While hypothyroidism, a disease of low thyroid function, is most known for causing hair loss, fatigue, and constipation, some of the most common symptoms are actually brain-based: depression, brain fog, memory loss, low motivation, anxiety, poor balance, and poor brain endurance.
Every cell in the body depends on thyroid hormones to function, and the brain’s neurons are no exception.
However, for the estimated 5 percent of the population with hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, it’s like your gas tank is running on fumes.
As many as 60 percent of people with hypothyroidism don’t know they have it. If you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism or think you may have it, do any of these symptoms resonate?
- Brain fog
- Slow mental speed
- Poor brain endurance, meaning you tire easily from reading, driving, working, noisy areas, etc.
- Worsening memory
- Sleep problems
- Low motivation
- Irritable, grouchy
- Worsening balance
- Drop things easily
- Handwriting getting worse
- Worsening muscle function
- Brain symptoms after eating certain foods
- Chronic gut symptoms
Although declining brain function can have multiple underlying causes, if lab tests show your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is above 3.0 mIU/L and you also have symptoms such as constipation, hair loss, and feeling cold all the time, you need to seriously consider the impact of a potential thyroid hormone deficiency on your brain.
Become a Thyroid Expert to Save Your Brain
More than 90 percent of hypothyroid cases are caused by an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s, which is identified by positive thyroid peroxidase (TPO) and/or thyroglobulin (TGB) antibodies on a lab test.
Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys tissue in the body, in this case, the thyroid. Autoimmunity is incurable—once the genes turn on, triggering the disease, they can’t be turned off.
However, in most cases, autoimmunity can be driven into remission through diet, lifestyle, and mental strategies such as meditation and mindfulness.
Most doctors only test thyroid hormone levels with a TSH test, and they don’t screen for Hashimoto’s. That’s because it doesn’t change how they treat patients. While thyroid hormone medication may restore TSH to normal levels and help relieve symptoms, it doesn’t address the ongoing damage from autoimmune attacks against the thyroid. This explains why many patients continually need to have their dose of thyroid medication increased.
This can be disastrous for your brain and body for several reasons:
- The brain isn’t getting enough thyroid hormone.
- The immune cells that destroy the thyroid in unmanaged Hashimoto’s can also target brain tissue.
- Unmanaged Hashimoto’s is inflammatory for the whole body. This can inflame the brain, causing symptoms and aging it too quickly.
- Many people with Hashimoto’s have multiple food sensitivities as well as chemical sensitivities. Failing to identify and address these can inflame the brain.
Brain Health and Hypothyroidism
Supporting your brain when you have Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism consists primarily of taking the best thyroid hormone medication for your needs, adapting an autoimmune diet and lifestyle to keep your Hashimoto’s in remission, and employing strategies such as meditation and mindfulness.
First of all, are you on the best thyroid hormone medication for your needs? The average doctor will prescribe a synthetic thyroxine (T4) medication because that’s typically what insurance covers. However, many patients feel better with a bioidentical thyroid hormone replacement that also includes T3. Others may need a thyroid med that is free of fillers such as cornstarch, which triggers immune reactions in some.
Work with your doctor to find the best thyroid medication option for you.
Managing Hashimoto’s Hypothyroidism to Protect Your Brain
The goal of managing autoimmune disease is to dampen inflammation and keep your autoimmunity in remission. We do this by searching for triggers of inflammation—they are different for everyone.
There are many possible triggers of Hashimoto’s flare-ups, but some of the following are the most common.
Food intolerances: The most common inflammatory foods in Hashimoto’s patients are gluten and dairy. In fact, the tissue most often damaged by gluten intolerance is brain tissue. Corn, eggs, soy, and grains are common triggers as well.
Gut inflammation: Acid reflux, irritable bowel, gallbladder congestion, and other ailments linked to poor gut health are common triggers for autoimmune expression and brain inflammation.
Blood sugar imbalances: Many Americans have blood sugar that is too low, too high, or a combination of both, all of which are highly inflammatory.
Hormonal imbalances: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which causes hair loss, facial hair, infertility, and menstrual difficulties can inflame the brain and trigger flare-ups. Likewise, estrogen deficiency during perimenopause and menopause can also be inflammatory.
Environmental chemicals and toxins: We live in a sea of tens of thousands of unregulated environmental toxins and chemicals that can trigger inflammation and the development of chemical sensitivities and autoimmunity. Bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics, in particular, has been linked with Hashimoto’s (BPA-free is often just as bad unfortunately, because very similar chemicals are used to replace BPA in the majority of cases).
