Health & Nutrition with Rosie Shelley, BA, SAC.Dip, ITEC.Dip
THE theme of this year’s International Thyroid Awareness Week is ‘It’s not you, it’s your thyroid’, and the aim is to underline just how many critical bodily functions are controlled by this little gland, and so how easy it is for symptoms to be misinterpreted.
Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, is by far the most common form of thyroid disease. It’s undoubtedly a hugely underdiagnosed condition — some experts say ‘the’ most underdiagnosed.
In the genes
Statistics suggest that up to 10 times more women than men are affected, which isn’t properly understood except to say that all autoimmune disorders are more common in females, and an estimated 90% of cases of hypothyroidism are due to an inflammatory, autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack its own tissues—in the case those of the thyroid gland.
There is a strong genetic predisposition to hypothyroidism, but it will be triggered by the immune/inflammatory response originating in the gut (sometimes a viral infection), that characterises all autoimmune diseases.
In fact if you have an underactive thyroid you are statistically far more likely to have or develop another autoimmune disorder such as coeliac disease or diabetes. Hypothyroidism is present in 38.4% of people with rheumatoid arthritis. Just this March scientists found a link between Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which is very poorly understood, and low levels of thyroid hormones, which is a very promising breakthrough.
Raft of symptoms
The thyroid gland works like a motor in your body, affecting metabolic processes almost everywhere. Not just how fast we burn calories for energy but also our heart rate, breathing, brain function and mood, body temperature, the movement of food/waste through the digestive system, bones/skin/hair, muscle strength and menstrual cycles.
If it’s underperforming, the result will be varying degrees of a raft of symptoms: extreme fatigue, unexplained weight gain, cold hands and feet, poor concentration, constipation, irregular or heavy periods and fertility issues in women, higher risk of autism in offspring, and dry/brittle/thinning skin, hair and nails. Also possibly allergies, digestive disturbances, low libido, candida (thrush), depression, dizziness, pins and needles, slow movements/speech/thought processes, dry/gritty eyes, hoarse voice, swallowing difficulties, shortness of breath, carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle/joint aches, frequent colds and ‘flu, low blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or other blood fats, elevated homocysteine levels and levels of inflammatory markers, so seeing your GP is a must.
A blood test will determine whether your thyroid gland is failing to produce enough of its hormone, thyroxin. If it is, you will simply be prescribed a synthetic form of thyroid hormone, which needs to be taken for the rest of your life.
High protein diet helps
Diet is key for people with hypothyroidism, and a relatively high protein, low carbohydrate plan has been found the most effective in terms of addressing weight, energy levels and other issues. After filling half your plate with vegetables, for necessary fibre and nutrients, focus then on healthy proteins such as fish, organic meat and poultry, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, eggs and some dairy.
The thyroid gland depends on particularly on iodine, selenium, and healthy fats including omega 3 (which also helps to burn stored body fat), so include lots of fish including some oily fish, dairy, beans, tiny but regular amounts of seaweed, eggs, berries, as well as nuts and seeds, nut and seed butters, avocadoes, wheatgerm, and organic, cold pressed olive or coconut oils. If you want to eat grains, stick to small portions of the most nutrient dense options.
Given the central gut bacteria/inflammation/ immune response connection, to control and/or prevent further autoimmune complications it would be very important to take steps to repopulate your gut with good bacteria. Take a good probiotic, eat plenty of fermented foods, and cut out the junk.
It’s worth noting that there are some compounds that can interfere with the production of thyroid hormones, such as those in raw veg of the cabbage/broccoli family, and in millet, peanuts, and soya. If you are taking medication for hypothyroidism, you shouldn’t eat more than a teaspoon or so of seaweed at a time, as while iodine is vital here the high concentration in things like kelp may actually worsen matters. Take your medication as soon as you wake up, and well away from anything that interferes with its absorption—calcium supplements, antacids and fibre supplements. Fluoride and chlorine disrupt iodine metabolism—a 2015 study showed that water fluoridation above a certain level is linked to a 30% higher rate of hypothyroidism-- so avoid commercial toothpastes (get yours from the healthfood shop) and an excess of regular tea, which is another major source of fluoride.
Mistaken for PND
And last but absolutely not least, hypothyroidism sometimes develops during pregnancy (or after childbirth, when it can be mistaken for postnatal depression), and if you already have it your thyroxin levels will need to be closely monitored. If there is a family history it’s vital that you ask your doctor to test your levels, as hypothyroidism can cause serious problems for the pregnancy (preeclampsia, premature birth, miscarriage) and for the growing baby in terms of its cognitive development. Iodine itself is crucial for that development, and it would be wise for all pregnant (and breastfeeding) women to get their levels of the mineral checked as well, and to take a tailored prenatal supplement that includes iodine (take it at least three hours after any thyroid medication).