The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck. But despite its small size, it has an enormous impact on your body, affecting everything from your weight to energy levels to the health of your hair, skin, and nails. That’s because the thyroid releases hormones that control your metabolism — a process that involves transforming the food you eat into energy and then using that energy to power all of your body’s cells and systems.
But quite a few things can throw your thyroid function out of balance and set you up for a range of unpleasant symptoms. The good news: Many of these risk factors are modifiable, and there are a variety of ways you can tweak your diet and lifestyle to support thyroid health.
Below, we’ll break down:
- What causes thyroid problems
- Signs your thyroid isn’t functioning optimally
- How to support thyroid function naturally
What Causes Thyroid Problems in the First Place?
When your thyroid is working properly, it pumps out the correct amounts of two thyroid hormones — thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) — to keep your metabolism running smoothly. As these hormones are used up, the pituitary gland senses this drop and releases another hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH then tells the thyroid to release additional thyroid hormones into circulation, thus keeping you in a healthy metabolic balance.
Unfortunately, normal thyroid function can be negatively impacted by various factors, which could set you up for hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Hypothyroidism, in which the body produces too little of the thyroid hormones, is significantly more common and affects around 5% of the population over age 12.
But “thyroid dysfunction doesn’t just happen,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, MD, Medical Director of Vital Plan. “It results from underlying causes — typically not just one, but a combination of factors, often related to poor diet, toxins, inactivity, microbes, an abundance of stress. Certain drugs, like oral contraception and beta-blockers for the heart, can affect the thyroid, too.”
Thyroid problems can also be autoimmune-related, meaning they develop as a result of the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking the thyroid gland. Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune form of hypothyroidism, while Grave’s disease is an autoimmune form of hyperthyroidism. These are particularly common in middle-aged women. Additionally, genetics play a role, says Dr. Rawls. So if you have family members with thyroid problems, you may be at increased risk.
Signs Your Thyroid Isn’t Functioning Optimally
An underactive or overactive thyroid can have various downstream consequences for your health. Below are some of the main symptoms of hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Just keep in mind: “Thyroid changes generally sneak up on you over months or years, so you might not even notice your symptoms,” says Dr. Rawls.
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) symptoms:
- Weight gain
- Dry, coarse hair
- Hair loss
- Hoarse voice
- Intolerance to cold temperatures
- Frequent, heavy menstrual periods
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) symptoms:
- Anxiety, irritability, nervousness
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight loss
- Frequent bowel movements
- Rapid heart rate
- Enlarged thyroid gland or a goiter
- Muscle weakness and tremors
- Sensitivity to heat
- Vision problems or eye irritation
- Irregular menstrual periods or having menstrual cycles stop
If you’re experiencing thyroid-related symptoms, get in touch with your doctor, who can run the appropriate lab tests and, if necessary, prescribe medication.
Since several underlying factors can trigger thyroid problems, there’s a lot you can do to prevent them or even help manage a thyroid condition once you’ve been diagnosed. Here’s how to adjust your diet and lifestyle for optimal thyroid health.
10 Ways to Support Thyroid Health Naturally
1. Eat a Balanced Anti-Inflammatory Diet.
“In general, people are eating really poor quality food that stresses the cells of the body, and that ultimately ends up affecting the thyroid function,” says Dr. Rawls. For example, research has shown that chronic inflammation — often a result of a diet high in processed foods and sugar — contributes to oxidative stress (when unstable free radical molecules outnumber the body’s antioxidant defenses), which, in turn, can suppress thyroid function. And on the flip side, hypothyroidism can also worsen oxidative stress, creating a vicious cycle.
The solution? Eat more foods that will quell the inflammatory fires. Aim to follow an anti-inflammatory diet as often as you can. Primarily consume whole or minimally processed foods such as:
- Vegetables (these should take up most of your plate)
- Fruits (particularly antioxidant-rich berries)
- Whole grains
- Omega-3-rich fish
- Raw, fermented foods
- Olive oil
- Dark chocolate
Be sure you’re formulating your meals for balanced blood sugar, too. “Insulin resistance, caused by excessive consumption of processed, high-carbohydrate foods, has been linked to thyroid dysfunction,” says Dr. Rawls. In addition to scaling back on foods like pasta, white bread, crackers, pretzels, and desserts, you can keep blood sugar stable by eating a balance of complex carbs (veggies, legumes, whole grains), protein, and healthy fats at each meal. Think: salmon with roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli drizzled with olive oil.
2. Move Your Body to Support a Healthy Weight.
Physical activity has countless mental and physical health benefits, one of those being weight loss. Losing weight if you are overweight or obese is good for your thyroid because carrying extra fat — particularly around your midsection — is associated with inflammation and insulin resistance, which can negatively impact the thyroid. Fat cells in the belly area are more prone to producing proinflammatory molecules called cytokines, which, in turn, can promote inflammation and interfere with insulin signaling.
Consider aiming for around 20-30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity physical activity such as walking, hiking, cycling, biking, or an aerobic fitness YouTube video. If you’re less mobile, consider a gentle yoga flow or simple bodyweight exercises such as sit-ups, push-ups, planks, and leg lifts that you can do from the floor.
