If your body’s glands were the musicians in an orchestra (and the hormones they secrete the music), then the Thyroid is the conductor. If the conductor isn’t performing at his best, then the music’s not going to sound too crash hot. Optimal thyroid function is essential for optimal health. Hypothyroidism is an all too common issue for women (and increasingly for men also) these days, of all ages.
(photo: me at a Mozart concert in Vienna; the closest thing I had to a photo of a conductor!)
The thyroid is the main gland, and the master regulator of health, anti-ageing and longevity. It’s function is to energize the cell and drive metabolism. A healthy thyroid means healthy cell differentiation (so that all the cells grow with purpose and efficiency, rather than just growing larger). How your thyroid functions literally shapes the structure of the body. I’d describe someone with a robustly healthy thyroid would be energetic, they’d jump out of bed in the morning, have a healthy ‘glow’, a spring in their step and a big appetite while being naturally trim. (photo 2: someone like this!)
Recently I’ve been delving deeper into all things thyroid-related, exploring and analysing the fascinating research of physicians like Broda Barnes and endocrinologist Raymond Peat. Because the thyroid affects and interacts with so many bodily functions (an enormous topic) and low thyroid hormone can be caused by so many different factors … and because my new mantra is to keep my blog posts short and sweet … here are just a few nutritional tips and important facts to be aware of, to hopefully inspire you to learn more
Common symptoms of low thyroid function and/or poor thyroid hormone conversion include low energy, low body temperature with cold hands and feet, an inability to lose fat (although hypothyroidism also commonly occurs in those with low body weight), low stomach acid and enzyme secretion (therefore poor nutrient absorption), leg cramps, insomnia, disturbed sleep, depression, bacterial overgrowth, leaky gut, food sensitivities, salt cravings, sluggish bowels and constipation, muscle twitching, cramps, thinning hair and eyebrows (at outer edges).
Untreated, hypothyroidism can be linked to heart failure, liver disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hormone imbalance (estrogen dominance) and adrenal fatigue.
Major thyroid inhibitors (deplete thyroid function):
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs): These include vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, safflower, flax etc. and foods high in them: nuts and seeds (little PUFA bombs), poultry, factory eggs and almost all processed foods. PUFAs and powerfully anti-thyroid (suppressing the metabolic rate) and immuno-suppressive. ”Free radicals are reactive molecular fragments that occur even in healthiest cells, and can damage the cell. When unsaturated oils are exposed to free radicals they create chain reactions of free radicals that spread the damage in the cell, and contribute to the cell’s ageing.” – Ray Peat PhD. This appears on the skin as wrinkling and pigmentation.
- Grains: it’s not just the anti-nutrients; the phytates, saponins etc that are the problem. Even if you diligently pre-soak your grains, they’re still overly starchy foods. For some a little rice can be safe, but for most: ditch the grains.
- Soy: soy milk, vegetarian soy ‘meats’, soy protein powders, soy flour, soy bean oil, tofu etc. Not only high in phytates but loaded with phytoestrogens.
- Cruciferous vegetables: these contain compounds that inhibit iodine uptake to the thyroid (goitrogens). Includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Either cook these very very well (and add butter) or leave them alone. Never eat these raw (or juiced). Keep far far away from those kale-loaded raw green smoothies, especially if you are the least bit hypothyroid.
Other contributing factors andconsiderations:
- Protein insufficiency: a most common stressor on the thyroid is inadequate protein intake, and vegetarian protein sources just don’t cut it (being incomplete and bound up in so much starch and anti-nutritional compounds). I see too many ‘recovering’ vegetarians with terribly depleted thyroids and damaged metabolisms. Animal protein is required to make thyroid hormone. “High” protein isn’t the approach to take either, especially if you are just over-eating a whole lot of lean meat. ”Adequate” protein is the healthiest approach; this is very person-dependent.
- Hypoglycemia and diabetes: having sufficient glucose in the liver regulates the enzymes that convert T4 (inactive form of thyroid hormone) to T3 (active form), therefore low blood sugar or diabetes (where glucose doesn’t enter cells efficiently) will cause hypothyroidism, with an inability to convert T4 to T3. Fasting, skipping breakfast and calorie-restricted diets can all contribute to this too. This is further exacerbated by PUFAs, which block the cell’s ability to take sugar in, therefore keeping the blood glucose levels high.
