Essential Fatty Acids: An Interview with Dr. Udo Erasmus

Essential Fatty Acids and Thyroid Disease, Weight Loss, and Health

Fats That Heal: Fats That Kill / Dr. Udo Erasmus
Udo Erasmus

I had an opportunity to interview nutritional expert Dr. Udo Erasmus, regarding a fascinating topic: the role of essential fatty acids in thyroid and metabolic health.

About Dr. Udo Erasmus

By way of introduction, Udo Erasmus started his career in science, receiving his BS degree in Honors Zoology with a major in Psychology, followed by two years of graduate studies in Biochemistry and Genetics from the University of British Columbia. Dr. Erasmus' direction changed when he was poisoned while working with pesticides, and when conventional approaches didn't work, sought to find solutions in nutrition. Dr. Erasmus concentrated his research on the effects of fats and oils on human health, and became an expert in this area, leading to his first bestseller, Fats and Oils. This book also became his thesis and earned him a Ph.D. in nutrition in 1986. Dr. Erasmus also received his MA in Counseling Psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology. Dr. Erasmus has pioneered the technology and formulation for pressing and packaging fresh oils, ensuring that they remain nutritious, and believed so much in the power of essential fatty acids that he worked for years to create the famous "Udo's Oil," a balanced essential fatty acid oil that is recommended by nutritionists and holistic practitioners around the world.

What Are Essential Fatty Acids?

To understand Dr. Erasmus' life work -- the study of essential fatty acids -- it's important to start with the basic premise -- what is an essential fatty acid?

There are a variety of different types of fats, the only two that are considered "essential," are Omega 3 fats, and Omega 6 fats. These fats must be consumed directly from food sources. Other fats, such as Omega 9 (monounsaturated) fats, and saturated fats -- among others -- are not considered essential because they can be produced by the body by consuming other sugars and starches.

Omega 3 fatty acids come from foods like flaxseeds, green leafy vegetables, and high fat, cold water fish such as albacore tuna, sardines, Atlantic halibut and salmon, coho, pink and king salmon, Pacific and Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, and lake trout. Omega 6 fatty acids are found in sesame and sunflower seeds and other seeds and nuts. Some fish and animal meats also provide a derivative form of Omega 6. When it comes to fish, Dr. Erasmus always prefers the fish themselves to fish oil supplements - which he claims can easily become ineffective or even toxic.

According to Dr. Erasmus, since 1900, Omega 6 consumption has increased by about 20 times the previous levels, primarily because of increased use of certain vegetable oils in food preparation, while Omega 3s are now only 1/6 of previous levels. This means that we get too much Omega 6 and too little Omega 3 fatty acids. Says Dr. Erasmus: "It's far more important to bring in the good fats than to avoid the bad fats. Low-fat and no-fat take us in the wrong direction. We need a right-fat approach."

Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids

Ultimately, imbalances and deficiencies in essential fatty acids are, according to Dr. Erasmus, the cause, a trigger, or a contributing factor to many diseases and conditions, and addressing those deficiencies through proper foods, or use of healthy oils, can have huge implications for health. He has found that benefits of proper essential fatty acid intake and balance can include:

  • Increased energy, performance, and stamina
  • Reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease, especially high blood pressure, triglycerides
  • Reduced risk factors for diabetes
  • Improved brain function, including mood, intelligence, behavior, and vision
  • Reduced depression
  • Improvement in glandular and organ function, including liver, kidneys, adrenal and thyroid
  • Faster recovery and healing
  • Healthier babies and pregnant women Improved digestion
  • Decreased infection
  • Better skin, hair, and nails

Essential Fatty Acids and the Thyroid

According to Dr. Erasmus, there are specific benefits that are pertinent for thyroid sufferers. He feels that essential fatty acids are critical to thyroid function because, first, they are required for the integrity of the structure for every membrane of every cell. Second, they increase energy levels in the cell. And third, there is some evidence that essential fatty acids, especially Omega 3s, improve the efficiency of the hormones on the receptor sites.

To understand the importance of the receptor issue, think about the situation of diabetes. Pre-diabetes, the condition that is considered a marker for future diabetes, is also known as insulin resistance. Insulin is in the body, but it isn't being utilized because saturated fats block insulin receptor function, and ultimately receptors become desensitized -- and ultimately immune to and unable to receive -- insulin. Essential fatty acids are required for receptor function and can make diabetics more insulin sensitive. So diabetics taking essential fatty acids may need less receptors, and ultimately, less insulin.

Dr. Erasmus believes that this same mechanism takes place with other hormonal functions, such as the androgens, pineal glands, adrenal glands -- and specifically, the thyroid.

