More than 25 million Americans have thyroid problems, and many of them don’t even know it! Here Registered Dietitian and Functional Medicine Practitioner Ali Miller discusses the thyroid and how to test for various thyroid disorders. And if you have been diagnosed with a thyroid issue, Miller is here to tell you that you can heal your thyroid naturally by making certain dietary and lifestyle changes. And importantly, you need to learn how to control your stress which is at the root cause of many thyroid problems. Read on to get tips on what to eat and much more you can do to protect your thyroid naturally.
What is the thyroid gland and how does it work?
The tiny butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck is actually the regulation center for your body. It plays a role in your metabolic function, weight, body temperature, mood, sleep, energy, cognitive function, anxiety, bowel regularity, bone and joint aches, dry skin, hair loss, brittle nails, and more!
The thyroid gland is regulated by the hypothalamus and stimulated by the pituitary gland. Both of these are primary stress responders in the brain. When in production mode, the thyroid uses a series of chemical reactions in order to use iodine as a building component of thyroid hormones T1, T2, T3, and T4. Primarily the output from the thyroid is in the inactive Free T4 form. This form gets converted according to your need into the active form of the hormone, Free T3.
Thyroid imbalance is much more prominent in women, with an occurrence ratio of 8:1 cases in regards to men. Of the 20 million Americans affected, greater than 90% of hypothyroidism cases come from Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis, which is marked by an enlarged thyroid and chronic inflammation.
Two conditions may occur depending on your thyroid hormone balance:
- Hyperthyroidism – too much of the thyroid hormone. A hyper overactive gland leads to too much T4, T3, and a low level of thyroid-stimulating hormones (TSH). Symptoms can include irritability, increased perspiration, racing heartbeat, weight loss, less frequent and lighter periods
- Hypothyroidism – too little thyroid hormone. A hypo underactive gland leads to too little T4, T3, high TSH. Symptoms can include dry skin and hair, forgetfulness, weight gain, muscle cramps, heavier periods
How do I detect if I’m experiencing possible thyroid dysfunction?
As always, being an advocate for your healthcare is the best way to ensure you are able to empower yourself and work with your body. It is standard practice for physicians to run TSH and T4 (in the bound form) as markers of thyroid health. This does not tell the whole picture of the function of the gland, however. It is important to assess the active free T3 to see what is available for the body to use as well as screen and monitor autoimmune and inflammatory reactivity.
Additionally, it is important to assess thyroid peroxidase (TPO) and thyroglobulin antibody (TGAb) to screen for autoimmune and inflammatory activity in the thyroid gland. Also, reverse T3 (rT3) is a good add-on to consider as it further assesses the effect of stress to the gland. Under times of stress, rT3 acts as the brakes competing with T3 receptor sites for expression.
When you review your lab results, keep in mind these thyroid biomarkers and their ideal functional ranges.
- TSH 0.8-2.2 UIU/ML or lower*
- FT4 >1.0 NG/DL
- FT3 > 2.8 PG/ML
- TPO negative or <15
- TgAb negative or <8
- Thyroglobulin <40
- Thyroxine binding globulin 14-31
*Note: If on armor thyroid, glandular, or T3 compounded, may have medication suppressed levels of TSH
Some other lab markers you may want to consider are:
- RT3 90-250 PG/ML
- Ferritin 70-150
- Vitamin D 50-70
- C-rp <0.8
- Salivary DHEA
- Salivary cortisol (4 point assessment)
The root of thyroid dysfunction is STRESS!
When working with clients, my job as “detective of their body” is to determine where the imbalance began and how we can narrow factors down until we find the true root of the cause. I have repeatedly found that thyroid issues are often caused by stress. This is not surprising considering that the thyroid regulates homeostasis. Understanding the role of stress on your thyroid is key for supporting your body’s metabolism from the true root cause.
The thyroid is impacted significantly by stress as the thyroid gland competes with the adrenal glands in times of heightened stress. In survival prioritization, the body stimulates the adrenals for output of cortisol and adrenaline. At the same time, your body is also slamming the brakes on the thyroid gland to prevent metabolic burn and preserve fuel reserves in a time of fight-or-flight! Unfortunately, this shift of turning off the thyroid function hinders not only your metabolism in the sense of weight gain and less fat burn, but it also interferes with the body’s ability to regulate hormones, cholesterol, and metabolic pathways in the liver including detoxification.
It’s important to note that stress can be both physical or mental. It can impact you emotionally or cognitively and ultimately drain the thyroid gland. Stress can be self-induced and often may be overlooked. Keep in mind that while there is good stress and bad stress, too much stress can drive the thyroid gland into overexhaustion!
The following are examples of stressors, both good and bad:
Physical: Running a marathon, CrossFit or HIIT training, pregnancy, recovering from an injury, environmental toxicity, GI distress/dysbiosis, infection, food sensitivities, inflammation
Mental: job, spouse/partner, family dynamics, a death, fight, break up, test or deadline, new relationship, job promotion, and new responsibilities
How To Protect Your Thyroid
Don’t worry, Further Food friends! There are natural and safe ways to protect your thyroid. Like every cell and organ in our bodies, the thyroid requires specific vitamins and minerals to carry out its everyday functions. Minerals, antioxidants, and B-vitamins are a couple of areas of primary focus when using food-as-medicine to support this precious gland. Eating the right types of food, supplementing wisely and stress management are key to keeping your thyroid healthy and strong.
