Usually when we think about the thyroid gland, slow or fast metabolism comes to mind and its effect on body weight. Mary Sholom, in her book, The Thyroid Hormone Breakthrough: Overcoming Sexual and Hormonal Problems at Every Age, points out that the thyroid has many functions. It plays a role in the processing of carbohydrates, muscle and brain function, normal bone growth, sexual development and functioning, digestion and elimination, proper functioning of the heart, and breathing. The thyroid also helps to strengthen our hair, nails, and skin.
Christiane Northrup, in her book, The Wisdom of Menopause, discusses the causes of hypothyroidism, including inadequate levels of thyroid hormone, estrogen dominance, lower iodine levels in the soil, and people consuming less eggs and fish due to concerns about cholesterol and mercury, respectively. Both eggs and especially fish are good sources of iodine. Table salt is an important iodine source, but there has been increased concern about salt consumption and high blood pressure.
Stress also can take a toll on the adrenal glands over time and slow down the functioning of the thyroid gland. When too much cortisol is produced from ongoing stress, too much iodine can be excreted from the kidney, which is the very trace mineral needed to support a healthy thyroid.
In hypothyroidism the body does not produce enough thyroid hormone. Typical symptoms include having little energy, feeling depressed, slow mental processing, reduced heart rate, sensitivity to cold, tingling or numbness in the hands, constipation, heavy menstrual periods, or dry skin and hair (wedmd.com).
In terms of treatment, traditional medicine focuses on balancing the thyroid with synthetic hormones and adding iodine to the diet. A more holistic view considers other factors, especially diet in managing an underactive thyroid. Diets high in sugar should be avoided since insulin can inhibit the production of thyroid hormone. Refined sugar and simple carbohydrates, such as bread, pastries, and pasta, which are broken down into sugar during digestion, should be reduced to a minimum or eliminated from the diet.
Other dietary recommendations for thyroid health include:
- Iodine is essential to maintain thyroid function and good sources are iodized salt, fresh ocean fish, seaweed, yogurt, and eggs. While people usually do not consume too much iodine in their diets, it is possible and can show up in symptoms such as shakiness, nervousness, and rapid heart rate. Northrup points out that too much iodine in the body actually can slow down the production of thyroid hormone.
- Avoid raw cruciferous vegetables which contain goitrogens and can cause enlargement of the thyroid by interfering with thyroid synthesis. Some of the more popular cruciferous vegetables include cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. Cooked cruciferous vegetables can be consumed in moderation and may reduce the risk of thyroid cancer.
- Foods high in lignans have anti-oxidant properties and should be consumed for thyroid health, including sesame seeds, flax seeds, quinoa, corn, and amaranth. Fresh fruits and vegetables also have anti-oxidant properties.
- Healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil, provide concentrated energy and help carry fat-soluble vitamins to tissues. Coconut oil also contains specific fatty acids that boost metabolism, which is important when it comes to hypothyroidism.
- Avoid excessive consumption of soy, which may compromise thyroid function with existing hypothyroidism.
- In terms of supplementation, Paula Bartholomy recommends tyrosine (an amino acid), iodine, Vitamin B complex, calcium, the anti-oxidant vitamins A and E, copper, and manganese, which are all needed for thyroid hormone synthesis. Supplementation should be considered under the supervision of a physician knowledgeable in nutritional ways to support the thyroid.
- Drink at least eight glasses of pure water a day to help flush out toxins. Detoxifying teas such a dandelion and milk thistle also can provide thyroid support.