Can nutrition affect your thyroid?
By Sunithi Selvaraj, RD
NUTRITION As with virtually every bodily function, your diet plays a role in the health of your thyroid. There are some specific nutrients that our thyroid depends on and it’s important to include them in our diet. But before we go into the nutrition specs, a little 411 on thyroid.
The thyroid gland is located in our throats right below the larynx (also known as the voice box). As small as this organ is, it plays a vital responsibility for our body’s metabolic processes. Our thyroid releases two primary hormones: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxin (T4) that help control metabolism. When working properly, the T3 and T4 hormones travel through your bloodstream and help cells get energy from the food you eat. Thyroid hormones are also responsible for helping to regulate body temperature and blood calcium levels, helping with growth, and during infant brain development.
Thyroid malfunction happens when the thyroid gland produces either too much (hyperthyroidism) or too little (hypothyroidism) hormone. This causes several health symptoms, some of which can be quite severe. But because thyroid disease is often misdiagnosed or simply overlooked, it is estimated that more than half of affected people don’t know they have a problem.
Be Alert to Symptoms
General symptoms of a malfunctioning thyroid include sluggishness, muscle weakness, and changes in bowel or menstrual patterns. Obvious symptoms of a malfunctioning thyroid include an unexplained change in weight even if diet and activity levels remain the same. The VitaDoc has a more detailed list of symptoms. If you suspect problems with your thyroid, see a doctor.
Thyroid Nutrition: What Should You Eat for Thyroid Health?
Iodine is required by the body to make the T3 and T4 hormones. Without sufficient iodine, your thyroid cannot produce adequate hormones to help your body function on an optimal level. Iodized salt is a good source of iodine but because iodized salt is heavily processed, getting your iodine through a combination of iodized salt and natural iodine is generally recommended. Natural sources of iodine include sea vegetables (seaweed), such as hijack, wakame, arame, dulse, nori, and kombu.
I use a combination of sea salt and iodized salt at home, and my family eats roasted seaweed snacks. Sushi or California rolls are other good sources of iodine.
Omega-3: For a healthy thyroid, you might want to grill some fish and ease up on the beef burgers. Delicious salmon has plenty of important omega-3 fatty acids or, if you prefer, take fish oil capsules. The essential fats, which are found in fish or fish oil, play an important role in thyroid function, and many help your cells become sensitive to thyroid hormone and have a role in healthy weight loss. Veggie sources include walnuts and flaxseed oil. Supplements are highly recommended for people with thyroid disease.
I do not have thyroid problems but take an omega 3 supplement every day for all the benefits it offers. I also eat fish and walnuts, but the supplement is extra insurance.
Selenium helps to regulate thyroid hormones. Selenium also promotes the immune system and helps with anti-aging. One of the best sources of selenium is Brazil nuts. If you want to spice up nuts, try my recipe for spiced nuts! Other good sources include brewer's yeast, wheat germ, garlic, sunflower seeds, walnuts, raisins, liver, kidney, shellfish, fresh-water and salt-water fish, pork, button mushrooms, kelp, molasses, sesame seeds, brown rice and red grapes.
Iron deficiency has been linked to decreased thyroid efficiency. Since iron is important for so many other functions as well, it is not a bad idea to eat your spinach and meat! Good sources of heme iron (easily absorbed iron) include liver, meats, and poultry while good sources of nonheme iron include nuts, seeds, spinach, molasses and fortified grain products. Pair iron rich foods (especially nonheme) with vitamin C foods for maximum absorption. A few ounces of OJ or a serving of vitamin C rich veggies like broccoli with you meal with enhance iron absorption. While supplementation is good for many nutrients, iron is one of those nutrients where food source is superior to supplements.
Zinc: Low levels of zinc have been linked to low levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone. Good food sources of zinc include oysters, crab, lamb, beef, roasted wheat germ, roasted pumpkin seeds, and peanuts, dark chocolate and cocoa powder.
B Vitamins: These help manufacture thyroid hormone and play an important role in thyroid function. Food sources are cereals and whole grains, green leafy vegetables, eggs, chicken, nuts, kidney beans and bananas. Livestrong.com provides a more detailed list of B vitamin foods.
Avoid These Foods If You Have Thyroid Problems
While the above list is a general guide for thyroid health, the following list of foods to be avoided is for those who are prone to, or suffer from, thyroid problems. Most of these foods cause thyroid inflammation and may lead to decreased thyroid function (hypothyroidism).
- Soy based foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- Cruciferous (cabbage family) foods
Exercise and Your Thyroid
Adding more muscle burns more calories.
Since one symptom of a malfunctioning thyroid is weight gain, having an exercise routine is very important. Not only will exercise help to wake up a sluggish thyroid, it will help with weight loss. If you can only do one exercise, choose strength training. When you build lean muscle, you're giving your body the ability to burn more calories even when you're not exercising. A pound of fat only burns around 6-10 calories each day while a pound of muscle can burn up to 60 calories per day. Adding more muscle burns more calories.
In general, a high antioxidant, whole-food diet with less processed foods (moderate amounts of iodized salt is ok) combined with a good fitness regimen is helpful to maintain a healthy thyroid. Antioxidants can help your body neutralize oxidative stress that may increase thyroid malfunction.
Most important, get tested! I recommend having a full thyroid hormone panel (especially over the age of 40), which is routine for many practitioner visits. A thyroid test will tell you if you have a malfunctioning thyroid.
Treat yourself well. Eat healthy. Find some time to exercise!!
About The Author
Sunithi Selvaraj is a Registered Dietitian with a sweet tooth and a passion for eating healthy. (Quite a combo.) She works as a community Nutritionist in Washington DC and has a practical approach to living a healthy lifestyle. She blogs over at Sue's Nutrition Buzz.