Your thyroid gland is the master regulator of your metabolism. This industrious gland in your neck sets your resting metabolic rate, how quickly your body burns energy at rest. It’s also a key regulator of your energy level, body weight, and factors like your appetite. When your thyroid gland is underactive and doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, you feel tired and gain weight.
Unfortunately, thyroid disease is increasing worldwide, particularly in women. Around 5% of the population, mostly women have hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid gland, and the incidence increases after menopause.
There’s no single factor that contributes to the surge in thyroid disease. Experts point out that better diagnosis means we’re detecting more thyroid issues. If you have thyroid disease, your healthcare provider can more easily diagnose and treat it. So, we’re catching and treating more thyroid disease. But there are other reasons why thyroid gland disorders are rising. Let’s look at some that experts believe are a factor.
Environmental Iodine Deficiency:
Iodine is your thyroid gland’s best friend and is necessary for your thyroid gland to do its job of making thyroid hormones. It can’t produce sufficient thyroid hormone when you’re deficient in iodine. However, iodine deficiency is not common in the United States. The reason? Table salt is iodized, meaning it contains iodine. So, every time you use table salt, you get iodine. Therefore, most Americans get iodine in their diet to keep their thyroid healthy.
You need around half to three-quarters of a teaspoon of iodized table salt daily to meet your body’s iodine needs, which is achievable if you eat a standard diet. However, if you use only sea salt, you’re at higher risk for iodine deficiency, as sea salt doesn’t contain iodine.
As the Mayo Clinic points out, you can still get iodine from dietary sources such as seaweed, fish, dairy products, eggs, enriched grains, and iodine-rich soil-grown plant foods and it’s important to do so if you don’t use table salt. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you need more iodine in your diet to avoid a deficiency. So, talk to your doctor about taking an iodine supplement. Only use an iodine supplement under the care of a physician.
Another critical trigger for thyroid disorders is autoimmune reactions. When your immune system turns against itself and starts attacking its own tissues, it’s known as an autoimmune condition. Among women, one prevalent factor behind an underactive thyroid is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune ailment where antibodies form against the thyroid tissue itself. In cases of autoimmunity, the thyroid becomes a battleground for immune cells, leading to the physical destruction of the tissue responsible for producing thyroid hormones.
Research shows that a deficiency in the trace mineral selenium may contribute to autoimmune thyroid conditions. A study in Endocrinology and Metabolism also found that a low vitamin D level is correlated with higher rates of antibodies against thyroid tissue. So, diet and sun exposure may play a role.
Thyroid problems are linked with hormonal fluctuations, including those that occur after menopause. As you enter menopause, your ovaries produce less estrogen, a hormone that has a positive effect on thyroid hormone production. As estrogen levels fall, thyroid hormone production becomes more sluggish too. Plus, your thyroid gland ages like the rest of your body. These age-related changes affect how efficiently your thyroid produces thyroid hormones. While thyroid issues can manifest at any stage of life, they are most common in women during and after menopause when hormone levels change.
Toxins Caused by Pollution
In today’s world, we’re exposed to more environmental toxins in the air and water than we were decades ago when the environment was cleaner. These toxins are part of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat. These toxins may harm all aspects of your health and even interfere with how your thyroid functions. Thus, the rising pollution levels globally may be an underappreciated cause of thyroid disease.
We live in a sea of toxins. The water we drink and air we breathe is less clean than it was decades ago when the environment was cleaner. Such toxin overload can harm our thyroid gland too. The same environmental toxins that cause other health issues can reduce thyroid hormone production through several mechanisms. These toxins exert their effects by triggering autoimmune reactions and by disrupting hormones that affect thyroid activity.
You may have heard the term “endocrine disruptor,” referring to phthalates in the environment that affect the activity of hormones. For example, plastics and even personal care products contain phthalates. Plus, air pollution contains substances like CO2, SO2, CO, NO2, PM2.5, perchlorate, and PCBs, which can disrupt thyroid function. To protect your thyroid, it’s crucial to limit exposure to these pollutants.
While these factors heighten the risk of developing thyroid problems, not everyone exposed to them will end up with a thyroid disorder. Genetics are a factor too. Autoimmune conditions and thyroid disorders have a genetic component too and may run in families.
The good news is with proper diagnosis and treatment, you and your healthcare provider can manage a thyroid condition. It’s a good idea to feel your thyroid gland every month or so and make sure it hasn’t increased in size and that you don’t feel any lumps or irregularities.
Although there’s no proven way to prevent thyroid disease, taking these steps may reduce your risk:
- Manage stress – Stress can affect how your thyroid functions, so have ways to curb your body’s stress response, such as yoga or meditation.
- Regular physical activity – May help by reducing stress.
- Kick the smoking habit: When you smoke, you expose your thyroid to toxins that can interfere with thyroid hormone production.
- Limit exposure to environmental pollutants: If possible, don’t live in an area that has high levels of air pollution.
- Get enough iodine: Ensure you’re getting enough iodine in your diet by not using exclusively sea salt. Use table salt half the time.
- Ensure you’re getting enough selenium: Reliable sources are Brazil nuts, eggs, seafood, dairy, mushrooms, and whole grains. Be aware that too much selenium can be toxic. For example, Brazil nuts are so high in selenium that you shouldn’t consume more than 1 or 2 a day.
- Ensure you have an adequate vitamin D level.
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