In the holistic health world the one area that has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years is the digestive system (“the gut”), with many functional medicine practitioners and holistically oriented health practitioners building their programs around restoring proper gut function. While the digestive system is quite important there is another area that might just be more important—the thyroid. When you talk about the thyroid what you are really talking about is your metabolism as the thyroid controls the rate at which the cells that make up your body create energy. When our cells are operating efficiently, we look good, feel good, sleep good, age slowly, have a lot of energy and can easily adapt to any stressors that we come in contact with.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY THYROID IS FUNCTIONING PROPERLY?
While blood work is the most common metric, a simple at-home test can give you an accurate picture. Dr. Broda Barnes was the first to champion this approach and his work is largely unchallenged due to its efficacy. Buy a digital thermometer, keep it on your night stand. Take your oral temperature before getting out of bed in the morning. Take your temperature 20-30 minutes after lunch. Record the temps for several weeks. You temperature should be around 98 upon waking and should rise to 98.6 by mid day. If your temperatures are routinely below there is a good chance your thyroid is not functioning properly. If you don’t feel like taking your temperature, ask yourself—are your hands and feet often cold? Are you often cold when everyone else is fine. If the answer to either of these questions is yes, chances are you should investigate your thyroid function.
WHAT CAUSES THYROID PROBLEMS?
Unfortunately, many people following what they believe to be healthy diets with an abundance of nuts, seeds, vegetables, limited animal protein, lots of plant/seed oils, limited saturated fats and vigorous training are often pushing their bodies into a survival state in which their metabolism and body temperature slow (I have personal experience with what is described here). In the book From PMS to Menopause by Dr. Raymond Peat, PhD, he speaks to this issue and cites the main causes of thyroid dysfunction (hypothyroidism) as the following.
- Fasting and calorie restriction
- Excess stress, particularly from excessive exercise
- Dietary protein deficiency
- A high amount of unsaturated oils (PUFA’s) in the diet, any liquid oils outside of coconut oil and olive oil fall into this group.
- An abundance of raw vegetables, particularly goitrogenic vegetables (i.e. broccoli, kale, mustard greens)
- Diets that emphasize nuts, seeds, and beans as a primary protein source.
WHAT AREAS CAN BE IMPACTED?
If you look at a list of thyroid symptoms it will include pretty much everything you can think of and that is because the thyroid is involved in nearly every process in the body. A few of the common and possibly lesser known correlations are below.
- “High” Cholesterol – Thyroid hormone helps convert cholesterol into reproductive hormones. When not present, cholesterol levels keep rising (i.e. they are never converted)
- Low Libido – Per the above, thyroid hormones are needed to make reproductive hormones.
- Hair and Skin – Thyroid hormone is responsible for ensuring the integrity of all tissues in the body, especially these.
- Eye Bags / Dark Circles – Often indicative of hormonal imbalances, food sensitivity and protein deficiency.
- PMS / Hormonal – Thyroid problems can upset the delicate balance of estrogen to progesterone.
WHAT ACTIONS CAN YOU TAKE TO HELP?
While some people may need a thyroid supplement or medication there are many changes you can make with regard to your nutrition program. ‘Eat for heat’ is a popular term related to nutritional therapy for the thyroid. Eat foods that will build heat in the body. Here are some other things you can do.
1) Get adequate sunlight. If you live in a region with cold and lack of sunlight for a portion of the year, consider a Vitamin D3 supplement.
2) Women need at least 75mg of protein, more if you are strength training (eggs, fish shellfish, grass-fed beef, broth, dairy). If you are restricting animal protein, consider white potatoes (contrary to popular belief they are an adequate protein source).
3) Avoid Unsaturated Fats (PUFA). All liquid oils outside of coconut oil and olive oil (this includes flax and fish oil)
4) Emphasize saturated fats like coconut oil (one “superfood” that is not all hype). With the occasional addition of butter and ghee.
5) Eat a balanced meal or snack every 3 hours and immediately upon waking have some fruit or fruit juice.
6) Eat well-cooked vegetables, avoid raw vegetables and green juices.
7) Baby your liver. Your liver “activates” your thyroid hormones. Do this by reducing toxins, eating beets, bitter foods and artichoke. Fruit and fruit juice as snacks throughout the day also help.
8) Bone broth is all the rage and is great but a broth made with chicken or turkey necks will include thyroid hormones which can be helpful in restoring your thyroid function.
9) Eat shellfish once a week for selenium and other trace minerals that support the thyroid.
10) Eat Liver once every couple weeks. Liver is good for you liver.
11) Ensure adequate intake of salt. Salt all food too taste.
12) Visit saunas and steam rooms regularly.
13) Ensure adequate magnesium—transdermal oils, supplements, epsom salt baths all help boost magnesium levels.
14) Avoid gluten and any other foods that don’t make you feel good.
15) Sleep with socks on.
16) Include some form of dairy in your program (milk, cheese, yogurt or ice cream). You should be able to tolerate one, especially the last.
17) Don’t restrict natural sugar. Eat several pieces of fruit per day and/or incorporate honey.
- If you are taking medication for your thyroid and something still feels off (or your temperature is still below optimal), consider talking with your doctor about a supplement that includes T4 and T3 (not just T4).
- If you are taking a thyroid supplement you may need a higher dosage in the winter as the dark and cold can increase your requirement.
- Just because your doctor is monitoring via blood work doesn’t mean you can’t monitor your own temperature.
- Ask your doctor to run the following blood work in addition to TSH (Free T4 and Free T3)
- Thyroid problems are not confined to women. Men can encounter the same issues.
- People with thyroid problems can be over, under or average weight.
- Nutrition can be very helpful in restoring proper thyroid function and regardless of your choice to supplement or medicate should be considered as a long-term solution.
*This article originally appeared in HARPERSBAZAAR