The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is located below the larynx and straddles the trachea. It is part of the endocrine system and secretes hormones that regulate metabolism in every cell of the body. If the thyroid secretes too much hormone, a condition called Hyperthyroidism results; if too little is secreted, Hypothyroidism will result.
Hypothyroidism is becoming increasingly common, the main causes being Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and iodine deficiency. Hyperthyroidism on the other hand is less common and can be caused by the autoimmune condition Graves’ disease.
Although symptoms may manifest differently depending on whether you are affected by hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, many of the diet and lifestyle tips used to manage the conditions crossover. Here are some of the most important ones to consider:
- Stress management & regular relaxation: Tyrosine is an amino acid needed for the production of thyroid hormones, and adrenaline is also made from tyrosine. So in times of stress, the body uses the available tyrosine for the production of adrenaline rather than thyroid hormones. Chronic stress also impacts adrenal health, which in turn affects thyroid function (see next point). Daily meditation is a great way to relax and help the body return to a resting and stress-free state. Allow time for yourself to do the things you enjoy and regular time to unwind.
- Address your Adrenal health: Thyroid problems and adrenal problems go hand-in-hand. When you are under chronic stress, your body’s stress response via your adrenal glands is to slow down any functions that aren’t vital in keeping you alive (think fight-or-flight mechanisms) and this includes slowing down your thyroid. What’s more, chronic stress lowers your immunity, increasing your risk of developing chronic inflammation and autoimmunity (Hashimoto’s and Graves disease are both autoimmune thyroid conditions). Nourish your adrenals with herbal medicine, vitamin C in therapeutic doses and stress management.
- Eat protein: The thyroid loves protein! Make sure you are including a palm-sized portion of protein at every meal, not just dinner. Try eggs for breakfast, chicken or fish for lunch and red meat or fish for dinner. If you are vegetarian please talk to your practitioner about ways to increase the protein in your diet.
- Avoid gluten: This is vital if you have Hashimoto’s disease. A component in gluten called gliadin has a structure very similar to that of thyroid cells. As the thyroid produces antibodies against it’s own cells, it sees gluten molecules as structurally similar and destroys those too. The more gluten you eat, the more antibodies your body will produce to fight the gluten, and therefore to fight your thyroid cells too.
- Avoid stimulants: As tempting as they are when you suffer from hypothyroidism, it’s important to avoid caffeine, cola, alcohol and other stimulants in both conditions as they contribute to poor adrenal function, which has a carry-on effect to your thyroid health. They can also wreak havoc on your gut health and increase feelings of both anxiety and depression.
- Exercise is vital: Whether you suffer from hypo or hyperthyroidism, it’s important to get active. If your thyroid function is sluggish (hypothyroidism) then you need high intensity exercise regularly- even just 10-20 min per day of sprints, star-jumps, boxing, cycling or swimming- whatever gets your heart really pumping and the blood flowing. If your thyroid is overactive (hyper) then you need calming and grounding exercise, such as yoga, tai chi or pilates.
- Sunlight & Vitamin D: The thyroid loves sunlight! Try taking a brisk walk in the morning sun to wake-up your thyroid and kick it into action. You may require vitamin D supplementation so ask your practitioner to check your level if it hasn’t been done in a while.
- Gut health: Leaky gut, poor digestion and elimination all have a big impact on the health of our thyroid. You may need to investigate any food sensitivities or intolerance you may have, and include gut-healing foods in your diet such as organic bone broth, omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, flaxseeds and avocados and plenty of fibre. Probiotics may also be required.
- Iodine-rich foods for Hypothyroidism (only): Seaweed, seafood, iodised salt in cooking and as much organic produce as possible, as the soil used in organic farming has a naturally higher iodine content than soil in commercial farming. Avoid iodine-containing foods if you have hyperthyroidism until you have had your iodine levels checked out by your practitioner.
- Avoid environmental toxins: Chemical overload has a profound effect on our endocrine system, causing disruptions to our hormone production and availability. What’s more, fluoride, chlorine and iodine are all chemically related. Chlorine and fluoride block iodine receptors in the thyroid gland, resulting in decreased thyroid hormone production. Consider installing a water filter at home for drinking water to reduce your exposure to chlorine and fluoride, particularly if you are iodine deficient. Switch your household cleaning products and personal care products to natural alternatives.
- Avoid soy: This is especially important in autoimmune thyroid conditions, but should be followed even when your thyroid condition is considered sub-clinical (mild). As little as 30 mg of soy isoflavones can compete with thyroid hormones and can cause thyroid antibodies to be produced. Avoid tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy protein powders and processed foods as soy will often be a hidden ingredient.
- Quit smoking: Cigarette smoking is a well-recognised risk factor of Graves’ disease, and causes damage to every cell in your body, including thyroid cells.