by Ronica O’Hara
Much of our day-to-day well-being—how energetic we feel, how clear our thinking is and how our body processes food—is governed by the activity of the butterfly-shaped, thumb-sized thyroid gland at the base of the throat. When it’s working as it should, life is good. However, about one in eight Americans suffers from a malfunctioning thyroid, and women are five to eight times more likely than men to face the consequences.
It’s a delicate balancing act. A thyroid that produces too few hormones makes us feel sluggish and constipated. We gain weight easily, have muscle cramps and experience heavy periods. Hypothyroidism, as it’s called, is linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, infertility and autism in newborns. A 2013 study published in Annals of Neurology found that pregnant women deficient in thyroid hormone are four times more likely than healthy women to produce a child with autism.
If the thyroid produces too many hormones, we suffer from hyperthyroidism with a racing heart, irritability, light periods, unexplained weight loss and insomnia; it can lead to hardening of the arteries and heart failure later in life, according to a study in Circulation Research.
The good news is that there are simple and effective strategies that can optimize thyroid function and avoid these potential health setbacks, say experts. Their recommendations:
1. Keep up mineral levels. The thyroid needs iodine to churn out hormones, and usually iodized salt or sea salt with natural iodine can supply most of our daily needs of 150 micrograms. Sardines, shrimp, seaweed, yogurt, eggs and capers are also rich in iodine. However, too much of a good thing can tip the balance in the other direction, so practice moderation with super-charged iodine foods like cranberries: A four-ounce serving contains twice the daily requirement. In addition, our thyroids need selenium (one or two Brazil nuts a day will do it) and zinc (nuts, legumes and chocolate) to function optimally.
2. Eat fermented foods. About 20 percent of the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone (T4) into active hormone (T3) takes place in our gut, which makes “good” bacteria critically important. Andrea Beaman, a New York City health coach and author of Happy Healthy Thyroid: The Essential Steps to Healing Naturally, recommends probiotics like cultured vegetables, kimchi, sauerkraut and sourdough bread, as well as prebiotics like root vegetables, plantain, burdock and dandelion root.
3. Filter drinking water. “Fluoride and chlorine are elements that can block the absorption of iodine into the thyroid,” says Elizabeth Boham, M.D., a functional medicine doctor at the UltraWellness Center, in Lenox, Massachusetts. A reverse-osmosis filter or a high-end pitcher filter will remove chlorine, as well as fluoride, which British researchers have linked to a 30 percent higher rate of hypothyroidism.
4. Detox cosmetics. Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in cosmetics, nail polish and shampoos; they are also in plastic toys, and 3-year-old girls exposed to phthalates have shown depressed thyroid function, Columbia University scientists report. Research cosmetics and find toxin-free alternatives at the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.
5. Wake up easy. About 85 percent of thyroid diseases involve an underactive thyroid, says Beaman, adding that it is often the body’s pushback against frenzied, stressful lifestyles: “The thyroid is literally slowing down—our body is saying, ‘Slow, slow, go slow.’” For a low-key start to the day, she suggests not using an alarm clock if possible, and then doing some long, slow stretching and deep breathing. “It takes just five minutes, and you’re starting the day not in fight-or-flight mode, but in a fully relaxed and fully oxygenated body.”
6. Talk it out. In Eastern philosophy, the thyroid in the throat is located at the fifth chakra, the energy center of expression and communication, Beaman says. If we find ourselves either regularly shouting or choking back our words, “it helps, if you want to support your thyroid on a deep emotional level, to express yourself somehow, some way, to someone somewhere,” such as to a therapist, family member or good friend.
7. Do yoga asanas. “Poses such as plow pose, fish pose, boat pose and cobra can improve blood circulation to the thyroid gland, which is imperative for its health,” says Stacy Thewis, a registered nurse, certified wellness coach and gut-brain expert in Mellen, Wisconsin. In a study in the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 22 women with hypothyroidism that practiced yoga for six months needed significantly less thyroid medication.
Ronica A. O’Hara is a Denver-based natural-health writer. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.
Help for a Troubled Thyroid
To verify a possible thyroid condition, consult a doctor, endocrinologist, functional medicine doctor or naturopathic doctor. Ask for a range of tests, not only the standard thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test, but also free T4, free T3, thyroid antibodies for autoimmune reactions, and thyroid-releasing hormone (TRH) tests for a full picture.
The standard pharmaceutical approach for hypothyroidism, the most common condition, is the synthetic hormone levothyroxine (Levoxyl, Synthroid, Unithroid) that boosts T4 production; but it can cause depression and weight gain, researchers at Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center report in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. Ask also about Armour Thyroid, derived from animal thyroids, that contains both T3 and T4, and is often preferred by functional medicine doctors.
Other testing can uncover a reaction to gluten, which is often linked to thyroid dysfunction. “For many with thyroid issues, gluten can provoke an autoimmune response via celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” says registered dietitian nutritionist and health coach Amanda Wikan, of Petaluma, California. If a celiac test is negative, she suggests trying a six-week, gluten-free diet and watching afterward for any signs of non-celiac sensitivity such as headaches, bloating, gas or brain fog.