Eating for thyroid health
It’s no surprise that internet searches for ‘thyroid health’ are on the increase. The toll of everything in 2020 is leaving a lot of us tired and sluggish. And since thyroid function connects directly to energy levels, it’s a very sensible thing to investigate.
Understandably we wonder, is this tiredness ‘just stress’ or is there a more serious underlying condition going on?
So how do we both support thyroid health, and find out if our thyroid is working properly? And what exactly does a thyroid do anyway?
What is the thyroid?
Let’s start with what a thyroid does. It’s a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck, directed by the pituitary gland which tells it, using the hormone TSH, to produce thyroid hormones. These hormones are mostly T4 (the basic form) and about 10% T3 (the active form).
In a healthy person, their basic T4 hormones are converted into active T3 within key tissues such as the brain and the liver. It’s this active T3 that operates like a metronome for the whole body, determining the speed at which it operates.
For example, if you are ‘hypothyroid’, producing low levels of T4 and T3, you might experience lower energy levels, slower metabolism, or low mood (among various symptoms). Or, if you are ‘hyperthyroid’, with excessive levels, you might experience heart palpitations, anxiety, or unintentional weight loss (among various symptoms).
Typically, when things go wrong with the thyroid, it’s caused either by an autoimmune problem, or a conversion problem. Thyroid autoimmunity is when the body mistakenly attacks its own thyroid, and this can produce both hypo- and hyperthyroidism. Conversion problems are when basic T4 is not well converted to the active T3, leaving the person feeling hypothyroid.
I am delighted to say that it is absolutely possible to tailor your nutrition and lifestyle habits to support your thyroid health.
Some of the key ways we can support our thyroid gland are therefore to do with supporting healthy immunity, and an effective conversion from T4 to T3.
Nutrition and thyroid health
In terms of immunity, it’s a good idea to eat an anti-inflammatory diet, which means keeping all added sugars/syrups and high-carbohydrate foods like white pasta very low, and eating healthy amounts of protein at each meal to ensure blood sugar remains stable (the WHO recommends 50g protein per day).
It’s also worth including a variety of green and other vegetables, ideally at least four different portions at two main meals, both for their antioxidant properties and for their ‘prebiotic’ ability to support a diverse and healthy microbiome. And since selenium is a crucial mineral for the conversion of T4 to T3, eating a couple of selenium-rich organic Brazil nuts per day may prove a game-changer for some.
But – and here is a big ‘but’ – for people who are already experiencing thyroid difficulties, things can get a little more complicated. For example, gluten poses a significant challenge to the huge majority of hyper- and hypothyroid people who also have autoimmunity, because it’s been shown to exacerbate autoimmune responses. Even non-coeliac people may find that removing gluten reduces thyroid symptoms.
On top of that, in susceptible people, ‘lectin’ proteins in other foods can trigger autoimmunity as well, such as soy, corn, dairy, kidney beans and peanuts. (And, maddeningly, even Brazil nuts can trigger a reaction for some.)
This is why the auto-immune Paleo diet, which removes lectins from gluten, dairy, nuts, beans and nightshades among other foods, has proved so popular for many who struggle with thyroid health: it removes many of the food triggers that can worsen thyroid sickness.
And now for another big ‘but’: if one’s not careful, strict exclusion diets can reduce the diversity of one’s microbiome, and this, in turn, can endanger thyroid health!
As if all that weren’t enough, amongst experts there is a current controversy about iodine, which can be found in seaweed, and about the ‘goitrogenic’ vegetables which may inhibit iodine’s absorption, like cauliflower and cabbage. Some experts strongly advocate in favour of iodine supplementation (and it can often be found in ‘thyroid support’ supplements) and others consider it almost malpractice to suggest consuming it and also encourage consumption of goitrogenic vegetables.
So – what to do?
How do we safely navigate thyroid health?
Having gone through some significant thyroid challenges myself, I will say boldly – if you’re seriously concerned about your thyroid, go and see a qualified health practitioner who will:
- specialise in thyroid health, and
- avoid ‘one-size-fits-all’ protocols and
- seek to understand your unique health picture in detail
Ideally your practitioner will have you test all the crucial markers (TSH, T4, T3, TPO and Tg antibodies, plus ideally nutrients like vitamin D), carefully explain what the results actually mean, and give you a very clear plan of action to pursue.
Thyroid problems can’t be wished away, and almost always require some specific action in order to protect the body from the effects of over- or under-activity. In some cases, medication as well as nutrition will be required. However, I am delighted to say that it is absolutely possible to tailor your nutrition and lifestyle habits to support your thyroid health.
References and helpful resources
- British Thyroid Association
- Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Garmendia Madariaga, A., Santos Palacios, S., Guillén-Grima, F., Galofré, J.C., 2014. The Incidence and Prevalence of Thyroid Dysfunction in Europe: A Meta-Analysis. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 99, 923–931.
- Mancini, A., Di Segni, C., Raimondo, S., Olivieri, G., Silvestrini, A., Meucci, E., Currò, D., 2016. Thyroid Hormones, Oxidative Stress, and Inflammation Mediators of Inflammation. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6757154
- Virili, C., Fallahi, P., Antonelli, A., Benvenga, S., Centanni, M., 2018. Gut microbiota and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Rev Endocr Metab Disord 19, 293–300.
- Vojdani, A., Afar, D., Vojdani, E., 2020. Reaction of Lectin-Specific Antibody with Human Tissue: Possible Contributions to Autoimmunity. Journal of Immunology Research.
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