Here are 6 ways you can protect your thyroid, manage your stress and ultimately save your thyroid from dysfunction!
- What You Eat Matters. Aim for an antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory diet that is free of chemicals, additives, and processed products. You should focus on whole real foods and eating in diversity to support your body’s nutritional needs. By removing inflammatory compounds from your diet you can manage and reduce physiological stress.
- Go gluten and grain free. I work with clients to support their thyroid with a tight gluten-free approach and most clients even commit to grain-free as gliadin in gluten interferes with thyroid function.
- Eat foods rich in minerals iodine, selenium, magnesium, and zinc. Iodine, selenium, magnesium, and zinc all play key roles in your thyroid. The process of producing thyroid requires iodine. And selenium and magnesium help the body to more efficiently recycle its iodine stores and preserving the function of the organ. When zinc is low in the body, TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), T4, and T3 can, in turn, become low in the body as well. To get enough of these important minerals, I recommend you eat the following foods regularly:
- Get your iodine by eating sea vegetables such as 1 tsp of dulse flakes twice per week or by eating seafood or shellfish 3 servings per week
- For selenium, eat 1-2 Brazil nuts each day
- For magnesium, eat leafy greens, however, you will likely also have to supplement
- Iron-rich sources of food include beef, oysters, dark meat chicken, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and almonds
- Make Sure To Get Enough Antioxidants and B-Vitamins. Antioxidants and B-vitamins work to neutralize the oxidative damage of physiological, psychological and environmental stress on the thyroid gland.
- Fresh herbs and spices are a great source of antioxidants focusing on turmeric, ginger, basil, rosemary, cilantro, cumin to name a few!
- Other antioxidant-rich foods include leafy greens, sulfur-containing veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels, and healthy fat forms of antioxidants in avocado, almonds, nuts, and seeds.
- Liver and egg yolks may provide some of the most user-friendly forms of b-vitamins that work as a great boost to metabolism and thyroid function.
- Ferritin. Ferritin is the storage form of your iron and as a sensitive marker can be deficient even without anemia or low red blood cells. So if ferritin drops too low, T3 can’t be used in the body. This can lead to hair loss that is often associated with hypothyroidism. Ferritin levels of at least 40 ng/ml are required to stop hair loss, while levels of at least 70 ng/ml are needed for hair regrowth.
- Focus on having red meat 2 to 3 times a week from grass-fed sources to support optimal ferritin values. For those who are menstruating, be sure to take a multivitamin with iron.
2. Support your thyroid with strategic supplementation. Supplement the HPA-axis, provide building blocks, and reduce inflammation! Some recommendations I often make are:
- Adaptogens which help the body respond to stress. Cordyceps, Panax Ginseng and Rhodiola have been shown in studies to support fat burn, support brain function, reduction rT3 and give you an antioxidant boost.
- Glutathione, the “powerhouse” antioxidant. As the most powerful antioxidant in the body, glutathione can reduce free radicals that drive oxidative damage and reduce the inflammatory stress on the thyroid. Also, studies show it has a direct role in the deiodinase enzyme pathway that activates T4 in T3.
- Magnesium. Often, our magnesium levels are burned out from stressors on our bodies. I recommend supplementing with magnesium bis-glycinate, which is the most bioavailable absorbable form of magnesium that targets the neuromuscular system aiding in relaxation of tension in the body serving to promote optimal sleep, reduce inflammation, and maintain bowel regularity. Additionally, magnesium aids in both the production of thyroid hormone as well as conversion and activation.
3. Consider a Candida Cleanse If a client has a history of yeast symptoms from vaginal yeast infection, thrush, antibiotic use, or dysbiosis, I will start them on my Candida Cleanse to reset their microbiome to reduce stress to the system. Antibodies released in leaky gut from gluten or other irritants and bacteria or yeast such as candidiasis can interfere with thyroid function causing an autoimmune flare. Women especially that have had c-sections, or are on birth control, antibiotics, have high carb diet should start with a 10-week Candida Cleanse to plow the gut microbiome and reset for optimal bacterial balance. You can learn more about my candida cleanse here.
4. Get 7+ hours of sleep. Sleep, in general, helps your body function more properly throughout the day.
5. Focus on resistance training with cadence, gentle movement therapy, and stretching as the primary exercise. While HIIT workouts may burn a lot of calories, they are also high stressors. Try to incorporate some stretching and gentle exercises into your workouts.
6. Work on mindfulness and meditation. Make sure to take time for your mental health. Set time aside to meditate, relax, or just breathe.
By making some simple dietary and lifestyle changes, you can make a world of difference to your thyroid health. And it helps to be cognizant of how stress can affect virtually every part of the body, and chronic stress can lead to thyroid gland malfunctions. Fortunately, you can protect your thyroid and keep your body healthy by making some dietary and lifestyle changes, including stress-reducing activities! Take control now to keep your thyroid healthy!
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