Nutrition & Lifestyle for Thyroid Health
January is National Thyroid Awareness Month. It’s estimated that about 20 million Americans suffer from a thyroid disorder, though over half don’t even know it. To improve both prevention and diagnosis, it’s important to know how nutrition and lifestyle impact thyroid health, as well as the symptoms of thyroid dysfunction. Bonus: we’ll also cover how lifestyle remedies (like a healthy diet!) can aid healing.
what’s the thyroid & what does it do?
The thyroid is a small gland at the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple. Though small in size, it plays a hugely important role in the body, regulating hormones that influence other organs including the brain, heart, liver, kidneys and skin. Thyroid function is heavily nutrient dependent, so the root cause of imbalance is often nutrition or lifestyle. Disorders of the thyroid include hypothyroidism (underactive), hyperthyroidism (overactive), Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease and others, but the most common is hypothyroidism—a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone.
Without sufficient thyroid hormone, the body literally slows down. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, low body temperature and inability to tolerate cold, easy weight gain, loss of appetite, muscle weakness and cramps, hair loss, fertility problems, recurrent infections, depression and difficulty concentrating. (On the flip side, symptoms of hyperthyroidism—overactive thyroid—include nervousness and anxiety, trouble sleeping, racing heart, weight loss and excessive sweating.) The symptoms of a thyroid imbalance can be subtle and develop slowly, but over time become more severe.
Hypothyroidism most commonly affects women of childbearing and middle age. It’s detected via a blood test and usually treated with a daily synthetic thyroid hormone tablet. One of the most common causes of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s disease—an autoimmune disease in which the body becomes allergic to thyroid hormone and then produces antibodies against its own thyroid tissue. Hashimoto’s can be caused by chronic stress, nutrient deficiencies, and toxicity from heavy metals and other environmental contaminants (see below).
Keeping your thyroid healthy
The thyroid is intimately affected by our nutrition, lifestyle and exposure to environmental toxins. Specifically, thyroid function can be affected by poor diet, pesticide residue, fluoridated water, endurance exercise and alcohol consumption.
In general, maintaining a nutrient-rich diet, moderate exercise program, quality sleep and good stress management can help keep your thyroid healthy and well-functioning. Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle to support thyroid (and overall!) health:
Eat your veggies! Aim for half your plate each meal to be veggies and fruit (mostly veggies, though). We share plenty of veggie-heavy recipe ideas on our Pinterest boards if you’re interested.
Avoid processed and refined foods, like those made from white flour and sugar (we’re talking cakes, cookies, breads, cereals, etc.).
Focus on healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado (and avocado oil), organic whole milk dairy, sustainably caught fatty fish, etc.
Incorporate iodine-rich foods into your diet. Iodine is commonly added to table salt, and is naturally found in seaweed, kelp granules, wild-caught fish, dairy and pasture-raised eggs.
Support your gut health by eating probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods and/or taking a daily probiotic supplement. Poor gut health impedes nutrient absorption, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies and autoimmune responses that affect the thyroid.
Choose organic foods—exposure to pesticide residue in conventional produce has been linked to negative impacts on thyroid health.
Maintain regular moderate exercise, like walking (we aim for 10,000 steps most days of the week—here’s why), yoga, cycling, etc.
Prioritize sleep. Most adults need 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night—read more about healthy sleep and how it impacts your overall health.
Manage stress levels with natural stress relievers like: regular moderate exercise, quality sleep, meditation, journaling, enjoying time as part of a supportive community, and other relaxing self-care activities.
Nutrition & lifestyle remedies for thyroid healing
A healthy lifestyle and proper nutrition can help your body restore its natural balance. Though low functioning thyroid is typically treated with synthetic hormone replacement (and certainly some people do require this to attain sufficient levels), the healthy lifestyle guidelines above can help supplement medication in supporting your thyroid health. Some people find success simply from these dietary and lifestyle changes, and others are able to use them to reduce or discontinue their medication. Always talk to your doctor about your specific health needs and never make a change to your medication without first consulting your doctor.
In addition to the lifestyle tips above, a few extra areas of focus for thyroid healing are:
Test for any food allergies or intolerance, which could be contributing to inflammation in your body. Gluten intolerance, including celiac disease, is more common in people who have another autoimmune disease.
Incorporate foods high in selenium and zinc, such as Brazil nuts, spinach, tuna, sardines, grass-fed beef, flaxseeds, pasture-raised eggs and mushrooms.
Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption, both of which impact stress levels, gut health and, ultimately, thyroid healing.
Filter tap water to remove fluoride and chlorine, both of which block iodine receptors in the thyroid. Learn more about water filtration options in our Healthy Home Guide.
Always talk with your doctor about any personal health concern, including concerns related to your thyroid health.
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Keep your thyroid healthy with a nutrient-rich diet, regular moderate exercise, and a healthy lifestyle that includes quality sleep and relaxation.
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