Growing out of my “a pill can fix anything” phase, I reluctantly segwayed into the healing power of the food I eat. Instead of popping Tylenol Cold and Flu, you can now find me nursing my common cold with simple brewed ginger, lemon and a spoon of manuka honey. Throughout my studies and research, I have become an unwavering believer in the healing power of food. Sure conventional medicine has its own strengths, but I have witnessed through personal experience and countless narratives the effect and immense power that food can have on your health. A healthy compromise between Western medicine and a thyroid healing diet can make all the difference, as a more integrative approach.
For me, integrating healing foods into my diet has had a direct impact on improving my thyroid health. You may be keen to take a thyroid pill for a quick fix but nutritional support, exercise, reducing your stress and inflammation, taking supplements, eliminating certain foods and detoxification from heavy metals (such as mercury and lead) and petrochemical toxins (such as pesticides and PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyl) can help on your road to healing.
It is hard to detect thyroid disorders and while they can affect a wide range of bodily functions, it comes with confusing and often misdiagnosed symptoms. The symptoms, at times ambiguous, can be written off as stress, menopause or even normal ageing. The thyroid is a small gland in the neck behind the larynx, regulating energy production and metabolism throughout the body — including the heart, brain, skin, bowels and body temperature — too much or too little of the hormones it produces can impact your health.
Thyroid problems fall into two categories: functional (e.g. hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism), and structural (e.g. nodules and goiters). Hypothyroidism occurs when there is too little hormone and your metabolic rate slows down; the most common cause is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease that creates antibodies that attack the thyroid gland. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the gland produces too much hormone and the metabolic rate speeds up; the most common is Graves’ disease, which is an autoimmune condition that creates antibodies that stimulate the thyroid. Nodules are growths on the thyroid (mostly non cancerous) and a goiter is a swelling in the throat caused by an enlarged thyroid.
So, why does food play an important role in thyroid healing? For one, the thyroid system can play a critical role in your metabolism, that is why one noticeable symptom in thyroid issues is unexplainable weight gain or loss. Along with controlling your metabolism and weight, your thyroid also regulates your insulin and cortisol.
To produce thyroid hormones, your diet requires iodine. Foods with a high amount of iodine include iodized salt, sea vegetables (like kelp), fish (especially sardines and salmon) and shellfish from the ocean. Iodine works as a disinfectant and antiseptic, which is effective at killing both viruses and bacteria. So someone with an iodine deficiency can be more vulnerable to infection. In order to form the hormone thyroxine (T4), iodine must attach to an amino acid called tyrosine. Insufficient levels of iodine can mess with the steps of thyroid hormone production and then inhibiting your thyroid function.
Sea vegetables, such as kelp, wakame, and nori, have shown to be a great resource for iodine, but you must be careful with overconsumption. While iodine offers great benefits, excess amounts cannot be balanced with other nutrients which makes it more absorbable. Try snacking on nori with sea salt, adding wakame or dulse to your soups, or making nori wraps.
Just as iodine is needed for the production of thyroid hormones, selenium is needed for converting the inactive T4 to the active T3 in order to be used in the body. Selenium can also help in glutathione production (an antioxidant produced by the body for the prevention of damage to cellular components), which can be used to decrease thyroid antibodies for those suffering from Hashimoto. Brazil nuts are a great source of selenium and provide about 100 micrograms of selenium (about 129% of the daily intake recommended by the U.S. government). Other foods rich in selenium include oatmeal, tuna, shrimp, eggs, and turkey.
Chronic heavy metal toxicity – especially mercury, lead and aluminum – found in the body may trigger antibodies, which can sometimes lead to autoimmune thyroid conditions (the Graves’ and Hashimoto’s disease). So trying to rid the body of these heavy metals will help in your healing. Studies have shown that chlorophyll can bind with heavy metals to rid them from the body. Chlorophyll is found in most natural green vegetables – spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, chlorella, spirulina, alfalfa, broccoli, green cabbage, asparagus, matcha green tea. There is also fresh on the scene the new green water, chlorophyll water, even though the scientific evidence is not quite there yet.
The Medical Medium, Anthony William, a famous dietician most known for the celery juice phenomenon and controversial for his approach for healing through food, sustains the true cause of thyroid disease is the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV). The virus is also known as human herpesvirus 4, most commonly known for causing mononucleosis (mono). With his experience, he found the most healing foods for thyroid issues are Atlantic dulse, wild blueberries, celery, sprouts, cilantro, garlic, asparagus, radishes, kale, parsley, butter leaf lettuce, spinach, hemp seeds, coconut oil, Brazil nuts, kelp, and cranberries. He believes these foods can kill EBV cells, provide micronutrients, repair thyroid tissue, reduce nodule growth, flush toxic heavy metals and viral waste, and boost production of thyroid hormones.
Eliminating foods that may cause thyroid problems can also be a step in the right direction. According to Dr. Mark Hyman (someone we studied closely in my Nutrition School), certain foods have developed a reputation for playing a role in thyroid dysfunction, but it is not necessarily linked to the latest scientific evidence. There is evidence however that a gluten-free diet may bring clinical benefits to autoimmune thyroid disease. You may want to do a blood test to identify any hidden reaction to gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, oats, kamut and spelt. Gluten sensitivity or allergy may also cause many different symptoms common to thyroid issues, such as migraines, brain fog, and weight gain.
If you are suffering from any symptoms, thyroid testing may be in your cards. Complete thyroid testing may include blood tests for TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone produced by the pituitary gland to regulate the thyroid, a.k.a. thyrotropin), free T4 (thyroxine), free T3 (triiodothyronine- produced by the thyroid itself) and thyroid antibodies. The problem is thyroid testing can be a bit confusing and inaccurate. It is possible to receive normal tests for major thyroid issues and still have minor perturbations of your thyroid status – which may be more difficult to diagnose clinically and manifesting in signs that are non-specific (e.g. tiredness/lethargy, weight gain/loss, palpitations). Other tests worth looking into simultaneously can be gluten intolerance, food allergies, heavy metals, deficiency in Vitamin D, selenium, Vitamin A, zinc and omega-3 fats. So if you are feeling any symptoms of thyroid issues or if you simply would like to get checked, talk to your doctor and ask for testing.
This content and any linked material are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or prescribing. Consult with a licensed healthcare professional before altering or discontinuing any current medications, treatment or care, or starting any diet, exercise or supplementation program, or if you have or suspect you might have a health condition that requires medical attention.
Photo Credit: Fit Bit Nutrition