The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits around the windpipe at the base of the neck. The thyroid gland is one of the largest endocrine (hormone producing) glands in the body. The thyroid gland manufacturers two hormones; triiodothyronine (T3) and tetraiodohyronine (T4.) Thyroid hormones are responsible for controlling the basic activity of each cell in the body, including metabolism, growth and development. 

The main function of the thyroid hormones is to convert the calories in food into useable energy for the body. If thyroid hormone levels drop below normal levels, metabolism inside cells slows down and energy levels drop. If thyroid hormone levels become too high, metabolism and all body processes speed up. These hormones also help control body temperature, heart rate and help regulate the production of proteins. A functioning thyroid gland is an essential component of having outstanding health and well-being.

Underactive Or Overactive Thyroid

Hypothyroidism is a state in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones and could almost be considered a silent epidemic. Studies have indicated that at least 10 percent of women over 60 years will be affected to some degree of hypothyroidism but other studies suggest this figure may be as high as 25 percent. 

Iodine deficiency is sited as the most common cause of hypothyroidism worldwide. Hypothyroidism can also be caused by an autoimmune disorder known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This condition is characterized by an overactive immune system response that floods the thyroid gland with white blood cells that attack the gland. 

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is more common in women. Symptoms include increased sensitivity to the cold, constipation, weight gain, fluid retention, low heart rate, fatigue, muscle cramps, dry skin, and low mood. People with celiac disease are especially prone to developing Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. 

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid releases too much of its hormones over a short (acute) or long (chronic) period of time. Many diseases and conditions can cause this problem, including Graves disease. Symptoms include difficulty concentrating, increased heart rate, goitre, increased appetite, nervousness and weight loss. 

Hormone Imbalances And Thyroid Function

The interaction between sex hormones and thyroid hormones is significant. Thyroid hormones are sensitive to the levels of estrogen in the body. Estrogen dominance is an extremely common condition in women. This occurs when there is not enough progesterone in the body to counteract the amount and effects of estrogen. 

Estrogen dominance is prevalent for a number of reasons including stress and nutritional deficiencies and many chemicals in today’s world act as xeno-estrogens (they create a biological response similar to the hormone estrogen). Symptoms can include swollen breasts, bloating, mood swings, sugar cravings, heavy menstruation and loss of libido. 

High levels of estrogen can block the effect of thyroid hormones, which can lead to hypothyroidism. Estrogen stimulates the production of a protein that binds with thyroxine and has the potential to inactivate it. Correcting underlying estrogen dominance (and/or low progesterone production) can be hugely beneficial to many female sufferers of an underactive thyroid. 

Cortisol, our long-term stress hormone, can also cause a shift in thyroid hormone metabolism. Chronic elevations in cortisol from stress can suppress the immune system in the GI tract, which can lead to dysbiosis, parasitic infection, and increased gut permeability (leaky gut) – further disrupting thyroid function.

Nutrients Needed For Optimal Thyroid Function?

The thyroid gland requires numerous nutrients to produce thyroid hormones. Iodine, being one, is mostly available from the diet in foods such as seafood, seaweed and table salt. With many people now avoiding table salt (having rock salt or sea salt instead), and conventionally farmed soils in Australia and New Zealand being deficient in iodine and selenium, we are seeing a re-emergence of iodine deficiency and even goitre (enlargement of the thyroid gland) in New Zealand school children. 

Selenium is a trace element that is essential for the body in small amounts. Selenium is a component of the enzyme that converts the inactive thyroid hormone to the active form. Besides iodine and selenium, thyroid function can also be affected by a number of nutrients, including iron, zinc, copper, and Vitamin A. Deficiencies in any of these nutrients have been shown to increase the risk of hypothyroidism. 

What Interferes With Thyroid Function?

Substances that suppress thyroid function through interfering with iodine uptake are known as goitregens. Common goitregenic foods include the brassica family, soybeans and cassava. Cooking destroys most of their goitgrenic qualities. 

Removing gluten from the diet is also worth considering and many people experience an increase in thyroid function from removing gluten. Clinic research has shown that following a gluten-free diet can contribute to slowing and in some cases even halting the production of thyroid antibodies in three to six months. 

Taking Care Of Your Thyroid – The Holistic Approach

Never underestimate the power of a diet rich in real food. The thyroid requires specific nutrients that are depleted in our soils. Concentrating on foods that are rich sources of these minerals is a great way to support your thyroid. Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium and all nuts and seeds are high in minerals and beneficial fatty acids. In fact, having just two brazil nuts a day is enough to boost your selenium intake. 

Sardines and wild salmon contain iodine and oily fish is also a great source of omega 3, which reduces inflammation in the body. Omega-3s are also found in flaxseeds and walnuts and are the building blocks for hormones that help control immune function and cell growth. They are also critical to thyroid function and improve the body’s ability to respond to thyroid hormones. Healthy fats such as those found in avocado, olive oil and coconut oil also support thyroid function. 

Seaweeds such as kombu, wakamame and nori are dense iodine sources and are great added to soups and casseroles to infuse a salty flavour. With the lovely flavour you also get a mighty trace mineral infusion. Those with an overactive thyroid gland are best to avoid consuming large amounts of seaweed. 

As well as minerals, herbal medicine can be of benefit to those with hypothyroidism. Withania has been clinically proven to help the conversion of tetraiodohyronine (T4) the inactive form of the hormone to triiodothyronine the active form (T3.) It also a wonderful support for tired adrenal glands thus helping modulate the stress response.

Taking care of your overall health is essential to supporting thyroid function. Stress is known to be a significant contributor to thyroid dysfunction. Identify the source of your stress and empower yourself to change this response where you can. Take a look at the thoughts that regularly go through your head. It is not often the event itself but rather the way we respond to it that continues stress hormone production. 

Move your body frequently and incorporate a restorative practice such as yoga, tai chi or meditation. Make the time to do things that are important to you. Spend time nurturing the relationships in your life. Keep the channels of communication open and make a conscious effort to communicate what is on your mind. And remember to utilize the power of your breath to calm your nervous system if a day feels overwhelming.

What Have You Done To Nourish Your Thyroid? What Changes Have You Noticed?

Dr Libby Weaver (nee Ellis) (Ph.D) is one of Australasia’s leading nutrition specialists and weight loss experts based in Auckland, New Zealand. Libby’s passion for empowering people to make optimum health choices has led her to consult privately with individuals, in the corporate health arena, as well as with universities and the media. She is an author and a much sought after and passionate speaker covering a broad range of topics that leave her audiences well-informed and uplifted.

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