It’s no secret that I am passionate about encouraging people to modify their nutrition to support their health. Food is where it all begins, and an area that we can control far more easily than other things that impact our health.
Around 20 million Americans and 250 million people worldwide have low thyroid function or hypothyroidism. Women are up to eight times more than men. One in 8 women will struggle with a thyroid problem in her lifetime. Up to 90% of all thyroid problems are autoimmune in nature, the most common of which is Hashimoto’s.
How much do you understand about your thyroid, and how the foods you choose impact its critical functions? If you answered “not enough,” then this article can help you understand your thyroid and how to naturally improve its function.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck, is the master gland of metabolism. Most people have heard that the thyroid plays a role in controlling body weight and metabolism. Unexplainable weight gain or weight loss is often blamed on a sluggish thyroid. But did you know that your thyroid is concerned with a LOT more than just your weight? The thyroid secretes hormones that control major functions including:
- How fast or slow the metabolism works (metabolism turns food into energy)
- The body’s sensitivity to hormones
- Growth and rate of function for many systems in the body
- Electrolyte transportation
- Cellular protein synthesis
- Cardiac and muscle activity
- Bone repair
- Turning beta-carotene into vitamin A
- Growth during childhood
- Mental processes
- Libido (for both men and women)
- Menstrual cycles
What Fuels the Thyroid
The thyroid is fueled by IODINE, a chemical element found in certain foods you eat.
Once digested, your thyroid pulls iodine from your bloodstream and uses it to make two kinds of thyroid hormones called triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). T3 is the more bioactive version of the hormone, while T4 is considered the less active, storage form. Surprisingly, the thyroid outputs roughly 20 times more T4 than T3.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) released from the pituitary gland helps regulate the hormonal output and balance of the thyroid, regulating how much of the primary T3 and T4 hormones are manufactured and released. Before all of that happens, the TSH release is first stimulated by the area of the brain that controls neuroendocrine and central nervous system function. The hypothalamus then sends out its own stimulatory hormone called thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH).
10 Signs of an Under-Active Thyroid
There are only two types of receptor sites that are found in every cell of the body, thyroid and vitamin D receptor sites. To put it simply, every cell of your body depends on the thyroid, and it impacts your health in many different ways. If your thyroid hormones don’t function healthily, neither will the rest of your body.
Under-active thyroid or hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland is unable to produce enough thyroid hormone. This affects the bodily functions, mainly metabolism, growth, mood and the way your body uses energy and results in various undesirable symptoms such as:
- Fatigue after sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night or needing to take a nap daily.
- Weight gain or the inability to lose weight.
- Mood issues such as mood swings, irritability, anxiety or depression.
- Hormone imbalances such as PMS, irregular periods, infertility and low sex drive.
- Muscle pain, joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, or tendonitis.
- Cold hands and feet, feeling cold when others are not, or having a body temperature consistently below 98.5.
- Dry or cracking skin, brittle nails and excessive hair loss.
- Mind issues such as brain fog, poor concentration or poor memory.
- Neck swelling, snoring or hoarse voice.
The Gluten-Thyroid Storm
Mainstream medicine views the thyroid as the main culprit when thyroid hormones are off, resorting to artificially manipulating hormone levels through medication and, in worst case scenarios, choosing to literally eradicate the thyroid through invasive, irreversible procedures.
But is the thyroid the culprit or just a case of mistaken identity?
Since the majority of low-thyroid problems are somewhere on the autoimmune spectrum, we have to look at what triggers the immune system to attack the thyroid.
Surprisingly, or not, recent research points to gluten as one of the main culprits of hypothyroidism.
Gluten sensitivity can affect processes in the body beyond the digestive tract, wreaking havoc on your skin, joints, bones, mouth, endocrine system and more. When gluten, the protein found in wheat and other grains, passes through the gut lining and into your blood stream, your immune system will tag the foreign invader (gluten) with antibodies for destruction. The problem is that your immune system can mistake the thyroid for gluten, causing it to come under attack.
Here’s a checklist of some of the surprising symptoms and signs that have been linked to gluten sensitivity (please work with a qualified health professional to get tested).
- Autoimmune Diseases – Gluten consumption has been linked to numerous autoimmune diseases including Celiac Disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Graves’ Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Vitiligo, Sjogren’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Dermatitis Herpetiformis, and Type 1 Diabetes. Sarah Ballantyne PhD, author of The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body, says, “Every single autoimmune disease in which gluten as a contributor has been investigated has shown that gluten sensitivity is a contributor to that disease.”
- Depression and Anxiety – Research now confirms that Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are linked to depression, anxiety and mood disorders. Once gluten is removed from the diet in the gluten sensitive, depression and anxiety can actually be resolved.
- ADHD – Dr. Ron Hoggan, Ed.D, co-author of the best selling book, “Cereal Killers,” wrote an article on Celiac.com citing several studies linking ADHD and gluten together. He states, “The concept of drugging a child to facilitate learning is upsetting to me, especially when there is cause to suspect that, on the gluten free diet, she may improve without intervention.”
- Extreme Fatigue – Research shows that gluten-intolerant individuals are very prone to fatigue and tiredness, especially after eating foods that contain gluten. Studies have also shown that 60–82% of gluten-intolerant individuals commonly experience tiredness and fatigue
- Brain Fog – While it can be difficult to quantify gluten induced “brain fog”, researchers in a 2002 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that there may be significant cross reactivity of IgG antibodies to gluten and other different antibodies that could result in mental fogginess. These antibodies can also cause inflammation which can further exacerbate the condition.
