Thyroid support - hypothyroidism
January is Thyroid Awareness Month and this is an opportunity to talk about an under-active thyroid and how nutrition and lifestyle can support.
My story – probably very similar to yours
I was diagnosed with underactive thyroid when I was 20, I am now 41. Back then, little was known about thyroid health and I was simply told my immune system had attacked my thyroid gland and I no longer produced enough thyroxin to function normally. I would need to take a tablet called levothyroxine for the rest of my life, it would take time to normalise levels and feel better. My health luckily did improve after taking the tablets - I felt less tired, my periods normalised, my hair grew back and my skin was less dry. However, I would not say I ever felt I was in optimal health. I had frequent colds, my periods were very heavy and I still suffered from fatigue, especially if I had overdone it. I have always had to pace myself.
I questioned my diagnosis and symptoms a lot more as the years went on and it is one of the reasons I was led into the world of nutrition. In turn I have learned a lot about my illness and have managed it better since.
It is always important to look at the stress response when looking at thyroid health. Stressors can stop your body making the inactive thyroxine (T4) into the active triodothryonine (T3) – this is the hormone that has the most affect on thyroid function. Adrenals therefore need to be supported at the same time as thyroid, adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and release your stress hormones.
What and where is the thyroid gland
The thyroid gland is found in neck and is butterfly shaped, it releases T4 and T3 into the body and both are involved in metabolism and are needed for every cell in your body. Hence, when the gland is not performing, people with thyroid problems suffer with many symptoms.
So what can you do to support your thyroid and adrenal health:
- Support blood sugar because when there is a dip in blood sugar due to an imbalance, the body goes into starvation mode, this triggers the adrenal glands to release adrenalin and then cortisol to help the body deal with starvation.
- Avoid white refined carbohydrates.
- Eat complex carbohydrates instead – oats, brown rice, fruit and vegetables.
- Eat protein and or fat with a carbohydrate to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream.
- Avoid grazing and aim for three meals a day. Initially you may have to incorporate a mid morning and mid-afternoon snack, but as you feel more balanced and supported you can try to drop them. Always include protein and or fat in the snack, such as apple and a small handful of almonds.
- Start the day with a nutritious breakfast – eggs, oats, vegetables like tomatoes, spinach, asparagus and mushrooms, nuts, seeds, fruit are all welcome additions.
- Eat protein regularly as it contains tyrosine. Tyrosine is a building block for T4. Good sources are: Sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, dairy products, chicken, beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas.
- Include these minerals in your diet:
- Magnesium supports the nervous system and may support anxiety – Swiss chard, spinach, squash, pumpkin seeds, steamed broccoli, nuts and seeds.
- Iodine along with tyrosine is needed to make thyroxine, seaweed is the best source. There are shaker style condiments that contain seaweed which you can use as a seasoning on fish, meat and vegetables.
- Iron is required for making thyroxine – red meat, darker meat from poultry – chicken thighs and meat. Vegetarian iron is harder to absorb but is found in green leafy vegetables, beans, pulses and dried fruit like apricots, it has better absorption if eaten with vitamin C rich foods like parsley, peppers, citrus and kiwi fruit.
- Zinc is involved in thyroid function and conversion to the active T3. Found in beef, pork, seeds, seafood and whole grains.
- Selenium is involved in function and conversion into T3. Brazil nuts, meat, poultry and whole grains.
- Eat foods rich in B vitamins as they help make the hormones produced by your thyroid and adrenals – vegetables, wholegrains such as brown rice and quinoa, chicken, fish and meat.
- Eat foods rich in vitamin C – salad greens, broccoli, kiwi, peppers, berries and citrus fruits.
- Vitamin A is also needed for thyroid production. Sources are liver, chicken livers are milder in flavour and can be disguised into burgers or meatballs. Eggs and dairy (if tolerated) are also good choices.
- Include essential fatty acids, they help maintain the health of the cell wall, receptors for thyroid and adrenal hormones sit here ready for action. Include olive oil and eat one tablespoon of mixed ground seeds a day – flax, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower. Eat oily fish twice a week, organic or wild caught salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines are all good options.
- Lightly cook cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, kale, broccoli and cabbage. These vegetables contain goitrogens that may block iodine production, cooking reduces this, so don't avoid.
- Soy can also block iodine production so be careful on the amount of soy lattes you consume. Keep it low. Always opt for organic soy products as well.
Watch out for:
- Adrenal stimulants – sugar, refined carbohydrates, alcohol and excessive levels of caffeinated drinks and food.
- Foods you suspect you are intolerant to – this may cause inflammation, inflammation is a stressor on the body and this blocks the conversion of T4 into the active T3. Ask professional guidance.
- Processed foods, trans hydrogenated and oxidised fats due their inflammatory effect on the body.
- Gluten – the protein structures in gluten can be similar to thyroid tissue and when the gut is inflamed and letting more substances pass through the lining into the bloodstream, the immune system starts to become confused and attacks anything it sees as a threat, because the proteins are similar it can mistake thyroid tissue as an enemy. Gluten and food substances that you are intolerant to will exacerbate this process. This however must be done under guidance of a professional like a nutritional therapist and or GP.
- Try meditating once a day - Headspace app is usually a good place to start.
- Try to get decent sleep – sleep deprivation is associated with high cortisol levels. Switch off tablets, phones and computers one hour before sleep. Leave them out the room.
- Chew food for optimal digestion and absorption of essential nutrients.
- Try switching to non-fluoride toothpaste – fluoride has been found to be toxic to the thyroid as it inhibits the binding of iodine to make thyroxine.
- Pace yourself – rest when you need to.
- Reduce toxins – look at the bathroom cabinet and cleaning products and change any products that have chemicals that may be harmful – this is a stressor, gradually switch to more natural products if you have not done so already.
- Take levothyroxine away from supplements especially, calcium, magnesium and iron. This also applies to food that contains these minerals. Many people take it at breakfast with milky tea. Try to take it on an empty stomach and leave some time after for eating.
This is an extensive list of changes, I have not made them all at once but adopted over the years. I still take levothyroxine and I regularly ask the GP to check my bloods to make sure I am not over or under supported. If you start to support thyroid yourself then make sure you inform your GP of changes.
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About Natasha Alonzi
A nutritional therapist and a mother of two who is passionate about nutrition and it's powerful effect on health and well-being.