3. Don’t Miss Out on Thyroid-Supporting Minerals.
Iodine deficiency is a known cause of hypothyroidism, as this mineral plays a vital role in thyroid hormone production. But that’s not the only one. Selenium and zinc can support thyroid health, too, says Dr. Rawls. Many processed foods have been stripped of their naturally-occurring minerals, but loading up on these can help you hit your quota:
- Iodine: Seaweed (nori, kelp, kombu, wakame), seafood, dairy, eggs, iodized salt
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, meat, poultry, brown rice, oatmeal, dairy, lentils
- Zinc: Seafood, meat, poultry, legumes, pumpkin seeds, almonds
4. Boost Your Levels of Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is another micronutrient you don’t want to miss out on — and yet many of us are. Estimates suggest around 29% of adults are vitamin D deficient. “Low levels of vitamin D may be associated with hypothyroidism and autoimmune thyroid conditions, so making sure your vitamin D is in a healthy range is a good step toward making sure your thyroid is functioning well,” says Dr. Rawls. There are three ways you can increase vitamin D levels:
- Eat more vitamin D-rich foods: Tuna and salmon are good dietary sources of vitamin D, and egg yolks and certain cheeses contain small amounts. Milk and non-dairy milk are often fortified with vitamin D as well, so check the labels.
- Get some sunshine: You definitely don’t want to burn, but spending a few minutes outside in the midday sun before applying sunscreen may significantly boost your vitamin D levels.
- Take a vitamin D supplement: The recommended dietary allowance (RDI) for vitamin D is 600 IU for adults, but some research suggests higher doses of around 2500 IU may be beneficial. Talk with your doctor about what dose is right for you.
5. Don’t Overdo It on Goitrogenic Foods.
Goitrogens are compounds in certain foods (cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, soy, cassava, raw onion, millet) that may interfere with how the thyroid uses iodine to produce thyroid hormones. In animal studies, very high intakes of goitrogens have been shown to cause hypothyroidism; but the results for humans aren’t as clear cut: Goitrogenic foods may only pose a problem for people who also have an iodine deficiency.
Therefore, Dr. Rawls emphasizes eating these foods in moderation if you’ve been told you have borderline hypothyroidism. Cruciferous veggies, in particular, still offer a range of healthy micronutrients and antioxidants that may help lower cholesterol and aid in detoxification processes.
6. Nourish Your Gut Microbiome.
You’ve probably heard of the gut-brain connection, but there’s a gut-thyroid connection, too. Case in point: Research suggests many people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten-sensitivity develop autoimmune thyroid conditions (Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease). In part, this may be because gluten consumption damages the gut lining in these individuals, allowing toxins from the intestines to “leak” into the bloodstream and activate an inflammatory immune response that negatively impacts the thyroid. A leaky gut may also impair your ability to properly absorb nutrients necessary for optimal thyroid function.
If you think you might be gluten-sensitive, the best way to support your gut is to remove all gluten-containing products from your diet and see how you feel. But don’t stop there. Other factors — like eating an ultra-processed diet — have also been associated with negative changes in the gut microbiome and leaky gut.
So scaling back on all processed foods and loading up on nourishing whole foods is a smart move. Consuming a wide variety of plant foods and adding fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, etc.) to your diet are two top strategies to promote optimal microbial diversity and support a healthy gut lining.
7. Take Steps to Manage Stress Levels.
A little stress now and then is fine, but feeling chronically frazzled is problematic for your hormones, including thyroid hormones. “Chronic stress affects your pituitary gland, which, in turn, regulates the thyroid gland,” says Dr. Rawls. Specifically, elevations in stress hormones, like cortisol, can decrease the secretion of TSH from the pituitary gland, leading to reduced secretion of T3 and T4 from the thyroid.
To counter this, take steps to curb or manage stress as best you can — whether that’s making sure you get enough sleep, meditating, staying off of social media, or engaging in any hobby that brings you joy.
8. Consider an Ashwagandha Supplement.
Dr. Rawls’ go-to herb for supporting the thyroid and promoting a healthier stress response is ashwagandha. This adaptogenic herb not only balances the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a hormone pathway that regulates the body’s response to stress, it also stimulates the thyroid gland and helps normalize thyroid hormone secretion, explains Dr. Rawls. “By restoring normal balance, ashwagandha improves stress resistance, allows for normal sleep, and reduces brain fog and fatigue,” he says.
Just keep in mind: If you’re taking thyroid hormone replacement and decide to try ashwagandha, your thyroid medication dose may need to be lowered as some of your normal thyroid function resumes. So always keep your doctor informed about any new supplements you’re taking.
9. Reduce Your Exposure to Toxins.
A variety of toxins in the environment and your home cleaning and personal care products may negatively impact thyroid function, such as fluoride, chlorine, mercury, dioxins, pesticides, herbicides, and cigarette smoke, says Dr. Rawls. These act via several mechanisms and may damage the thyroid, suppress thyroid hormone production, and prevent thyroid hormones from being used properly.
While you can’t control your every exposure, you can reduce your toxic load by quitting smoking, purifying your drinking water to reduce your intake of chlorine and fluoride, selecting organic produce when possible, and opting for non-toxic cleaning supplies and personal care products. Herbs like chlorella and milk thistle can also promote detoxification.
10. Use Herbs and Spices with Antimicrobial Properties.
“Microbes are those low-grade threats [bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa] that we pick up here and there. They can end up in our tissues for the rest of our life, which can disrupt cells’ ability to effectively communicate, throw hormones and other systems off balance, and increase cellular wear and tear,” says Dr. Rawls, which may negatively impact the thyroid.
The good news: Boosting your intake of medicinal herbs — such as garlic, turmeric, reishi, cordyceps, andrographis, and Japanese knotweed — from your diet or supplements may help. “Herbs not only suppress microbes, but they also protect our cells, thanks to the hundreds of beneficial phytochemicals they contain,” says Dr. Rawls.
While there’s a lot that can potentially interfere with thyroid function, that also means there are so many little ways to support your thyroid throughout the day. No matter where you are in your thyroid health journey — whether you want to prevent problems before they start or restore some function to an underactive thyroid — these steps can set you on the path to feeling your best.
For more information on wellness, Learn about
Dr. Rawls’ NEW book The Cellular Wellness Solution, at CellularWellness.com
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