Thyroid Health and Nutrition: The Bare Facts
Thyroid health depends on a number of factors, the most important of which is your thyroid gland’s ability to produce the quantities of thyroid hormones needed for energy production and your metabolic function. Any dysregulation of these hormones has far-reaching, negative consequences that affect the entire body.
The thyroid gland is situated in the neck. This small, butterfly-shaped gland is often referred to as the body’s “master metabolic gland.” It is very dependent on the correct nutrients in order to function correctly. Often, diet is overlooked when therapy is determined for a dysfunctional thyroid gland. The diet followed by most Americans, unfortunately, leaves much to be desired in providing these essential nutrients for optimal thyroid health.
Lack of essential nutrients over time, as well as other lifestyle and health factors, may contribute to a condition known as hypothyroidism. This condition is also commonly referred to as “having an underactive thyroid.” Symptoms of hypothyroidism include depression, constant fatigue, weight gain for no apparent reason, hair loss, and cold hands and feet, amongst others.
Statistics show that approximately 90% of people with this condition have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a condition that is the result of a compromised immune system. Hashimoto’s is associated with an increase in inflammation of your entire system.
The Role of Nutrients in Thyroid Health
The two raw materials essential for the production of the thyroid hormones are iodine and tyrosine, an amino acid. Tyrosine is present in most animal protein, while iodine is mainly found in iodized salt and seafood (including different sea vegetables).
A biochemical reaction within the thyroid converts prohormone T4 into T3. To do so, the thyroid needs sufficient vitamins and minerals such as iodine, selenium, magnesium, zinc, thiamin, tyrosine, and vitamin A, B12, C, D, and E. Selenium, in particular, helps lower thyroid peroxidase antibodies that may cause thyroid inflammation.
Because the thyroid gland is sensitive to toxins, foods that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants may help the body with its detoxification process. These toxins, such as pesticides and heavy metals, have a negative effect on thyroid function, as does anything that may disrupt the endocrine system.
Certain foods, such as green tea, turmeric, ginger, sweet potatoes, and berries, as well as cruciferous vegetables, may help calm inflammation from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Although cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli or cabbage, may contain compounds that inhibit the thyroid gland’s iodine uptake, studies indicate that these vegetables do not increase your risk of hypothyroidism unless you already have an iodine deficiency. At present, the populations in many countries are considered iodine deficient, and the USA is one of them. Because of cruciferous vegetables’ many benefits for thyroid health and otherwise, leaving them out of your diet is not advised. Cooking them, interestingly enough, deactivates the compounds that negatively impact iodine uptake.
The Connection Between Thyroid Health and Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) is commonly overlooked as a factor when it comes to compromised thyroid health. Yet many of the symptoms associated with AFS are similar to those experienced with low thyroid function. Common symptoms associated with both hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue include:
- Lowered libido
- Dry skin
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
- Feelings of weakness
- Memory loss
- Problems with menstrual cycles in women
How do the adrenals affect thyroid function?
In order to understand the adrenal-thyroid connection, once first needs to understand what is meant by adrenal fatigue. Simply put, adrenal fatigue is the result of ongoing stress in the body. This stress could be the result of psychological, environmental, or physical factors. Once the hypothalamus (in the brain) perceives stress, it sends chemical messengers to the pituitary gland, which in turn sends its own, indicating to the adrenals that more cortisol is needed in order to either ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ the situation.
These three glands working in tandem are commonly referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. They form part of the body’s endocrine system and are primarily responsible for the body’s automatic response to stress, which is called the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response.
Your body’s NEM stress response, once in action, causes a cascading effect, as certain functions in the body are put on hold or reduced so that your body can deal with the stress encountered at that particular time. Some of these functions affected include those carried out by the gastrointestinal tract and reproductive organs, for example. Once the stressful situation is a thing of the past, cortisol (and other hormone) production in the adrenals returns to normal, and the body is once more in a state of balance.
It is when the stress experienced continues that problems arise. The long-term increased production of cortisol may have a number of debilitating effects, some of which are mentioned previously. As certain functions are down-regulated, the body attempts to conserve energy when its survival is perceived to be in jeopardy.
This affects your thyroid health because prolonged periods of stress may result in a lowered production of thyroid hormones T4 and T3. Down-regulation of thyroid function also causes an increase in thyroid binding globulin (TBG) levels. An increase in TBG binds more thyroid hormones and less are released into your body. Your serum thyroid level may be normal, but the free level may be low.
At the same time during this down-regulation process, some of your T4 is shunted to produce inactive reverse T3 (rT3). The rT3 opposes the function of T3 and acts as a braking mechanism. This braking mechanism is designed to further slow thyroid function in order to conserve energy in times of stress. Additionally, rT3 may actively inhibit T4 to T3 conversion and encourage further inactive rT3 production. With less T4 and T3, the body’s metabolism slows, resulting in fatigue, dry skin, weight gain, etc.
