If I were to poll my readers to see how many of you have been diagnosed with hypothyroid or under active thyroid, I’d guess it would be more than just a few. I’ve been curious about this condition ever since I was diagnosed with it a few years back, and it turns out that I have quite a bit of company. An estimated 5% of the population, mostly women over 50, has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and millions more have some form of thyroid disease, but are unaware of it.
What is Hypothyroidism?
The thyroid is a small gland in your neck, and it’s responsible for producing the hormones that regulate many of your body’s functions. When it produces too little hormone, the body’s processes slow down, and you may gain weight, feel abnormally cold, tired or depressed, or even constipated. Left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to heart disease (because it can cause cholesterol to increase), damage to your peripheral nerves, infertility problems, and for pregnant women, possibly even birth defects.
Hypothyroidism is more common in people with a family history, or autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes or lupus. It sometimes occurs after pregnancy, or as a result of a viral infection. The thyroid requires iodine from the diet to make hormones, so an iodine deficiency can also cause hypothyroidism, but that’s fairly rare in the US.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The tricky thing about this condition is that the symptoms can be related to about a million different things. Weight gain, depression, feeling tired is more likely to be caused by stress or diet, so unless your doctor does specific blood work to test your Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, it can go undiagnosed for a long time. The good news is that there is an effective treatment (synthetic thyroid hormone), but the bad news is that you’ll have to take it forever – and have your thyroid levels checked regularly to make sure your dose doesn’t need tweaking.
Diet and Alternative Therapies
If you have hypothyroidism, you need conventional treatment – AKA meds like levothyroxine or synthroid. However, there are some things you can do in terms of your diet and lifestyle that can provide complementary treatment.
Eat a healthy, plant based diet, but keep it consistent. Try to avoid eating huge amounts of raw cruciferous vegetables like kale, arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower – that goes for those green smoothies too. Cruciferous vegetables have lots of health benefits, so they shouldn’t be eliminated, but they do contain compounds called goitrogens, that may interfere with the thyroid’s ability to make hormones from iodine, so you probably shouldn’t eat massive amounts at any one time. Cooking them reduces the amount of the goitrogenic compounds, and an average serving even a few times each week is probably fine, as long as your thyroid hormone levels remain consistent.
Exercise can help keep everything in your body working better, and prevent weight gain, fatigue and depression, whether it’s the result of an under active thyroid, or just getting another year older. Aim to get at least 30-45 minutes of heart rate-raising exercise most days of the week.
The minerals iodine, zinc, copper and selenium are important for normal thyroid function, but taking supplements can lead to toxicity. Instead, make sure you eat lentils, chickpeas, cashews and pumpkin seeds for zinc and copper, and fish or just one Brazil nut a day for selenium. The average American diet has adequate amounts of iodine, but if you don’t eat any iodized salt or processed foods, try to include some sea vegetables like seaweed, kombu or wakame, which are all rich in iodine.
Things to Know About Thyroid Medication
If you are prescribed medication to correct an underactive thyroid, be sure to take it on an empty stomach – 30 minutes before breakfast, or 4 hours after dinner. It’s best absorbed when taken with water, and be aware that coffee (especially espresso) and soy products may interfere with it’s absorption, so don’t drink or eat them too close to the time you take your medication. Also, if you take a calcium supplement, multivitamin with iron, or magnesium containing antacid, don’t take it along with your thyroid medication.