What is the Thyroid and What Does It Do?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland located between your Adam’s apple and collarbone, and is responsible for producing hormones, including triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones are especially important as they help deliver oxygen to your cells and regulate your body’s metabolism—AKA how your body uses energy. However, when something causes your thyroid hormone levels to fluctuate, making them either too low or too high, you’ll notice changes in your energy levels, weight, temperature, digestion, heart rate, and even in your reproductive health, like irregular menstrual periods or fertility issues.
Types of Thyroid Disease
There are four main thyroid conditions, and thyroid disease as a whole is relatively common, affecting approximately 20 million people in the United States alone. Women are also more susceptible to thyroid problems as they are about five to eight times more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid condition than men. These diseases are hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), an enlarged thyroid or goiter, and thyroid cancer. One of the most common causes of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition that causes immune cells to attack the thyroid.
Hyperthyroidism is less common, affecting approximately 1 in every 100 people over age 12. Common causes include Graves’ disease, another autoimmune condition and a form of thyroiditis; postpartum thyroiditis, excess iodine from diet and/or medication, or a benign tumor in your pituitary gland. Symptoms include: hyperactivity, nervousness and irritability, sensitivity to heat, and frequent urination.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll explore Hashimoto’s/hypothyroidism, as an underactive thyroid is the most common thyroid condition.
Symptoms of Low Thyroid Function
Approximately five out of every 100 Americans over the age of 12 have some form of hypothyroidism. Symptoms of an underactive thyroid can include:
· Extreme fatigue
· Feeling cold, especially in the hands and feet
· Weight gain
· Anxiety and depression
· Muscle and joint pain
· Brain fog and difficulty concentrating
· Dry skin
· Low sex drive
Healing Your Thyroid Through Diet
One of the most effective ways to treat hypothyroidism is through a healthy diet with a focus on upping your intake of certain nutrients.
· Focus on iodine. Iodine is an important mineral in the production of thyroid hormone and many of us aren’t getting enough. To up your iodine intake, use iodized salt as a seasoning. Also focus on getting more seafood into your diet, as well as seaweed like kelp, nori, and wakame. Seaweed is an excellent natural source of iodine and fish, like salmon, cod, and sea bass, are all rich in selenium and omega-3s. However, too much iodine can lead to an overactive thyroid, so it’s important to get your iodine levels tested first.
· Up your omega-3 fatty acid intake. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and shellfish, can also be found in chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Omega-3s have a potent anti-inflammatory effect, which is key in managing autoimmune conditions.
· Eat selenium-rich foods. Like iodine, selenium is an important mineral for thyroid hormone production. Grassfed beef, turkey, Brazil nuts, eggs, legumes, sardines, and tuna are all great sources of selenium.
· Get enough zinc. Inadequate zinc intake can impact thyroid function, so it’s important you get enough in your diet. Foods like oysters (and other shellfish), eggs, hemp seeds, beans and legumes, poultry, and meat are all excellent sources of zinc.
· Stay hydrated. By routinely drinking water throughout the day and preventing dehydration, you’re allowing your immune system to function as optimally as possible.
In addition to foods you should eat more of, there are also things you should drastically limit or avoid altogether if you want to bolster your thyroid health. These include:
· Goitrogens found in soy and raw cruciferous vegetables. Goitrogens are naturally occurring chemicals in plant-based foods that inhibit healthy thyroid function by preventing your body from using iodine as well as preventing your thyroid from releasing its hormones. Well-cooked cruciferous vegetables are significantly lower in goitrogens than their raw counterparts, though it is important to practice moderation with them.
· Added sugar
· Simple carbohydrates and other processed foods
· Caffeine, particularly for those taking thyroid medication
· Dairy and gluten, though it may affect some and not others. Dairy is a good source of iodine, so if you can tolerate it, it’s worth enjoying in moderation.
· Artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors
Lifestyle factors, such as smoking and using heavy-duty chemical cleaning products, can negatively impact thyroid function as well. Healthcare professionals also advise caution about radiation and too much fluoride intake. Switch cleaning and personal care products to cleaner, natural options and discuss fluoride use with your dentist.
How Stress Impacts Thyroid Function
In addition to the diet and lifestyle factors discussed above, stress can also have a negative impact on thyroid function. There is evidence that mental, emotional, and even physical stress can cause your immune system to attack your thyroid, especially if you’re predisposed to hypothyroidism, diabetes, or other rheumatic or autoimmune disease. If you find that you’re chronically stressed, it’s important to take the necessary steps to lower its impact on your health. Consider taking up a yoga or mediation practice, or try one of these other stress-busting tips.
Supplements for Thyroid Health
Although changes to your diet and lifestyle should take priority, certain vitamin and mineral supplements may boost thyroid health as well. Deficiencies in vitamin D, B12, magnesium, and iron are all common in people with hypothyroidism and supplementation can help restore healthy levels, thereby improving thyroid function. There are other, very specific supplements that may be helpful if and when thyroid medication is not prescribed. If you are concerned about your thyroid health or have been diagnosed with a thyroid condition and want help treating it naturally, please contact me. Diet and lifestyle changes—along with the right high-quality supplements—can provide a lasting and effective alternative solution to hormone replacement therapy.