypoadrenia are more likely to have a deficiency in the omega 6 fatty acids.  As far as I know he hasn’t mentioned people with hyperthyroidism, but many of these people have these deficiencies as well.

I personally think that most people can benefit from taking omega 3 fatty acids on a daily basis, and many can also benefit from taking a good form of GLA.  With regards to omega 3 fatty acids I prefer to take fish oil, and this is what I recommend to my patients.  Obviously one can also eat fish, but due to the heavy metals and other toxins you want to minimize your consumption of fish, and if you eat fish you ideally want to eat something like Alaskan wild salmon, which has less toxins when compared to farm-raised salmon and other types of fish.  If someone is vegan and can’t take fish oils or eat fish they can take something like flaxseed oil, or even chia seeds, but if they have problems converting these into the prostaglandins then they of course won’t get the full benefits of these other sources of omega 3 fatty acids.  While I take fish oil supplements everyday, I also add flaxseed oil to my smoothies, and sometimes add chia seeds as well.

Different Fatty Acids Produce Different Prostaglandins

While both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are important to our health, more people are deficient in the omega 3 fatty acids, which is why many healthcare professionals encourage their patients to eat foods rich in omega 3’s such as cold water fish and walnuts, and why it also can be beneficial to take fish oil supplements and/or consume flaxseed oil.  However, it also is common to be deficient in GLA.  Good sources of GLA include Black Currant Seed oil, Borage oil, and Evening Primrose oil.

There are three main types of prostaglandins.  They commonly are referred to as prostaglandin 1 (PG1), prostaglandin 2 (PG2), and prostaglandin 3 (PG3).  The omega 3 fatty acids lead to the production of PG3, while the omega 6 fatty acids lead to the production of PG1.  Both of these are referred to by some sources as the “good” prostaglandins, as they have the benefits that I listed before.  On the other hand, PG2 are known as the “bad” prostaglandins, and the reason for this is because they actually increase the inflammatory process, as well as increase blood pressure, allow for increased tumor growth, etc.  Foods such as red meat and dairy cause an increase in these “bad” prostaglandins.  Now to be fair, PG2 is necessary to balance out PG1 and PG3.  So if you have a deficiency in PG2 then this can lead to problems with blood clotting, or blood pressure that is too low.

So hopefully you now have a better understanding as to why both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are important to your health.  A deficiency in one or both fatty acids can lead to many problems.  Since many people I consult with experience hair loss, one thing I wanted to point out here is that sometimes hair loss is due to a GLA deficiency.  This is common in people with thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions, and is why Evening Primrose Oil can sometimes help greatly with hair loss.  This of course doesn’t mean that the cause of hair loss in most people is a GLA deficiency, but for some people with hair loss it is something to consider.

EPA, DHA, Alpha-linolenic Acid, etc.

When someone purchases a fish oil supplement, when reading the label they will usually notice that it contains EPA and DHA.  What exactly are these?  EPA is Eicosapentaenoic Acid, while DHA is Docosahexaenoic Acid, and these are the constituents of fish oils, and thus are the precursors of PG3.  Let’s take a brief look at some of the other components of fatty acids:

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): these help with the formation of PG3, and are therefore found in foods high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as cold water fish, walnuts, and flax seeds.

Linoleic acid (LA): these help with the formation of PG1, and are therefore found in foods high in omega 6 fatty acids, such as safflower and sunflower oils.

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA): these also help with the formation of PG1, and are found in Borage oil, along with Black Currant Seed oil and Evening Primrose Oil.

Arachidonic acid (AA): these are involved in the formation of PG2, and are found in foods such as animal products and dairy.

Why Are Partially Hydrogenated Fats and Oils Bad For You?

Fats that are partial hydrogenated are metabolized differently by our bodies.  What they do is inhibit the conversion process that leads to the development of the “good” prostaglandins (PG1 and PG3).  This in turn leads to an excess of the “bad” prostaglandins (PG2).  So when you eat foods such as margarine, or French fries from a fast food restaurant, this will interfere with cholesterol metabolism, and will lead to an increased production of PG2, which over time will lead to numerous health issues.

In summary, fatty acids are necessary for healthy cells, which of course are important for a healthy thyroid gland.  They also are important for the formation of prostaglandins which help to regulate inflammation, which is important for anyone with an autoimmune thyroid condition such as Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  Many people need to eat more foods consisting of omega 3 fatty acids, and most can benefit from taking omega 3 fatty acids each day.  But some people also need to supplement with omega 6 fatty acids, such as GLA, as they produce different types of prostaglandins than omega 3 fatty acids.  And while it’s fine to eat some animal products in moderation (ideally organic), consuming too many of these products will result in excess PG2 formation, which can cause an increase in inflammation and lead to other health issues.