In this post, I start discussing the key modifications to help improve your thyroid function through nutrition. Make sure you check the second part of this series next week. Keep in mind that these posts are purely educational and don’t replace medical advice from your doctor.
In the previous post, I focused on thyroid labs, what they mean, and why–unfortunately–thyroid disorders are under-diagnosed. Here are some statistics for your entertainment:
- 27 million Americans have thyroid disease according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, half of them are undiagnosed
- 1 in 8 women between the ages of 35 and 65 and 1 in 5 women over the age of 65 have some form of thyroid disease
- 90% of hypothyroidism cases are caused by Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune thyroid disease
9 Steps to Improve Thyroid with Nutrition
Follow these 9 steps to improve your thyroid function and potentially reverse thyroid damage. It’s better to work with a dietitian experienced in thyroid issues who can give you specific recommendations tailored to your specific needs. Use these tips for educational purposes only and not to replace advice from your physician or health professional.
1. Manage blood sugar
Both high and low blood sugar can weaken your thyroid. When your blood sugar is elevated, your pancreas will release insulin to shuttle glucose into your cells. When there’s a spike in blood sugar, there will be a surge of insulin. This is a form of inflammation, and if it happens frequently, your thyroid gland will fatigue and eventually produce less thyroid hormone.
On the other hand, when blood sugar is low, the body sees it as a threat to survival. As a result, the adrenal glands release cortisol. This hormones communicates to your systems that major survival functions, like lung capacity, heart rate, and skeletal muscles are priority. At the same time, it suppresses functions that aren’t as necessary, such as growth and digestion. It also suppresses the pituitary gland, which is directly involved in promoting thyroid hormone production. Hypothyroidism is in fact frequent in people with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Your goal should be to prevent both extremes of blood sugar. To do that, follow these 4 general steps:
- Space meals and snacks every 3 hours to prevent low blood sugar.
- Eat a low to moderate carbohydrate diet.
- Choose carbs that will not raise your blood sugar too quickly. Examples include non-starchy veggies, beans, winter squashes, low-glycemic index fruits, and unprocessed grains like quinoa and steel-cut oats if you can tolerate grains.
- Eat balanced meals. Pair your carbs with a healthy protein or fat like avocado, nuts, or hummus.
2. Have some carbs, but not too much
Following a low-carb or zero-carb (ex. Atkins or ketogenic) diet is going to wreck your thyroid. That’s also because low carb diets stress the adrenals, which will have a domino effect on your thyroid.
The right amount of carbs for thyroid health is a fine balancing act. It’s different from one person to another. In general, I consider 40% of calories from carbs as ‘moderate’ intake. If you tend to have hypoglycemia, you probably need to stick with this amount. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, you may need to eat fewer carbs but that doesn’t mean no carbs at all.
If you’re not sure what’s best for you, consider working with me or someone else individually. I typically dig deeper and review labs and medications during one-on-one consultations.
3. Cook cruciferous veggies
Cruciferous vegetables are cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens, and bok choy. In their raw form, they are considered goitrogenic foods, which means foods that slow down the thyroid and contribute to it enlarging.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat these veggies again. They are superfoods with lots of benefits for detoxification. Just steam them lightly or roast them and you’re good to go. Raw? Not so often. That’s why recommending that everyone drinks a daily green juice to be healthy is a ridiculous and irresponsible advice. Plus, many of these green juices are high in sugar and defeat points #1 & #2.
Goitrogens will not cause thyroid issues in people with normal thyroid function.
4. Limit other goitrogenic foods:
Aside from cruciferous vegetables, there are other goitrogenic foods to limit:
- Soybeans and soy extract (more on soy in part 2)
You don’t have to eliminate all these foods completely. Just be conscious of eating them in excess. If you tend to have strawberries daily or if you’re following a gluten-free diet and end up eating millet bread daily, then maybe it’s time to change things up.
5. Maximize nutrients from food and supplements
Low thyroid functions means your digestion and absorption is slow. While this will affect many nutrients your body needs for a variety of functions, these nutrients are specific for improving thyroid health and thyroid hormone production. Please keep in mind that this is general information and it’s recommended to work with a health professional who’s familiar with supplements for thyroid health.
- Digestive enzymes (HCL): to boost digestion so your body can break down foods better and extract nutrients. You can try a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme with betaine HCL, betaine HCL on its own, or try raw apple cider before your meals. If you don’t know what betaine HCL is and how enzymes are related to digestion, read my article on HCL and stomach acid.
- Selenium: selenium neutralizes the free radicals that are generated when thyroid hormone is produced. Selenium is also needed for the conversion of T4 to T3. Read my previous article to understand what T4 to T3 conversion means.
- Vitamin D: it’s especially important to check your vitamin D level if you have auto-immune thyroid condition. Vitamin D is an immune modulator, and immune cells won’t develop properly if you have vitamin D deficiency. Optimal level is between 50-80. Supplements are necessary if your level is low and you need to check with your doctor or dietitian to make sure you’re taking the right dose, not too much and not too low. Get your vitamin D re-tested after 3 months of taking supplements.
- Vitamin B12: incomplete digestion due low stomach acid (HCL) is common in thyroid conditions. In this situation, your body can’t extract vitamin B12 from its food sources. Vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms include fatigue, weakness, and constipation, which are thyroid symptoms too. Similar to vitamin D, check your vitamin B12 level and work with your doctor or dietitian to get the right dose and right form on vitamin B12.
- Iron: iron is also needed for thyroid hormone production. Ask your doctor to check your ferritin level. Low ferritin indicates low iron stores levels, which typically drop way before hemoglobin does, the main iron lab test most doctors rely on. If ferritin is low, you won’t grow more hair! While a healthy range for ferritin is considered from 12-150 ng/mL, optimal function may not occur until ferritin level is 80 ng. Again, don’t take iron pills without getting it checked as iron can be toxic if it’s not needed. To prevent constipation, a common side effect of iron supplements and a symptom of thyroid disease, choose chelated iron supplements.
- Iodine: iodine can be tricky. It’s ok to have iodine in your multi. Be careful with additional iodine though because it can be like adding gas to the fire.
- Other nutritions like zinc, vitamin B2, B3, B6, and C are also needed for thyroid hormone production. For that reason, I always recommend a high quality multi vitamin and mineral product and add extras when needed based on lab tests.
I will continue with 4 more steps to improve your thyroid function. They will focus on gut health and auto-immunity. Make sure you come back!