5 ways to support your brain if you have Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism
The best way to improve “thyroid brain” is to manage your autoimmune Hashimoto’s. The full program is beyond the scope of this article, however you can refer to my free “Autoimmune Diet” guide and my online course Hashimoto’s: Solving the Puzzle.
In the meantime, here are some strategies to help manage Hashimoto’s and improve brain health.
1. Follow an autoimmune diet and lifestyle
I start my Hashimoto’s patients on an anti-inflammatory autoimmune diet for 4 to 6 weeks that consists solely of meats, lots of vegetables, healthy fats, and minimal fruit (due to the high sugar content).
They then reintroduce foods they eliminated one at a time every three days to see which cause a reaction.
If you wish to skip the diet and test for food sensitivities instead, I recommend Cyrex Labs Array 10 Multiple Food Immune Reactivity Screen.
Not all food sensitivity testing is the same. Look for ELISA serum testing that requires a blood draw.
You can learn more about the diet in the free guide on my website.
2. Take supplements to dampen inflammation and support the brain
Research shows certain natural compounds can help dampen Hashimoto’s and brain inflammation. However, no supplement can overcome a poor diet and lifestyle, so you must also be following an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle.
Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant and probably the most powerful anti-inflammatory supplement. Many people’s glutathione levels have been depleted by poor diet, excess sugar, environmental toxins, and chronic health conditions. Aging also depletes glutathione.
I prefer liquid liposomal glutathione in doses high enough to have a noticeable effect on inflammation.
Resveratrol and Turmeric
Therapeutic doses of liposomal resveratrol and turmeric have been shown to significantly dampen inflammation. How much you take depends on how bad inflammation is.
Sufficient vitamin D dampens inflammation and supports brain health. Therapeutic doses of the cholecalciferol form of vitamin D range from 10,000 to 20,000 IU a day, but have your doctor monitor your vitamin D levels regularly.
3. High-intensity interval training
Daily exercise dampens inflammation and oxygenates the brain. High-intensity interval training (HIIT)—which involves reaching your maximum heart rate with a short but vigorous burst of exercise, resting, and repeating—is especially effective in dilating blood vessels, lowering inflammation, and improving blood flow to the brain.
However, it’s important not to overdo it—over-exercising increases inflammation.
4. Mindfulness and meditation to dampen inflammation and support brain health
In this article, I’ve talked about how to give the brain a good environment.
But good brain health goes beyond an optimal chemical environment. Like a muscle, the brain must be exercised to stay fit.
One of the simplest, easiest, and most affordable ways you can exercise your brain is through daily meditation. Just 10 minutes a day of meditation can improve concentration and your working memory—the ability to keep information active in your mind.
Meditation is especially important if you are suffering from brain-based symptoms common in Hashimoto’s hypothyroid patients, such as depression, poor focus and concentration, anxiety, and chronic pain.
Meditation is so effective it actually changes the shape of the brain for the better:
- Just two months of daily meditation increases the thickness of the hippocampus, the center of learning and memory.
- Meditation decreased the volume of the amygdala, the brain’s center for fear, anxiety, and stress. Subjects reported feeling less stressed as well.
Meditation also supports autoimmune management by dampening inflammation and helping regulate the immune system.
A 1998 study compared the healing rates of patients undergoing UV-light therapy for psoriasis, an autoimmune skin disease. The subjects who meditated while in the lightbox experienced skin-clearing four times faster than those who didn’t meditate while in the lightbox.
A 2017 literature review suggests meditation downregulates nuclear factor kappa B, a major inflammatory pathway. A 2021 review suggests mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) reduces the activity of immune pathways that promote autoimmunity.
I hope by now you understand how important it is to manage the underlying autoimmunity in order to protect your brain. The brain doesn’t improve through neglect—you have to take action before it’s too late.
Unfortunately, the average health care professional isn’t going to help you spot early warning signs of declining brain function, or help you improve your brain health. Preventive strategies aren’t part of their medical training or covered by insurance. Doctors typically can intervene only when declining brain health has advanced to the stage of dementia.
At that point, brain tissue is irreversibly lost.
The good news is that with the right interventions, the brain is highly adaptable to change and improvement. You can make considerable strides in improving both your thyroid and brain function with a little bit of education.
Datis Kharrazian, Ph.D., DHSc, DC, MS, MMSc, FACN is a Harvard Medical School-trained, award-winning clinical research scientist, academic professor, and world-renowned functional medicine health care provider. He develops patient and practitioner education and resources in the areas of autoimmune, neurological, and unidentified chronic diseases with non-pharmaceutical applications.