Coconut Oil: Can It Help Normalize Thyroid Function?
By Marcel J. Hernandez, N.D.
Before I talk about the thyroid, let's take a look at some misconceptions. As I have mentioned in previous columns, the natural health marketplace is riddled with misinformation, unproven claims and snake-oil hype. Here's a scenario of mistaken information I see all the time: I tell one of my patients about the nutritional and therapeutic properties of coconut oil and then somebody (usually a another health professional) tells them that it will raise their cholesterol and lead to heart disease, so they stop taking it. A number of excellent studies done on traditional tropical populations that consume large amounts of coconut oil show just the opposite to be true.
In one of the studies published in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," the populations of two South Pacific islands were examined over a period of time starting in the 1960s, before western foods were prevalent in the diets of either culture. The study was designed to investigate the relative effects of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol in determining serum cholesterol levels. Coconuts played an essential role in the diets of the islanders, with up to 60% of their caloric intake coming from the saturated fat of coconut oil. The study found very healthy people who were relatively free from the modern diseases of western cultures, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The researchers' conclusion: "Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations."
Another study performed in India in 1988 showed an "alarming" increase in the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease in Indians who replaced traditional cooking fats, like coconut oil, with refined vegetable oils promoted as 'heart-friendly' because of their polyunsaturated fatty acid content.
Dr. Mary Enig, one of the leading coconut oil researchers, explains that the misconceptions about coconut oil started in the 1940's when researchers fed animals hydrogenated coconut oil that was purposely altered to make it completely devoid of any essential fatty acids. The animals who were fed the hydrogenated coconut oil as their sole fat source naturally became deficient in essential fatty acids and their serum cholesterol increased. Dr. Enig added, "diets that cause an essential fatty acid deficiency always produce an increase in serum cholesterol levels as well as in increase in the atherosclerotic indices. The same effect has also been seen when other highly hydrogenated oils such as cottonseed, soybean or corn oils have been fed; so it is clearly a function of the hydrogenated products, either because the oil is essential fatty acid (EFA) deficient or because of trans fatty acids." Interestingly, animals who were fed unprocessed coconut oil had up to six times less cholesterol deposited in their livers and other parts of their bodies than the other animals in the study.
Your thyroid gland manufactures hormones that regulate metabolism -- the rate at which your body carries on its necessary functions. It is located in the middle of the lower neck, below the Adam's apple and just above your collarbones. It is shaped like a "bow tie," having two halves -- a right lobe and a left lobe joined by an "isthmus."
Many Westerners suffer from the symptoms of hypothyroidism. This means they have a thyroid gland that releases less thyroid hormone than is required by the body for normal function. These symptoms include cold hands and feet, low body temperature, sensitivity to cold, a feeling of always being chilled, headaches, insomnia, dry skin, puffy eyes, hair loss, brittle nails, joint aches, constipation, mental dullness, fatigue, frequent infections, hoarse voice, ringing in the ears, dizziness, loss of libido and uncontrollable weight gain. Recent studies tell us that as many as 65 percent of Americans are overweight and 30 percent of them are clinically obese. Other studies tell us that at least 10 percent of overweight people have an undiagnosed problem with thyroid function. Reading blood tests for thyroid function is tricky and complicated, so many people with clinical hypothyroidism are often misdiagnosed.
What is Causing the Hypothyroidism Epidemic?
Although genetics may be a factor in hypothyroidism, diet plays a pivotal role in thyroid health. For decades we have known that low iodine intake leads to low thyroid function and eventually to goiter (thyroid enlargement). Using iodized salt is not the answer. Foods known as "goitrogens" block iodine absorption. Two major goitrogens are prevalent in the American diet-peanuts and soybeans in their various forms.
The rapid rise of industrialization, corporate farming and mass production of food has drastically changed our food supply from our ancestral diet. We are still discovering how artificial flavors, colors and preservatives affect our thyroid function.
Then there are sugar and other refined carbohydrates. Although numerous studies show the profound detrimental effects of refined sugars and grains on our health, they are consumed in massive quantities. In 1998, the per-person average white sugar consumption in the United States was and unbelievable168 pounds a year! Folks like me eat hardly any sugar, so someone is eating my share of that as well as their own. Refined carbos play a major part in suppressing thyroid function.
Environmental stress such as chemical pollutants, pesticides, mercury, and fluoride are also tough on the thyroid. A growing body of evidence suggests that fluoride, which is used in almost all toothpastes and in water treatment, may inhibit the functioning of the thyroid gland. Additionally, mercury diminishes thyroid function because it displaces the trace mineral selenium. Selenium is one of the factors involved in conversion of thyroid hormones to make them usable to the body.
Some researchers also count expeller-pressed or solvent-extracted oils among the worst offenders when it comes to thyroid function. These oils only became a major part of the American diet in the last century. Unsaturated oils block thyroid hormone secretion, its movement in the circulatory system, and the response of tissues to thyroid hormones.
Coconut Oil Supports Thyroid Function
There is good news for people who suffer from low thyroid function. Coconut oil is a saturated fat made up primarily of medium chain fatty acids. Also known as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), medium chain fatty acids are known to promote weight loss. Coconut oil also raises body temperatures by increasing metabolism. Because coconut oil is saturated and very stable (unrefined coconut oil has a shelf life of about three to five years at room temperature), the body is not burdened with the stress of trying to process rancid (oxidated) vegetable oils. The medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil also help in rebuilding cell membranes and increasing the enzyme production that assists in promoting the conversion of thyroid hormones for use by the body (T4 to T3).
Next month, I will continue to discuss the health-promoting benefits of coconut oil, which kind to get (very important!), and where to get it.
Dr. Hernandez is happy to answer your health-related questions and to address issues that may be relevant to Big Island residents and visitors in this column.
He may be contacted at Hawaiind@BigIsland.net or at 808-775-1505, or at Pacific Naturopathic, 650-857-0226