Nearly 1 in 3 people have thyroid disease, the majority of which are women. Yet more than half of those with a thyroid condition don’t know they have it. The thyroid is our body’s master metabolic gland and nearly every cell in the body responds to thyroid hormones. The thyroid is responsible for things like controlling our metabolism, regulating body weight and body temperature, and determining our energy levels. It even impacts fertility. Thyroid disease can present itself in many different ways – often as a case of overactive thyroid (hyperthyroid) or under-active thyroid (hypothyroid).
Regardless of what type of dysfunction resides in the thyroid, a myriad of uncomfortable daily symptoms are displayed with those that suffer from thyroid disease, such as unexplained weight gain or weight loss, fatigue, constipation, thin hair & nails, heat/cold intolerance, brain fog, irregular menstrual cycles, and even depression.
These symptoms can have a serious impact on our everyday experience of life, and whether you know you have a thyroid condition or not, empowering yourself with the tools to support your thyroid could prevent any future issues.
ALWAYS START WITH PROPER THYROID LAB PANELS
First things first, we have to know what we’re dealing with, which requires the proper testing. If you walk into your doctor’s office with questions about unexplained weight gain, changes in energy or mood, or fatigue, and request a look at your thyroid panel, chances are you will walk away with measurements of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), and maybe T4 (inactive thyroid hormone). But this isn’t the whole picture. We are seeing how well your brain is telling your thyroid to produce inactive T4 thyroid hormone, however even if these values come back within ‘normal’ ranges…you still feel like crap. So what gives?!
A complete thyroid lab panel should include the following:
- Total and Free T4
- Total and Free T3
- Reverse T3
Only with all these values are we able to truly see how the body is producing inactive thyroid hormone (T4) and converting to active thyroid hormone (T3). The active T3 hormone is what will bind to our body cells and actually do it’s job! This full panel will also alert your doctor to any potential autoimmune disease impacting the thyroid by looking for specific thyroid antibodies. Identifying the root cause of thyroid dysfunction is key to nailing down the appropriate interventions.
THE THYROID-GUT CONNECTION
After you’ve made a trip to your doctor’s office, you may have been offered a prescription fix and very few other options. Fortunately, a little education goes a long way as there are actually a number of ways you can naturally attack a sub-optimal thyroid and find symptom relief…you just have to do a ‘gut check.’ Literally.
Your gut and thyroid are intimately connected. We’ve discussed previously ways to recognize poor gut health and how to care for our gut through nutrition and lifestyle. To heal your thyroid you must heal your gut. Over 20% of thyroid hormone conversion happens in the gut! It is the job of your healthy gut flora to make sure you get the amount of active T3 you need. If your gut is not functioning optimally you can experience symptoms of thyroid disease, even if your thyroid is healthy. Where can you start in the path of healing your gut and alleviating thyroid symptoms?
Remove Food Triggers. As much as it might be a tough reality check, not all the foods you love on a daily basis love you back. Start by removing the top food allergens: gluten, dairy, corn, soy, nuts, beans/legumes (including peanuts) from your diet for 3-4 weeks. For the most thorough approach, also eliminate stimulants like chocolate, black tea, and coffee. Food sensitivities wreck havoc on the internal lining of the intestines, causing a large inflammatory response and elevated cortisol, which can alter T4 to T3 conversion and activate an autoimmune response against the thyroid – a condition called Hashimoto’s.
After eliminating these food groups, slowly reintroduce each food group one at a time and carefully monitor for symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or even moodiness, sleep disturbances, or skin breakouts. Those with known thyroid issues should plan to follow a strict gluten free diet as a long-term treatment strategy.
Reduce Stress. Chronically high cortisol reduces absorption of nutrients used in thyroid production. Elevated cortisol also lowers TSH, reducing the production of T4 and T3. Then, low thyroid levels increase cortisol, creating a vicious cycle of higher cortisol and lower thyroid production. Not good.
Chronic stress can actually shift the entire gut microbiome to sugar-loving bacteria in an inflammed environment. Incorporate meditation daily, and opt for low-intensity exercise programs including yoga, walking or Pilates. Even restrictive dietary strategies like intermittent fasting, keto, or vegan can cause unnecessary stress. Until lab values reflect normal ranges of thyroid hormones, high intensity exercise and low-carb approaches are not recommended.
Flourish your flora. In addition to removing common food triggers, you will also want to introduce a moderate carbohydrate diet rich in fiber from plants, like cruciferious vegetables. Also consider using fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, beets and kombucha to promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
EAT YOUR WAY TO GOOD THYROID HEALTH
While the daily symptoms and effects of poor thyroid function can be debilitating, it doesn’t have to be that way forever. The feelings of a “slow metabolism: and extreme fatigue can be reversed. One of the fastest ways to do that is to use our “food is medicine” strategy.
Your body requires specific nutrients like the B vitamins, iodine, selenium, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D to make and use thyroid hormone. Feeding your gut health with ideal amounts of fiber, and ensuring adequate calorie balance are also key features to a healthful thyroid. While it’s important to know that individual needs vary, use the following example meal plan:
If you identify with any of the symptoms discussed or you suspect you could have a thyroid condition, seek out a healthcare provider that is willing to listen and develop the ideal care plan for you. A prescription isn’t your only option, and in many cases, thyroid disease is well-managed or reversed with purposeful changes that heal the main sources of stress, whether that’s from diet, food intolerance, exercise, or leaky gut. Educate yourself about your health as it will enable you to serve as your own health advocate for your well-being and find a doctor who will work with you as you heal.