- Migraine Headaches – In a study that measured migraine headaches in gluten sensitive individuals, chronic headaches were reported in 56% percent of those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, 30 percent of those with Celiac disease, and 23 percent of those with inflammatory bowel disease. Only 14 percent of those in a control group reported headaches. Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, states that a 100% gluten-free diet can relieve many cases of chronic migraines.
- Neuropathy – Another surprising symptom of gluten intolerance is neuropathy, which involves numbness or tingling in the arms and legs. While the exact cause is not known, several studies have linked this symptom to the presence of certain antibodies related to gluten intolerance.
- Skin Problems – From eczema and acne to psoriasis and dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), gluten can cause some extremely uncomfortable skin issues. The Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) states that, “If you have DH, you always have gluten intolerance.”
- Joint and Muscle Aches – Gluten’s damaging inflammation in susceptible individuals can cause flares and pain. WebMD states that, “Joint pain and inflammation are (also) common symptoms of gluten sensitivity. And research does show links between the two diseases.” The Arthritis Foundation has also published information regarding the link between gluten sensitivity, joint pain, and arthritis conditions.
- Dental Issues – A 2009 study published in the journal BMC Gastroenterology found a positive link between gluten sensitivity and recurrent mouth ulcers.
On a side note: Be careful if you decide to go “gluten-free”. Unfortunately, “gluten-free” has become a big fad. And as with most fads there’s typically a downside, or three. For example, many, if not most, gluten-free food substitutes are actually worse and more thyroid-suppressive than the original gluten containing food. However, that’s a topic for another day…
How to Proactively Take Care of Your Precious Thyroid
First thing first, right? Start with your diet. It’s easy, less expensive and way less invasive than the other options. So, let’s go over a few dietary changes, starting with nutrients to support your thyroid:
Boost Thyroid Nutrients
The thyroid gland needs specific vitamins and minerals to properly do its job. Since we are all unique in how our hormones are functioning, the best way to get a handle on what our body specifically needs is to have a full thyroid panel done to help pinpoint where individual levels may be off balance.
The following list offers whole food sources containing the necessary vitamins and minerals needed to help your thyroid stay healthy and function properly:
- Primary sources:
- Sea vegetables: Kelp, nori, kombu, dulse, arame, wakame, hijiki.
- Seafood: Haddock, clams, salmon, shrimp, oysters, sardines.
- Iodized sea salt.
- Secondary sources:
- Eggs, spinach, garlic, asparagus, Swiss chard, mushrooms, summer squash, sesame seeds.
- Brazil nuts, tuna, mushrooms, beef, sunflower seeds, organ meats, halibut.
- Beef, turkey, lamb, fresh oysters, sardines, soybeans, walnuts, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, pecans, almonds, split peas, ginger root, maple syrup.
- Crabmeat, oysters, lobster, beef, nuts, sunflower seeds, shiitake mushrooms, tomato paste, dark chocolate.
- Organ meats, oysters, clams, spinach, lentils, pumpkin seeds, blackstrap molasses.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Egg yolks, organ meats, wild rice, Brewer’s yeast, mushrooms, almonds.
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Poultry (white meat), liver, Brewer’s yeast.
Vitamin B6 (pyroxidine)
- Fish (tuna, trout, salmon), liver, bananas, sunflower seeds, walnuts, Brewer’s yeast.
Vitamin A (beta-carotene)
- Broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, kale, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, liver, winter squash/pumpkin, cantaloupe.
- Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, greens (mustard, collard, kale, turnip), parsley, peppers (chili, Bell, sweet), strawberries, guava, papaya, citrus, kiwifruit.
- Almonds, sunflower seeds, asparagus, leafy green vegetables, liver.
There are many herbs that can support thyroid function, such as sage, ashwaganda, bacopa monnieri, and coleus forskohlii. Combined with iodine and selenium, these herbs can help boost energy and support healthy metabolism.
A functional health practitioner can help with the formula based on individual need.
Avoid “Prime Suspects”
There is a distinct connection between gluten intolerance, celiac disease, and autoimmune thyroid issues. This is the one food I strongly recommend to avoid if you have a thyroid condition.
- Eliminate intake of grains containing gluten including wheat (and wheat varieties like spelt, kamut, farro and durum, plus products like bulgar and semolina), barley, rye, triticale, oats, bran, germ.
- If weight or blood sugar are an issue, limit/eliminate intake of gluten-free grains and pseudo-cereals – amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, corn, millet, rice, sorghum, teff.
- If weight or blood sugar are not an issue, you may occasionally consume gluten-free oats, long-grain white rice, wild rice, or quinoa.
There are some studies showing that the isoflavones in soybeans can inhibit the enzyme which adds iodine to the thyroid hormone known as thyroid peroxidase (TPO). These studies indicate that soy isoflavone might bond with the iodine we do have, diminishing the reserve for thyroid production.
Brassica Family of Vegetables
This group of vegetables includes brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage, which studies show can reduce the thyroid hormone in a similar way to soy. An enlarged thyroid, called a goiter, is linked to iodine deficiency. The compounds categorized as goitrogens can be found in small amounts in many other foods as well, including spinach, peanuts, and strawberries. It’s ok to eat them, but by pairing them with iodine-rich foods, we can counteract the metabolization reducing iodine. Cooking or steaming these vegetables can help break down the goitrogenic compounds.
Take Home Message
If you have just been diagnosed with a hypothyroid (or Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism), do not despair and rush to “treat” your thyroid. Your thyroid might be the victim and not the culprit. Seek professional guidance to improve your nutrition and lifestyle choices, take a deep breath, and give your thyroid a chance to bounce back. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.