Today it is becoming more common to hear people talking about their thyroid, and it certainly is a topic of conversation for me and my nutrition clients with more than 20 million people in the USA alone suffering from some kind of thyroid dysfunction, 60% of which go undiagnosed.
what is the thyroid and what does it do?
Before we get into the different kinds of thyroid dysfunction and how you can support a healthy thyroid, why don't we take a step back and go over what the thyroid actually is, what it does, and why it is so important.
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is part of your body's endocrine system (a collection of glands that secrete the hormones in your body). Your thyroid is responsible for making thyroid hormones (T3 and T4), which are secreted into the bloodstream and then carried to every tissue in the body. Thyroid hormones help regulate body temperature, energy, and heart rate. They are essential for keeping the brain, heart, muscles and all other organs in the body working as they should. So basically, your thyroid is a rock-star with a pretty big job to do.
How Does Your Thyroid Work?
Since we are going to talk about how you can support a healthy thyroid, we should probably discuss how it works in the first place.
The thyroid gland functions by taking iodine found in food, and converting it with the help of an amino acid tyrosine (found in protein) into T3 and T4 thyroid hormones. T3 is your active thyroid hormone, and T4 is your inactive thyroid hormone that needs to be converted into T3. But how does the thyroid gland know when to produce T3 and T4 hormones, and how much is necessary?
The thyroid gland is actually under the control of the pituitary gland, which is another small gland at the base of the brain (you can see in the image below). When the level of thyroid hormones drops too low in the body, the pituitary gland produces a hormone called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone or TSH, which tells the thyroid to produce more hormones.
However, the pituitary gland is also controlled by another gland called the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain and produces a hormone called TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH), which specifically is meant to either stimulate or inhibit the production of pituitary hormones, which include TSH.
One of the best ways I ever was taught to think about the relationship between these three glands was to think of the hypothalamus as the person who turns the thermostat, the pituitary gland as the thermostat determining to what degree the house needs to be heated to, and the thyroid as the furnace actually heating the house. When the furnace (thyroid) heats the house hot enough, the thermostat (pituitary gland) senses this and turns the furnace down. Then when it is ready to turn the heat back up the person (hypothalamus) starts the whole process all over again. The circle would not be complete without all three glands working in harmony with one another.
What Is Hypothyroidism?
So now that we know how the thyroid works and why it is so important, let's get into some of the ways that it can get out of whack. Typically when we think about thyroid issues we are talking about either an underactive thyroid or an overactive thyroid. These issues can be caused by lots of different factors, and can also be the result of an auto-immune condition.
Hypothyroidism refers to an underactive thyroid, which means that the thyroid gland cannot make enough thyroid hormones to maintain normal bodily functions.
Common causes can be an auto-immune condition called Hashimoto's thyroiditis, surgical removal of the thyroid gland, or radiation treatment in addition to many other lifestyle and nutrition factors we will discuss later.
When the thyroid hormone is too low in the body, the body's cells can't get enough of what they need and they start to slow certain body processes down. This can result in a variety of different symptoms but the most common include:
- Feeling Cold
- Chronic Fatigue
- Weight Gain
- Elevated Cholesterol...we will talk more about this below
What is Hyperthyroidism?
Hyperthyroidism, although not talked about quite as commonly as hypothyroidism is the result of an overactive thyroid, which is producing too much thyroid hormone. One of the most common causes of hyperthyroidism is an auto-immune condition called Graves disease, which is caused by antibodies in the blood that turn on the thyroid and cause it to secrete excessive thyroid hormone.
Because the thyroid plays a role in the general pace of many body functions when there is too much thyroid hormone these body functions also tend to speed up. So it really is no wonder that some of the most common symptoms of hyperthyroidism are:
- Feeling Cold
- Difficulty Sleeping
- Racing Heart
What Can Cause Thyroid Dysfunction?
There are many factors that can contribute to thyroid dysfunction, including auto-immune conditions, but many causes are also related to lifestyle and environmental exposures.
For instance, exposure to pesticides can have a profound effect on the health of the thyroid as they act as endocrine disruptors in the body, which interfere with thyroid hormone metabolism and function. Additionally, other exposure to heavy metals such as mercury can negatively affect the way a person's thyroid functions.
Then there are lifestyle factors which include chronic stress, inflammation, poor sleep, and a nutrient-depleted diet. Chronic stress and inflammation both can negatively impact the way a person's thyroid is functioning by increasing the levels of cortisol in the body, which can interfere with thyroid hormone production.
Lastly, there are the nutritional factors which can contribute to a dysfunctional thyroid. Because the thyroid is nutrient-dependent certain nutrient deficiencies can result in a poorly functioning thyroid.
How Is Elevated Cholesterol Related To Thyroid Function
Cholesterol is a giant conversation to be had in a separate blog post, but I couldn't talk about thyroid function without talking about cholesterol, as the two are highly correlated.
