Hypothyroidism is a very common condition. Approximately 3% to 4% of the U.S. population has some form of hypothyroidism. This type of thyroid disorder is more common in women than in men, and its incidence increases with age. Examples of common causes of hypothyroidism in adults include Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune form of overactive thyroid, lymphocytic thyroiditis, which may occur after hyperthyroidism (underactive thyroid), thyroid destruction from radioactive iodine or surgery, pituitary or hypothalamic disease, medications, and severe iodine deficiency.
Iodine intake often isn’t readily apparent on a dietary recall since the amount in foods is largely dependent on levels in the soil and added salt. However, Schneider says, “Clients taking iodine tablets are a red flag. Frequent intake of foods such as seaweed or an avoidance of all iodized salt may serve as signs that further exploration is needed.”
Major diagnostic and therapeutic advancements in the early 20th century dramatically changed the prognosis of hypothyroidism from a highly morbid condition to one that could be successfully managed with safe, effective therapies. These advancements dictated treatment trends that have led to the adoption of l-thyroxine monotherapy, administered at doses to normalize serum thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), as the contemporary standard of care (Figure). Most patients do well with this approach, which both normalizes serum TSH levels and leads to symptomatic remission (1).
I wish there were two different words to say what I want to say: one for “diet” as in when you want to lose weight and another “diet” as in a nourishing food change that will bring healing and joy. Oh well… But you know when I say “diet” I mean a protocol, a way of being, a way of living and eating that will free you from some or all of the fatigue, depression, anxiety, weight yo-yo’s, food frustrations, and infertility that have plagued you for some time now. I want to share with you what I know about the best healing diet for thyroid issues.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage naturally release a compound called goitrin when they’re hydrolyzed, or broken down. Goitrin can interfere with the synthesis of thyroid hormones. However, this is usually a concern only when coupled with an iodine deficiency.17 Heating cruciferous vegetables denatures much or all of this potential goitrogenic effect.18
Probiotics can help heal the gut and aid in nutrient absorption while reducing inflammation. Other benefits of a high-quality probiotic include helping to maintain a stronger immune system, increasing energy from production of vitamin B12, reducing bacterial or viral growth in the gut such as candida, improving skin health, and helping with appetite control and weight loss.
It's important to note, however, that selenium has what doctors call a "narrow therapeutic window." In optimal amounts, it can help ensure good thyroid function and have other benefits, but is toxic in amounts not that far above "normal." This is especially important to remember if you are taking a multi-vitamin that contains zinc as well as a zinc supplement.
Although I’m a fan of getting what you need from real food whenever possible, herbs, supplements, and vitamins can still have a place in the thyroid diet plan. It’s hard to give tips here as many people over-medicate and only feel worse later. Hopefully these tips will help; they apply to most auto-immune conditions (This advice was given by my naturopath who focuses on hormonal and thyroid health.):
“Some evidence suggests that soy foods, by inhibiting absorption, may increase the dose of thyroid hormone required by hypothyroid patients. However, hypothyroid adults need not avoid soy foods. In addition, there remains a theoretical concern based on in vitro and animal data that in individuals with compromised thyroid function and/or whose iodine intake is marginal, soy foods may increase risk of developing clinical hypothyroidism. Therefore, it is important for soy food consumers to make sure their intake of iodine is adequate.” [Messina]
Whether you take these minerals in a multivitamin or alone, calcium and iron supplements may counteract the medication you take to treat your underactive thyroid. These supplements may affect your ability to absorb levothyroxine, the synthetic thyroid hormone found in medications such as Synthroid and Levothroid, according to the Mayo Clinic. “There’s a very strict way to take thyroid medication,” Blum says. You take it the same way every day, at least one hour before food and never with calcium, iron or other minerals. Blum recommends taking your thyroid medication as soon as you wake up and consuming the mineral supplements with food at dinnertime or before bed.
It is extremely important that women planning to become pregnant are kept well adjusted, since hypothyroidism can affect the development of the baby. During pregnancy, thyroid hormone replacement requirements often change, so more frequent monitoring is necessary. Various medications and supplements (particularly iron) may affect the absorption of thyroid hormone; therefore, the levels may need more frequent monitoring during illness or change in medication and supplements.
Peripheral Neuropathy - Long-term untreated hypothyroidism can cause damage to the peripheral nerves - the nerves that transmit information from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. Signs and symptoms of peripheral neuropathy might include numbness and tingling or pain in the affected area. Peripheral neuropathy can also cause weakness of the muscles and loss of muscle control.