There are practitioners who believe that thyroid hormone resistance is not a rare occurrence and is actually a more common sign of impending thyroid disease, much like insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes. This issue of receptors is critical, because according to Dr. Erasmus, "With proper essential fatty acid nutrition, what will sometime happen is that you get fewer receptors but they work better." This would mean that proper levels of essential fatty acids might make the thyroid hormone receptors work better, so that thyroid hormone actually accomplishes its mission."

Essential Fatty Acids and Inflammation

Dr. Erasmus also points to the role that essential fatty acids play in preventing and reducing inflammation. In particular, essential fatty acids make hormone-like eicosanoids that regulate immune and inflammatory responses, and Omega 3s, in particular, have anti-inflammatory effects that can slow autoimmune damage.

Inflammation of the thyroid -- known as goiter -- is central to many cases of autoimmune thyroid disease, and inflammation is seen in almost all autoimmune diseases in general.

Says Dr. Erasmus: "I believe that inflammation is at the core of nearly everything that goes wrong in the body, including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems. We know that Omega 3s decrease inflammation."

Dr. Erasmus believes that if proteins are the juice, fats are the insulators, not just of nerves, but cells and membranes. Protein reactions lead to inflammation, allergies, and autoimmune disease. Essential fatty acids seem to help to prevent the proteins from becoming hyperactive -- and therefore triggering these various immune reactions.

Essential Fatty Acids and Weight Loss

When thyroid function slows, the metabolic rate can drop and the body burns fewer calories. Dr. Erasmus believes that when thyroid function is slow, the burning of carbohydrates is especially affected. Dr. Erasmus believes that people with hypothyroidism should switch from grains and starches to green vegetables as their primary source of carbohydrates. Green vegetables, plus good fats and proteins, should form the core of the diet.

He theorizes that sufficient essential fatty acids help increase energy and suppress appetite, thereby aiding in weight loss. In addition, they have been found to block the genes that produce fat in the body (saturated and trans fat do not have this same effect) and increase thermogenesis -- the burning of fat.

Dr. Erasmus actually feels that Omega 3s work better than the heralded conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). He feels that CLA may have some negative side effects, particularly at higher doses.

Dr. Erasmus' Optimal Thyroid Diet

According to Dr. Erasmus, for a thyroid patient to lose weight, they need:

  • Green vegetables (While he says the efforts at 5 fruits and vegetables a day or 9 a day are a step in the right direction, the reality is that we should strive for more like 1 fruit, and 8 or 9 vegetables each day.)
  • Good fats
  • Protein
  • Proper digestion
  • Limited carbohydrates. ("If you gain weight, you're not burning enough carbs," says Dr. Erasmus. How much should you limit them? "Until your weight is normal!")
  • Exercise
  • Supplements: In addition to supplementing with essential fatty acids, he also recommends proper balance of zinc, vitamin C, and digestive enzymes.

How Much Essential Fatty Acids Do You Need?

In Dr. Erasmus' view, if we could focus our diet on vegetables, fish, and good fats from other foods, we'd be working toward redressing the imbalances in essential fatty acids. But when diet is less than optimal, or you can't get enough of the foods that provide the right balance and quantity of Omega 3s and Omega 6s, then an option is to consider a supplement.

There are a number of essential fatty acid supplements on the market, including Dr. Erasmus' specially formulated oil, known as "Udo's Oil." Udo's Oil is an organic blend of oils from fresh flax, sesame, and sunflower seeds, as well as oils from evening primrose, rice germ, and oat germ. Dr. Erasmus recommends a tablespoon of oil per 50 pounds of body weight per day in winter. That would mean 4 tablespoons a day for a 200-pound person in winter. The way you know you've taken enough oil is, according to Dr. Erasmus, your skin is not dry, flaky or itchy -- common complaints in the winter. Summer dosages can be dropped slightly, and again, dryness of skin should be used as the evaluation.

For weight loss, Dr. Erasmus has said that working with obese people, he has had them on as much as 5 tablespoons of oil a day. For rheumatoid arthritis patients, he's had them on as much as 10 tablespoons a day.

At high levels of oil, calorie intake goes up, so to reduce overall caloric intake, Dr. Erasmus recommends taking out carbohydrate calories - particularly starches, grains, and fruits -- to make up for the calories in the oil, and concentrate the diet on healthy protein and green vegetables.

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Is supplementation with essential fatty acids the answer for you? It may be worth trying for a few weeks to start, to see if you start to feel any of the short-term benefits, and notice a difference in your skin. Just remember that to avoid weight gain, you should decrease the amount of carbohydrates you are eating, in order to offset the oil's calories and maintain an optimal amount of daily calories.

For more information about Dr. Erasmus, see his site, or learn more about his book, Fats That Kill Fats That Heal.

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