- Stress: whether it be emotional or physical (including excess exercise) lowers thyroid function … why high intensity aerobic exercise isn’t an effective way to induce fat loss, it can actually encourage the body to store fat (the body’s natural stress response).
- Damaged intestinal lining / leaky gut: Bacterial (particularly yeast) overgrowth in the small intestine can be caused by hypothyroidism (Lauritano, et al., 2007), and the endotoxin (substances produced by these bacteria) can damage the lining of the small intestine, causing the loss of digestive enzymes (Walshe, et al., 1990) and malabsorption issues.
- Testing: TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) blood testing is not the best indicator of healthy thyroid function, but getting levels of TSH as low as zero (or at least below 2) is recommended, as it is a pro-inflammatory hormone. Higher levels are often linked to hypothyroidism. An important consideration however: when oestrogen levels are high (with progesterone too low in ratio) symptoms of hypothyroidism can present even if TSH levels are in “normal range”. This is why its important to assess all hormonal patterns, not just one hormone in isolation. Temperature and pulse can say a lot about how the thyroid is functioning.
- Estrogen excess: Low thyroid can cause excess estrogen (or ‘unopposed estrogen dominance’ due to low progesterone). And conversely, high estrogen will weaken thyroid function by blocking the release of thyroid hormone from the gland (one of those viscous circles). Generally women under stress with thyroid deficiency tend to have elevated estrogen. Diseases / problems related to or affected by elevated oestrogen and low progesterone include PMS, weight gain (especially around the ‘middle’), migraines, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, infertility and breast cancer. A common pattern is: low thyroid – low progesterone – high oestrogen – high stress – bacterial overgrowth.
- Iodine: Don’t supplement! Also, limit foods like kelp and other sources of excess iodine which can actually damage and suppress thyroid function. Only trace amounts are necessary, and for most, natural sea salt and a bit of seafood is enough; avoidance of iodine-blocking foods is just as if not more important (eg. undercooked cruciferous vegetables).
- Also: limit exposure to EMF radiation, especially wireless devices, and xenoestrogens from things like plastic-bottled water and other drinks.
A few pro-thyroid foods, thoughts and tips:
- Bone broth and additional high quality organic bovine gelatine: Particularly rich in glycine; an essential but widely deficient amino acid. Traditional diets were glycine-rich. We miss out on this by eating lean muscle meats only and throwing the other bits away (the good stuff; including the offal – make Pâté regularly!) Slow simmer organic bones for 3-4 hours to make a mineral-rich, gelatinous stock. Also, use additional gelatin in fruit jellies and add to smoothies. A powerful anti-ageing protein in itself, gelatin is cooked collagen; women pay big dollars to have collagen injected for plump skin: for far deeper, systemic benefits, eat it instead. It’s also incredibly healing to the intestinal lining.
- High quality complete protein: this doesn’t necessarily mean meat at every meal; in fact the best protein sources are those that are non-inflammatory, containing the right amino acid balance (less cysteine that suppresses the thyroid, and more glycine) and mineral balance (less phosphorus, more calcium and selenium). These include ‘true’ free-range pastured eggs, high quality unprocessed cheese, whole milk (the kind you personally tolerate best) and wild shellfish. In terms of meat, look for grass fed and finished, gelatinous cuts, slow-braised to draw out their glycine-rich juices (think osso buco, lamb shanks, ox tail and beef cheek) – muscle meats alone are too inflammatory unless eaten with additional gelatin.
- Fats: saturated (not polyunsaturated), particularly organic butter and coconut oil. Coconut oil supports thyroid function, increases metabolic rate, is protective against the oxidation of PUFAs mobilized from the tissue, and suppresses fungal overgrowth. Excellent article on the thyroid, ageing and coconut oil here.
- Eating sugar (particularly sucrose which is the sugar found in high amounts in well-ripened, tropical fruits, orange juice, honey, and actual cane sugar) will refuel the liver with glycogen to resume it’s role in thyroid hormone synthesis (conversion of T4 to T3 requires glucose). Read my post on sugar and fruits here.
- Adequate sun and sleep (8-10 hours per night of deep, restorative sleep). See tips on sleep here.