Maybe you think you have enough “healthy fat” in your diet, so you skip the fish oil supplement. Hear us out. Omega-3 fatty acids are unique, and unless you are actually eating fatty fish several times a week (and/or a boatload of flax), you may actually want on-board with this supplement trend.
Omega-3 fatty acids support a multitude of aspects of human health, from cardiovascular health to brain function. The mechanism by which they elicit these effects may be largely due to their role in the regulation of inflammation.
Today, however, we will be describing the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids as hormone balance supplements.
Which “Omega” Fatty Acids Do I Need and Why?
There are two types of essential fats we all need from our diet to maintain optimal health: omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids. They are both polyunsaturated acids with a slight difference in their structure. The problem is that omega-6s seem to be everywhere and omega-3s are a little harder to find.
A History of Fats: Why do we need a supplement when there is fat in our diet?
Diet fads are often based on what scientists know. As researchers delve deeper into “the way things work”, they often learn that what we thought we knew was actually wrong. Science is not static, and “what we know” is constantly being revised.
Well, for a long time “saturated fats” were taboo because the science at the time showed more saturated fat in the diet was associated with more fat on your body and heart disease. Butter became a bad word. Many people (and processed food companies) started replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats as a “healthier solution”.
Unfortunately, not all unsaturated fats are good for you and our Western diet is out of balance. Now, what we know is that consuming a ratio of fats that is too low in omega-3 fatty acid and too high in omega-6 fatty acids (corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, etc.) is actually associated with higher chronic disease risks and inflammation . This is yet another case of, “we need a little, but a lot is dangerous.”
It has been estimated that 90% of Americans are omega-3 deficient, and the typical American diet contains about a 16:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids [1,2]. A healthy ratio to aim for would be about 3:1 . For many of us, this would mean cutting out (or seriously reducing) consumption of corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and really all processed foods containing “hydrogenated” anything. It also means making sure you are getting enough omega-3s to keep the balance up.
What foods have Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are a little harder to find in the Western diet. They are found in the highest proportion in fatty, ocean-going fish, like mackerel, salmon, and herring, but can also be found in some non-animal products like flax seeds and walnuts. Obviously, these foods are not as commonly consumed as foods high in omega-6 oils. Hence the 16:1 ratio.
This is why taking an omega-3 supplement is such a great idea. It contributes to your essential fatty acid balance without requiring a significant change to your diet. A high-quality supplement like Metabolic Maintenance’s Mega OmegaTM Extra Strength contains 1000 mg of concentrated fish oil, providing 450 mg of EPA and 340 mg of DHA (and only 10 calories) per softgel.
Omega-3s and Balanced Hormones
Omega-3s are used in both the production and function of hormones. If they aren’t found in the diet, your body simply does not have the building blocks it needs to make and use hormones effectively.
Another common symptom associated with many types of hormone imbalance is inflammation. Omega-3s are known to support a healthy inflammatory response in the body.
The end of menstruation is associated with a major flux in the synthesis and signaling of many female reproductive hormones. These changes are often associated with many uncomfortable and frustrating symptoms, physically in the body and emotionally, related to mood. Omega-3 fatty acids can support a healthy balanced transition through menopause by promoting a more positive mood and physical comfort .
The thyroid is a gland in the neck that plays a major role in metabolism, mood, and so much more. Omega-3s can support those with healthy thyroid function, but maybe even more beneficial to those in whom the thyroid needs a boost [4,5].
Most hypothyroidism is caused by the autoimmune condition Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and inflammation is usually a contributing factor. Those who are omega-3 deficient are likely to experience higher levels of inflammation, which can trigger an autoimmune response and the release of more thyroid antibodies, creating a vicious cycle.
DHA and EPA, the two components of omega-3s from fish oil, target inflammation directly through metabolic byproducts called resolvins . Resolvins stop or reduce inflammation in multiple ways, including binding inflammatory cells through fatty acid receptors, helping to balance lipid and hormone concentrations related to inflammation, physically altering cell membranes, and participating in cell signaling pathways associated with immunity .
Supporting a healthy thyroid and healthy levels of T3 and T4 hormones is a boon to both your mood and metabolism.
The adrenal glands are responsible for the production and secretion of stress hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine (a.k.a adrenaline), and norepinephrine.
Multiple studies have shown that low omega-3 levels are associated with higher circulating levels of stress hormones, while higher intake of omega-3 is associated with lower circulating stress hormones [6-8]. Researchers have gone as far as to link a depressed mood, anger, and aggressive behavior with both high cortisol and low omega-3 levels, both of which can be mitigated with omega-3 supplementation [7,8].
Healthy Insulin Response
We mentioned earlier that the typical Western diet is much too high in omega-6 fats and much too low in omega-3s. This problematic diet is also associated with a higher risk for obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes .
Clinical studies have shown that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids promotes healthier blood sugar balance and healthier insulin levels in obese individuals . EPA and DHA have been shown to upregulate adiponectin, a hormone secreted by adipose tissue that improves whole-body insulin sensitivity . EPA also independently benefits the insulin sensitivity of the liver through a different mechanism .
The greatest takeaway we can provide from this summary of research is that the typical Western diet, while abundant in calories, is largely deficient in nutrition. And there are consequences to nutritional imbalance.
Two of these consequences are metabolic disease and chronic inflammation.
We are also learning more about how metabolic disease and chronic inflammation are likely the root of so many seemingly unrelated health problems in the eyes of Western medicine.
Eating a balanced diet, supplementing for nutrition where your diet falls short, and taking care of your physical and mental stress (where possible), are all ways in which you can combat these underlying health issues. And yes, these are ways to naturally support healthy hormone balance too.
- Simopoulos, Artemis P. “Genetic variants in the metabolism of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids: their role in the determination of nutritional requirements and chronic disease risk.” Experimental biology and medicine 235.7 (2010): 785-795.
- Papanikolaou, Yanni, et al. “US adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003–2008.” Nutrition journal 13.1 (2014): 1-6.
- Freeman, Marlene P., et al. “Omega-3 fatty acids for major depressive disorder associated with the menopausal transition: a preliminary open trial.” Menopause (New York, NY) 18.3 (2011): 279.
- Qazzaz, Mohannad E., et al. “Effects of omega-3 on thyroid function tests in healthy volunteers.” Systematic Reviews in Pharmacy 11.7 (2020): 10-14.
- Calder, Philip C. “Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes.” Nutrients 2.3 (2010): 355-374.
- Delarue, J. O. C. P., et al. “Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men.” Diabetes & metabolism 29.3 (2003): 289-295.
- Buydens-Branchey, Laure, and Marc Branchey. “Long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease feelings of anger in substance abusers.” Psychiatry research 157.1-3 (2008): 95-104.
- Itomura, Miho, et al. “The effect of fish oil on physical aggression in schoolchildren—a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 16.3 (2005): 163-171.
- Thesing, Carisha S., et al. “Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels and dysregulations in biological stress systems.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 97 (2018): 206-215.
- Juárez‐López, Carlos, et al. “Omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acids reduce insulin resistance and triglycerides in obese children and adolescents.” Pediatric diabetes 14.5 (2013): 377-383.
- Pahlavani, Mandana, et al. “Adipose tissue inflammation in insulin resistance: review of mechanisms mediating anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.” Journal of Investigative Medicine 65.7 (2017): 1021-1027.