Your thyroid is the master gland when it comes to regulating your metabolism. When your thyroid gland slows down, bodily functions do too including the activity of your brain, metabolism, digestive tract and your ability to produce heat. That’s why the most common symptoms of an under-active thyroid gland are weight gain, constipation, feeling cold, brain fog and fatigue.
Unfortunately, a significant number of people, especially women over the age of 40, have undiagnosed thyroid disease, usually an under-active thyroid gland due to an autoimmune condition. The only symptoms you might have with this condition are lack of energy and weight gain. With thyroid disease being common, it’s important to take steps to keep your thyroid healthy. Here are some tips.
Know Whether You’re at Risk for Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
Does your family have a history of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, lupus or autoimmune thyroid disease? If so, you are at higher risk for autoimmune thyroid disease, especially after menopause. In general, the risk of thyroid disease increases with age. Most cases of under-active thyroid affect women and show up around the time of menopause.
Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Iodine in Your Diet
Iodine is needed to make the thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, which regulate your metabolism. If you don’t have enough iodine in your diet, you won’t be able to produce enough active thyroid hormone. Most people get sufficient amounts of iodine, but if you’re vegan and don’t eat dairy products and eggs, you’re at higher risk for an iodine deficiency.
Are you using sea salt? Sea salt contains only trace amounts of iodine and the salt in processed food isn’t usually iodized. That’s why it’s best to use iodized salt rather than sea salt if you’re not eating meat and dairy products. Adequate iodine is especially important during pregnancy since even a mild deficiency can affect fetal growth and development. Other good sources of iodine are seafood and sea vegetables like kelp.
Be Aware of Goitrogens
Goitrogens are compounds found naturally in foods that block the production of thyroid hormones. Soy foods and cruciferous vegetables are two examples. Unfortunately, cruciferous vegetables are among the best foods from an anti-cancer standpoint, so you want them in your diet. Cooking inactivates the goitrogens in Brussels sprouts so you may want to cook your cruciferous vegetables if you have a history or family history of thyroid disease. Moderate amounts of soy, one to two servings a day, are unlikely to have a significant effect but it’s best to eat soy foods in moderation.
Get Enough Selenium in Your Diet
Selenium makes up part of the enzyme that converts the thyroid hormone T4 to T3, the active form your peripheral tissues can use. This is important for normal thyroid gland function. Selenium is also used to make antioxidant enzymes that protect cells against oxidative damage. Selenium deficiency worsens the effects of iodine deficiency on thyroid function. That’s why it’s a good idea to add some selenium-rich foods to your diet.
The best source of selenium? Brazil nuts contain the highest amount of any food. Other good sources are seafood, red meat, dairy, eggs, mushrooms and sunflower seeds. It’s best to get selenium naturally through diet since it can be toxic at high doses.
Mind Your Thyroid Gland
If you have any symptoms of an underactive thyroid including unexplained weight gain that you can’t seem to lose, difficulty conceiving, unexplained fatigue, hair loss or hair that’s excessively brittle, constipation, brain fog, depression or intolerance of cold temperatures. Up to one in eight women have a thyroid problem and many don’t know it.
One simple screening test you can do at home to see whether your thyroid function is likely to be sluggish is to check your body temperature every morning for a week before getting out of bed or moving around too much. Keep the thermometer by the bed. If your temperature is consistently below 97.8 degrees Fahrenheit before getting out of bed, you may have an under-active thyroid, especially if you have any of the other symptoms. You expect to have a lower body temperature in the morning, but most people don’t fall below 97.8 degrees Fahrenheit normally.
There are all kinds of stress. Emotional stress, lack of sleep, calorie restriction and exercise overtraining are all forms of stress that can slow down the function of your thyroid gland. When you’re under stress, your body can’t as easily convert T4, the inactive form of thyroid hormone, to the active form, T3. Instead, it converts it to reverse T3. Reverse T3 blocks receptors for T3 so you don’t get the benefits of the active form of thyroid hormone.
Restricting calories too much through dieting and working out excessively without letting your body recover are two common problems that can slow down your metabolic rate through effects on thyroid hormone.
The Bottom Line?
Healthy thyroid gland function is important for controlling your weight and for overall health. Be aware of the signs of an underactive thyroid, know your family history and take steps to get enough iodine and selenium in your diet.
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism April 1, 2002 vol. 87 no. 4 1687-1691.
Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2009 Dec;23(6):815-27.