Vitamin B12 and thiamine are important for neurologic function and hormonal balance. Research shows that supplementing with thiamine can help combat symptoms of autoimmune disease, including chronic fatigue. In one clinical study, when patients with Hashimoto’s were given 600 milligrams per day of thiamine, the majority experienced complete regression of fatigue within a few hours or days. (18)
Your thyroid is your body's silent workhorse—most of the time, it functions so smoothly that we forget it's there. But this little, butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the base of your neck helps regulate your metabolism, temperature, heartbeat, and more, and if it starts to go haywire, you'll notice. An underactive thyroid—when the gland fails to produce enough thyroid hormone (TH)—can bring on weight gain, sluggishness, depression, and increased sensitivity to cold. An overactive thyroid, on the other hand, happens when your body produces too much TH, and can cause sudden weight loss, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nervousness, and irritability.
Soy? If you have hypothyroidism, yes. Eating too much soy causes problems only for those with hypothyroidism, which occurs when your thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormones, Dr. Nasr says. The main problem is that soy hinders absorption of the hormones such patients are taking. “Some studies show that if you eat a lot of soy, or drink a big glass of soy milk, within one hour of taking a thyroid hormone, it might affect absorption,” he says. “A lot of people depend on those hormones to achieve a steady state.
Bone broth — Beef and chicken stock contain the amino acids L-proline and L-glycine, which can help repair the digestive lining and improve hypothyroidism. Bone broth also contains numerous important minerals that nourish the digestive tract and prevent deficiencies like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and silicon. Bone broth has been shown to help overcome food sensitivities, improve energy and fight fatigue, increase immunity and lower pain of the muscles and joints.
Bladderwrack: Bladderwrack or fucus vesiculosus is a natural treatment for hypothyroidism and has proven to reduce the symptoms of the condition. It is actually a seaweed (a type of brown algae), found in several oceans across the globe. Bladderwrack is rich in iodine content, thereby proving to be an effective thyroid stimulant. It is seen to reduce the size of the thyroid gland during goiter and also restores its functioning. A person suffering from it can take a 600 mg Bladderwrack capsule with water 1-3 times a day.
Before you read on, it’s key to know that 90% of hypo- and hyper-thyroidism results from an autoimmune disorder. (Most people do not realize this, as doctors often don’t take time to explain things.) Most hypothyroid conditions are Hashimoto’s and most hyperthyroid conditions are Graves’ Disease, which means that your immune system is attacking your thyroid. Since the immune system resides in the gut or our intestine (Did you know that?!) a lot of what you will read here is about rebuilding the digestive system.
** Medications** - Some medications can contribute to hypothyroidism. Medicines such as lithium, amiodarone, interleukin-2 and interferon alpha can prevent the thyroid gland from producing its hormones normally. These medicines are most likely to affect the thyroid’s functionality in patients who have a genetic susceptibility to autoimmune thyroid disease.
An unhealthy gut environment can contribute to nutrient deficiencies and raise autoimmune activity in the body. Gut inflammation can be triggered by food sensitivities or allergies, including those to gluten and dairy. Other causes of a damaged gut are high stress levels, toxin overload from diet and the environment, and bacterial imbalances. When leaky gut occurs, small particles that are normally trapped inside the gut start to leak out into the bloodstream through tiny openings in the gut lining, which creates an autoimmune cascade and a series of negative symptoms.
High-fiber foods – People with hypothyroidism may have digestive difficulties, so aim for 30–40 grams of fiber daily. In addition to a high-fiber diet helping with digestive health, it improves heart health, balances blood sugar levels and supports a healthy weight by making you feel fuller. Some easy ways to increase fiber intake include eating more fresh vegetables, berries, beans, lentils and seeds.
In the 1995 American Thyroid Association (ATA) guidelines, biological and synthetic thyroid hormone preparations containing T4 plus T3 were not recommended out of concern for fluctuating and often elevated serum T3 concentrations (71). In conjunction with the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists in 2012, the ATA continued to recommend l-thyroxine monotherapy and noted that evidence does not support using synthetic combination therapies; in addition, they stated that “desiccated thyroid hormone should not be used for the treatment of hypothyroidism” (72). In 2014, the ATA recommendations evolved with the recognition that 1) serum T3 levels might not be normalized in all l-thyroxine–treated hypothyroid patients and 2) some patients remain symptomatic while receiving l-thyroxine monotherapy. Titration of l-thyroxine dose to achieve normal TSH concentrations remains a first-line approach, but trials with combination therapy can be considered. In addition, the guidelines recognize that although superiority data are lacking, some patients do experience a clinical response with desiccated thyroid preparations or combination therapy with l-thyroxine plus l-triiodothyronine (1). The European Thyroid Association has similar recommendations (2).
