January is Thyroid Awareness Month, a time when our attention is drawn to the delicate butterfly-shaped gland on the front of our necks that is one of the key regulators of our body’s metabolism. The thyroid gland releases hormones that travel throughout the body and influence everything from weight loss to hair growth, digestion to heart rate, mood to body temperature. Many things can throw this small gland out of balance, causing it to release too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) or too much hormone (hyperthyroidism). Hypothyroidism, particularly autoimmune Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, is the most common disorder affecting the thyroid in the US. Symptoms of an under-functioning thyroid gland include dry skin, weight gain, constipation, fatigue, irregular menses, and hair loss. With hypothyroidism being up to eight times more common in women than men, it is important to know how to keep your thyroid healthy and happy. If you are struggling with an under-functioning thyroid, here are seven tips for living a “thyro-supportive” lifestyle:
1. Steer clear of raw broccoli.
Broccoli is part of the brassica family, which also includes cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale. These foods are considered ‘goitrogens,’ which means when eaten raw they block the body’s absorption of iodine, one of the key nutrients for the thyroid gland. Other goitrogenic foods include peanuts, soybeans, and cassava. When eaten in excessive amounts, goitrogens can suppress an already slow thyroid gland. Cooking brassica foods reduces their goitrogenic effect, making them safe for hypothyroid conditions, so be sure to trade in your raw veggie platter for a bowl of steamed greens to optimize a sluggish thyroid.
2. Eat your iodine…but not too much.
Speaking of iodine, both iodine deficiency and excess iodine can cause hypothyroidism. Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of hypothyroidism worldwide, but this is relatively uncommon in the US due to the prevalence of iodine in our diets. Common sources of iodine in a typical diet include iodized salt, seafood, dairy, and vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil. The average adult requires about 150 mcg per day of dietary iodine, which can be found in less than 1/4 teaspoon of arame seaweed, 2 cups of yogurt, or in about 1.5 ounces of ocean fish.
While iodine is an essential component of thyroid hormone, too much iodine can actually exacerbate thyroid destruction in patients with Hashimoto’s. Talk to your doctor before taking any iodine supplements, and be aware that high levels of iodine can be found in certain cough medications, kelp tablets, topical Betadine, and drugs such as Amiodarone.
3. Reduce your exposure to chemical iodine displacers. Don’t do the Dew!
Iodine is a halogen, along with fluorine, chlorine, and bromine. These other halogens can disrupt iodine metabolism in the body, and can interfere with healthy thyroid function. Fluorine can be found in tap water, toothpaste, and SSRI antidepressants. Chlorine is found in things like Splenda, tap water, and cleaning supplies. Bromine is found in pesticides, preservatives, and even Mountain Dew and certain types of Gatorade. Limiting your exposure to these chemicals by eating organic foods, filtering tap water, and using natural cleaning products gives your thyroid a better chance to function optimally.
4. Learn to love brazil nuts (but again…not too much).
Iodine isn’t the only nutrient necessary for proper thyroid function. Selenium is a trace mineral necessary for the conversion of the less active thyroid hormone, T4, to the more metabolically-active T3. Selenium deficiency has also been shown to exacerbate autoimmune thyroid disorders. Selenium-rich foods include crimini mushrooms, garlic, onions, eggs, shellfish, wheat germ, and Brazil nuts. The recommended daily allowance of selenium for the average adult is only 55 mcg per day, and Brazil nuts (which have the highest concentration of selenium of any food) have an estimated 50 mcg per nut, so don’t go crazy with the Brazil nuts just yet. In some patients, increased daily dosages of selenium can improve symptoms of hypothyroidism, so ask your doctor if taking a selenium pill (or adding a few Brazil nuts to your diet) may be right for you.
5. Manage your stress, support your adrenals.
Ideal thyroid function relies on a complex interplay between many hormones in the body, including cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is released from the adrenals in times of stress, and has an inhibitory effect on the release of TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) from the brain. Cortisol also inhibits the conversion of T4 to T3, increasing the conversion of T4 into the metabolically inactive form of thyroid hormone known as ‘Reverse T3’. Stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and other daily relaxation exercises can play a vitally important role in decreasing cortisol levels, thus allowing the thyroid to flourish. Adrenal-balancing herbs such as ashwagandha may also be beneficial.
6. Avoid gluten.
Gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains, can cause a negative reaction in sensitive patients, ranging from minor digestive upset to more severe reactions in patients with celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity is significantly increased in patients with autoimmune thyroid diseases. When sensitive patients eat gluten, their body produces antibodies against the protein, which then stimulate the immune system and lead to further destruction of the thyroid gland. If you have hypothyroidism, especially if you have Hashimoto’s disease, consider a trial gluten-free diet to see if symptoms improve.
7. Don’t forget to move!
Regular moderate exercise is one of the best things we can do to improve the health of nearly every organ system in the body, and the thyroid is no exception. Exercise actually causes an increase in conversion of T4 to T3, so there is more metabolically-active thyroid hormone circulating in our bodies following exercise.
Maintaining a healthy thyroid gland will help you feel and look good as you age. Don’t forget to take care of the small butterfly-shaped gland on the front of your neck by giving it the support it needs to continue to support you!
Niki Rarig, NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program and School of Classical Chinese Medicine. Edited by Dr Elise Schroeder
- Drum R. Environmental Origins of Thyroid Disease. Ryan Drum; May 3, 2012. Available at: http://www.ryandrum.com/thyroidpart1.htm. Accessed November 26, 2013.
- Evert A. Iodine in Diet. MedlinePlus; October 31, 2013. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002421.htm. Accessed November 26, 2013.
- Evert A. Selenium in Diet. MedlinePlus; October 31, 2013. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002414.htm. Accessed November 26, 2013.
- Ross DS. Disorders that cause hypothyroidism. In: UpToDate. Cooper DS and Mulder JE, eds. UpToDate; 2013. Available at: www.uptodate.com. Accessed November 25, 2013.
- Windstar K. Thyroid Disease and Male/Female Reproduction. Advanced Gynecology. Class Lecture. National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, OR. February, 2012.