You probably don’t give much thought to your thyroid, the little butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, unless you start feeling tired, cold, constipated, or notice hair loss or weight gain. But thyroid problems have reached epidemic proportions due to the chemicals and toxins in our environment and food supply. Most thyroid cases are autoimmune in nature, and autoimmune disease rates have skyrocketed due to genetics, poor nutrition, and environmental factors.
Why should you care about your thyroid? It regulates nearly all your metabolic processes, which makes it pretty important. Thyroid hormones impact brain function/cognition, female hormone balance, fertility, GI function, body temperature, cardiovascular function, and lipid/cholesterol metabolism. Thyroid hormones regulate other hormones including insulin, cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
It’s estimated that between 30-50 million Americans have thyroid dysfunction. Many are undiagnosed (I see this all the time). Women are 10 times more likely than men to have thyroid issues.
If you have thyroid disease (hypothyroid, Hashimoto’s, or hyperthyroid) or autoimmune disease in your family, you’ll want to check your thyroid yearly. Ask your doctor for a thyroid panel, or you can order one yourself here. Make sure it includes TSH, free T3, and free T4 at least. Often doctors gauge thyroid function using only TSH, which is not the most accurate marker.
If you have thyroid problems or just want to support or prevent thyroid disease, there are a few rockstar foods/nutrients and herbs you’ll want to include. For even more thyroid support, check out my top 10 foods to heal hypothyroidism.
My Top Five Thyroid Rockstars
1. Top billing goes to my beloved ashwagandha. This adaptogenic herb modulates your immune and endocrine system to regulate hormones. It’s useful for both hypo- and hyperthyroid and autoimmune thyroid cases because of its balancing effect: if levels are too high or low, it aids in normalizing them. It’s also an excellent tonic for tired adrenal glands, and your adrenals and thyroid greatly impact one another. Ashwagandha has a long list of positive benefits including the following:
- combats stress
- eases anxiety
- relaxes the mind and mood
- regulates immune system
- rejuvenates adrenals
- balances hormones
2. Selenium is a true thyroid rockstar antioxidant, meaning it combats free radical damage in your body. It also seems to have a balancing effect for both hypo- and hyperthyroidism. Selenium is necessary for thyroid hormone conversion: It converts T4 to the active form of thyroid hormone, T3. Several studies have shown selenium to be beneficial for autoimmune thyroid conditions; it may lower antibody levels and reduce inflammation. (source) You can get all the selenium you need in a day by eating just 4-5 Brazil nuts. I do this daily. But be careful about taking selenium supplements: “long term consumption of high doses of selenium can lead to complications such as gastrointestinal upsets, hair loss, white blotchy nails, garlic breath odor, fatigue, irritability, and mild nerve damage.” (source)
3. Perhaps the most necessary nutrient for thyroid health is iodine. In fact, iodine deficiency is the most common cause of hypothyroidism worldwide. The thyroid uses iodine to make thyroid hormones T4 and T3. And actually iodine has many functions in the body, including breast health, brain function, stomach acid production, and removal of halide toxins (fluoride, chlorine, etc). Most people think they get enough iodine from iodized salt, but it’s far less than needed, and most iodized salt is refined sodium chloride, not the good unrefined sea salt that most of us have been told to consume. Sea salt doesn’t contain much, if any, iodine (which is why table salt is iodized). Sea vegetables such as kelp, nori, dulse, wakame, and kombu are some of the best sources of iodine. Shellfish is another good one. But again, be careful with iodine supplementation: there’s a lot of confusing info about how supplementing with iodine can aggravate antibody levels if you have Hashimoto’s (though some practitioners say if you take balanced levels of selenium and iodine together this won’t be a problem). So, get your levels tested. I often recommend kelp supplements to those who are low iodine.
4. Liver gets a mention because it is truly one of the most nutrient dense meats we’re not eating. Considered nature’s multi-vitamin, it is high in vitamins D, A, B vitamins, iron, zinc and protein, ALL of which are crucial for a well functioning thyroid. I wish I loved liver, but I just can’t stomach it. If that’s you, you can take desiccated liver capsules every now and again (I do). This brand is good. Here are some other ways to sneak liver into your diet. Try and get a few ounces weekly.
5. Fermented foods make the list because of their probiotic power. Did you know that 20 percent of thyroid function depends on a sufficient supply of healthy gut bacteria? Most of us have poor probiotic diversity because of antibiotic use, too much sugar, birth control pills, conventionally raised meat that’s been fed antibiotics, etc. Getting plenty of probiotic-rich foods from all sources helps correct this imbalance and also starve out bad bacteria. The majority of your immune system is in your gut, so good probiotic levels are key for those with autoimmune conditions. Choose from fermented vegetables (raw kraut), coconut water kefir (my fave), or cow or goat kefir if you can tolerate dairy.
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