Gluten – Many people with thyroid issues are also sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that results in an allergy to gluten. Gluten is found in all wheat, rye and barley products, so carefully check ingredient labels to avoid hidden gluten that is lurking in many packaged foods. Undiagnosed sensitivities to gluten can further raise inflammation, create nutrient deficiencies and worsen hormonal problems.
Thyroid hormone replacement has been used for more than a century to treat hypothyroidism. Natural thyroid preparations (thyroid extract, desiccated thyroid, or thyroglobulin), which contain both thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), were the first pharmacologic treatments available and dominated the market for the better part of the 20th century. Dosages were adjusted to resolve symptoms and to normalize the basal metabolic rate and/or serum protein-bound iodine level, but thyrotoxic adverse effects were not uncommon. Two major developments in the 1970s led to a transition in clinical practice: 1) The development of the serum thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) radioimmunoassay led to the discovery that many patients were overtreated, resulting in a dramatic reduction in thyroid hormone replacement dosage, and 2) the identification of peripheral deiodinase-mediated T4-to-T3 conversion provided a physiologic means to justify l-thyroxine monotherapy, obviating concerns about inconsistencies with desiccated thyroid. Thereafter, l-thyroxine mono-therapy at doses to normalize the serum TSH became the standard of care. Since then, a subgroup of thyroid hormone–treated patients with residual symptoms of hypothyroidism despite normalization of the serum TSH has been identified. This has brought into question the inability of l-thyroxine monotherapy to universally normalize serum T3 levels. New research suggests mechanisms for the inadequacies of l-thyroxine monotherapy and highlights the possible role for personalized medicine based on deiodinase polymorphisms. Understanding the historical events that affected clinical practice trends provides invaluable insight into formulation of an approach to help all patients achieve clinical and biochemical euthyroidism.
Most people with hypothyroidism don’t need to steer clear of soy completely. But it’s a good idea to limit your consumption to a few servings a week, and to stick with minimally processed forms of soy like tempeh or miso. Foods containing processed soy protein isolates (like soy protein powder, soy protein bars, or soy-based meat analogs) tend to have a higher concentration of isoflavones, says Markley.
Studies have indicated that individuals with lower selenium levels are at higher risk for low T3 (50). Selenium has been shown to reduce rT3 levels and improve active T3 status (51). It also reduces anti-thyroid anti-body formation (52). Be sure to get selenomethionine which is the most effective form of selenium for reducing anti-body formation and improving thyroid function.
Many types of seaweed are chockfull of iodine, but the amount can vary wildly, says Mira Ilic, RD, a registered dietician at the Cleveland Clinic. According to the National Institutes of Health, a 1-gram portion can contain anywhere from 11% to a whopping 1,989% of your percent daily value. But since seaweed is especially high in iodine, you shouldn't start eating sushi every day of the week. Too much iodine can be just as harmful to your thyroid as too little by triggering (or worsening) hypothyroidism. To get seaweed's big benefits without going overboard, Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, and Health's contributing nutrition editor advises sticking to one fresh seaweed salad per week (in addition to sushi), and steering clear of seaweed teas and supplements.
Giving appropriate doses of T3 is trickier than appropriately dosing T4. T4 is inactive, so if you give too much there is no immediate, direct tissue effect. T3 is a different story, though, as it is the active thyroid hormone. So if you give too much T3, you can produce hyperthyroid effects directly—a risk, for instance, to people with cardiac disease.
Bone broth – Beef and chicken stock contain the amino acids l-proline and l-glycine, which can help repair the digestive lining and improve hypothyroidism. Bone broth also contains numerous important minerals that nourish the digestive tract and prevent deficiencies like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and silicon. As part of your hypothyroidism diet, bone broth has been shown to help overcome food sensitivities, improve energy and fight fatigue, increase immunity, and lower pain of the muscles and joints.
If that’s not enough to calm your concerns, some experts suggest that eating cruciferous vegetables may actually be beneficial if you have autoimmune hypothyroidism since the thiocyanates may slow the absorption of iodine in people getting too much, which is possible if you are eating a typical Western diet of fast foods, French fries, and other processed products, that contain iodized salt, and you are heavy-handed with the salt shaker.
Like many people living with thyroid problems, you may wonder what the best thyroid diet to follow is. The truth is that the ideal diet for those who are living with a thyroid condition depends on personal needs and goals. If your goal is weight loss, you will want to optimize your blood sugar and leptin levels and eliminate toxins and allergens, among other things. If your goal is to support your thyroid health but not necessarily lose weight, there are some foods (such as goiter-producing vegetables and soy) that you may wish to minimize or avoid.
Please Note: The material on this site is provided for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult your physician before beginning any diet or exercise program.
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