Thus, AFS may have a debilitating effect on thyroid health, because when under chronic stress your body actively downregulates your thyroid function by compromising its thyroid hormone production. The consequences of this down-regulation lead to your thyroid not working at its optimum level and symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Eating For Adrenal and Thyroid Health
Because there may be such a close connection between adrenal health and thyroid health, addressing the cause of your symptoms may be the better option. In other words, looking after your adrenal health implies looking after thyroid health as well.
Adrenal health and your diet
A diet that supports thyroid and adrenal health consists of up to 40% vegetables. Frozen vegetables are entirely acceptable, and in many cases, healthier than ‘fresh’ vegetables as they are frozen directly after harvesting and not sitting on a shelf until they are bought. Vegetables should ideally be eaten raw or lightly steamed, as the cooking process gets rid of many vitamins and minerals.
Your body also needs healthy fats in order to absorb fat-soluble nutrients. Good choices here are coconut oil or olive oil.
A healthy diet should contain up to 30% lean protein, while nuts, seeds, legumes, and fruits make up the rest.
When you have a thyroid problem and adrenal fatigue, eating correctly most certainly makes a huge positive impact. Unfortunately, certain foods that we have been lead to believe are healthy, such as certain fruits high in potassium, may not be healthy when consumed by people who have adrenal fatigue or where this condition plays a role in a thyroid health. If struggling with thyroid health or adrenal fatigue, leaving them out of your diet or at least limiting their consumption might be the best course of action.
Foods high in iodine, like seaweeds, are also good options, as they help to provide important building blocks for the hormones your body needs. Some supplements can help as well.
Foods to avoid
A number foods have a detrimental effect on the adrenals (and by implication, the thyroid).
- Sweeteners like sugar and honey as they may cause your blood sugar levels to crash.
- Deep fried foods using hydrogenated oil – trans fats are unhealthy and cause a lot of stress on your body.
- Refined carbohydrates, including white rice, pasta, and white flour products – these contain high concentrations of refined carbohydrates sugars.
- Products contain caffeine (including coffee) – caffeine stimulates the body, making it work harder, possibly leading to an adrenal crash.
- Fruit juices (especially in the mornings) – the high fructose concentrations in fruit juices may cause a spike and crash of blood sugar levels, putting a strain on the body.
- Fruit high in potassium – amongst these are included bananas, oranges, grapefruit, and dried fruit like dates, figs, and raisins. They may promote a sodium-potassium imbalance that worsens adrenal fatigue.
- Alcohol – the body sees alcohol as a toxin and may strive to get rid of it, thereby exacerbating stress and thus adrenal fatigue
Support Thyroid Health With This Simple Recipe
Dark green vegetables such as Swiss chard are a rich source of vitamins and minerals needed for thyroid health. Try it out to help support your thyroid hormone production.
Swiss Chard Garlic with a Sesame Seed Topping
This recipe serves up to three people.
- 1 bunch Swiss chard
- 2 tsp fresh garlic, minced
- 2 tsp coconut oil (or clarified butter if preferred)
- 2 tsp brown rice vinegar
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- Sesame Seed Topping (see recipe below)
Separate the chard leaf and stem. Slice the stems thinly. Cut the leaves in half and stack on top of each other. Roll them up tightly and slice. Each slice should be roughly an inch thick. Heat your oil in a saucepan over medium heat and saute the stems and garlic for about two minutes. Add the chopped leaves, and saute for about four minutes or until the leaves are wilted. Take your saucepan off the heat and season with the brown rice vinegar and soy sauce. Sprinkle with about two tablespoons of the sesame seed topping.
Sesame Seed Topping
This recipe makes about one cup of topping. It can be used to substitute table salt and is great for thyroid health as it contains iron, zinc, selenium, and iodine. It is great on greens and vegetables.
- 1 cup sesame seeds
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp dried garlic powder
- 3 Tsp kelp granules
Toast the seeds over medium heat for about three minutes. Set it aside to cool off. Combine the salt, dried garlic powder, and kelp granules. Add the sesame seeds and combine the mixture well.
This mixture can be stored in an airtight container for up to six months. Not only is it a great accompaniment to most meals, but great for thyroid health as well.
Ensure Ongoing Thyroid Health
The small, butterfly-shaped thyroid gland may not seem an important part of your body as a whole. Most of us do not pay it any heed. However, when it becomes compromised, we are presented with a list of symptoms that may eventually become debilitating. In order to ensure this does not happen, the saying “prevention is better than cure” most certainly applies. To take care of your thyroid health, core issues need to be addressed, such as lifestyle and diet. By eating a diet that supports adrenal health, you are better able to support the health of your body overall. Thyroid issues can be discouraging and hard to identify, but by taking steps to support the nourishment of your body as a whole, you can improve your thyroid health too.
© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
Is thyroid health dependent on adrenal function?
There are many factors that may impact thyroid health. Adrenal fatigue, however, may be a large contributing factor when it comes to hypothyroidism.