First, cholesterol is very misunderstood by the general public and is in fact a protective fat-like substance that is found in every cell of your body, much of your brain, and is needed to produce hormones, vitamin D, and certain substances that help you digest your food.
Simply put, without cholesterol, we would die.
The issue is when cholesterol is found in high levels in the body, which is always a direct result of something else going on, high cholesterol is a symptom of a bigger problem, not the problem itself. So let's stop treating the symptoms and start getting to the route of the problem...but that wouldn't make the giant statin drugs and pharmaceutical companies much money now would it.
While elevated cholesterol can also be a symptom of other chronic conditions such as chronic inflammation, one cause of elevated cholesterol can be an underactive thyroid.
This is because when thyroid hormone levels are low (hypothyroidism), your body doesn’t use, break down, and remove LDL cholesterol as efficiently as it usually would. This then can allow LDL cholesterol to build up in your blood, causing an elevated level. If an underactive thyroid was the root cause of a person's elevated cholesterol, by addressing the underactive thyroid the cholesterol level should normalize.
This is why it is always good to ask your doctor to have your thyroid hormones and antibody levels checked if you are concerned about your elevated cholesterol.
Nutritional Interventions To Support A Healthy Thyroid
Like I mentioned, nutritional deficiencies can have a profound effect on the health of a person's thyroid. But when it comes to the thyroid what nutrients are the most important? And what can a person do to support the health of their thyroid?
When it comes to the thyroid, the most influential nutrients are:
- Iodine: Which provides the building blocks of the thyroid hormone with tyrosine.
- Found in fish, algae, and sea vegetables
- Tyrosine: An amino acid found in (dairy products, meats, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, oats, and wheat) that works with iodine to make up the building blocks of thyroid hormones.
- Selenium: Helps to reduce thyroid peroxidase (TPO) which are antibodies that when elevated can damage the thyroid. Also works with iron and zinc to convert T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (active thyroid hormone).
- All you need is one brazil nut per day to meet your selenium needs.
- Iron: Works with selenium and zinc to convert T4 to T3
- Best absorbed in meat products, always make sure to purchase grass-fed/pasture raised.
- Zinc: Helps your body gauge when thyroid hormone levels need to be increased.
- Found in red meat, fish, pumpkin seeds, oysters, legumes
- Omega-3: Provide cellular membrane integrity, which enables your cells that uptake your thyroid hormones to communicate well with one another.
- Found in fatty fish, while they also can be found in flaxseed our body doesn't do the best job of converting the omega-3 found in flaxseed into the active forms used by our body.
Lastly, nutrient-dense, plant-based foods help the body detoxify harmful substances it comes in contact with such as endocrine disruptors in BPA, pesticides, pollution, and heavy metals.
Lifestyle Interventions To Support A Healthy Thyroid
Lifestyle interventions may be one of the most important changes a person should make when it comes to supporting a healthy thyroid.
Here are some that are absolutely worth thinking about implementing in your own life to support a healthy thyroid, and help heal your thyroid if you already know you have an underlying condition.
- Practice Stress Reduction Techniques: I already mentioned how high cortisol levels can negatively impact the conversion of T4 to T3. Some great ideas to work on would be meditation, long-mindful walks out in nature, journaling, deep belly breathing, gentle yoga.
- Prioritize Sleep: Poor sleep can be a huge stressor on the body, and the body is not going to do a good job of healing itself without adequate sleep. So found on formulating a good nighttime routine that can support better sleep. Aim for 8-9 hours per night, and give yourself ample time to wind down at the end of the day.
- Address Any Underlying Gut Issues: Get tested for celiac disease, focus on consuming gut healing foods (such as bone broth, collagen, fermented foods) that will help heal your gut, and allow your body to absorb the nutrition you give it best.
- Reduce Environmental Toxins: Start cleaning up your home cleaning products, and skincare products. Swap out plastic for glass, and start to really focus on reducing your exposure to harmful environmental toxins that can act as endocrine disruptors in your body. The EWG is a great resource!
- Avoid Low Carb Diets. While low carb diets may be trendy right now they actually put a lot of stress on your thyroid and adrenal glands and should be avoided.
- Avoid Heavy Metals Such As Mercury: Pay attention to how much tuna and other large fish you are consuming and where it is coming from.
- Check Mineral levels: Your body needs iodine, selenium, iron, and zinc for a properly functioning thyroid. Get these minerals checked if you have any concerns so you know if supplementation is required.
- Check Vitamin D levels: Low vitamin D levels are associated with immunity, and are worth monitoring on an annual basis.
- Increase Consumption Of Iodine Rich Foods: Some amazing foods for your thyroid are: Oysters, Kelp/Seawood, Fatty Fish, Chlorophyll
As always remember that this information is generalized and you should always pay attention to what works best for your body, and consult your personal dietitian or health care provider before making any significant changes. I hope you found this information helpful and I answered some of your questions about how to support a healthy thyroid. Always feel free to leave comments if you have any questions, or email/direct message me through social media.