The thyroid is a lesser known gland that has a big impact on how you feel and perform. A butterfly shaped gland located in the front of the neck, the thyroid releases hormones that regulate metabolic rate by affecting enzyme activity, body temperature, and energy levels. It’s also involved in heart function and central nervous system activation.
Problems with the thyroid are increasingly common, due to a combination of factors including higher obesity and diabetes rates, increased chemical exposure, and better testing. There are two ways that thyroid function can be compromised:
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid is overactive and too much thyroid hormone is released, increasing heart rate, raising body temperature, and triggering appetite. People with hyperthyroidism have a hard time sustaining body weight, which might sound favorable in a fat-loss obsessed nation, but it drastically reduces quality of life, often leading to insomnia, irritability and muscle wasting.
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid activity is reduced and too little thyroid hormone is produced. It is associated with decreased body temperature, lower metabolic rate, increased body fat, and chronic fatigue.
The thing about hypothyroidism is that it’s possible to have a low functioning thyroid even though lab tests that appear normal. The medical term for this scenario is subclinical thyroid condition. The gland is working, but thyroid hormone is not able to exert its positive effect on target tissues, leading to symptoms and a poor quality of life.
What follows is a list of ten things you do to take care of your thyroid and achieve optimal thyroid function.
#1: Work With An Experienced Physician
There are many reports anecdotal reports of people having poor outcomes when being treated for thyroid issues. Mainstream endocrinologists who typically treat thyroid issues often only assess values of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) without testing other thyroid hormones that will give you a complete snapshot of what is going on with the thyroid.
An experienced physician will do a range of tests, including total T3, free T3 and T4, Reverse T3, Anti-thyroglobulin, and Anti-TPO. They will also assess other hormonal systems (blood sugar and insulin, cortisol, melatonin and sleep, androgens such as testosterone and estrogen) and ask questions to determine the correct diagnosis and treatment.
#2: Minimize Stress & Lower Cortisol
Optimal thyroid function is the result of a cascade of hormones, which high cortisol will negatively impact. When too much cortisol is circulating in the body it will blunt the message to release thyroid hormone and it inhibits the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone (known as T4) into the active T3 in the liver and kidneys.
#3: Balance Blood Sugar
When blood sugar is irregular, cortisol levels increase as the body attempts to maintain energy levels, inhibiting proper release of TSH and conversion of T3. Blood sugar management is best achieved by planning meals around high-quality protein, healthy fat, and complex carbs: For example, salmon with leafy greens and nuts or an omelet with tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, greens, and cheese. Avoid sugar sweetened beverages, refined carbs, and other processed foods.
#4: Work Out
Exercise does wonders for overall hormone balance and it has been shown to “reset” function of the HPA axis that regulates thyroid hormone release. It also helps to mitigate some of the negative side effects of an out of whack thyroid, increasing metabolic rate, maintaining muscle mass, burning calories, reducing stress, and improving insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels.
#4: Avoid Slashing Calories
Anytime you have a calorie deficit for a sustained period of time, release of the active T3 gets reduced. The body is very responsive to a lack of incoming energy because it views it as a threat to survival. When you slash calories, the body responds by reducing thyroid activity, lowering release of T3 and triggering a decrease in body temperature so that you burn fewer calories daily.
Obviously, if you are trying to lose body fat, a calorie deficit is necessary, however, the key is to avoid going too low in calories—anything below 1,600 a day is bad news for the thyroid. Including a “refeed” day in which you have a higher calorie day every so often can help prevent a thyroid dysfunction when losing body fat.
#5: Use Refeeds If Low-Carb
Very low-carb diets can also lead to a drop in thyroid function because insulin (the hormone that is released to manage blood sugar) is necessary for the conversion of the inactive T4 into the active T3. One way to avoid a drop in thyroid function is to cycle carbs by eating a higher carb intake once or twice a week depending on your body fat and activity levels.
#6: Limit Soy Foods
Soy contains goitrogens, which are compounds that suppress thyroid function. A little bit of soy from miso or organic edamame once a week is unlikely to impact thyroid activity, however, soy is so ubiquitous in processed foods that many people are eating it daily and may even be eating it at every meal. Besides cutting back on soy milk and tofu, watch out for processed foods that contain soy protein and soybean oil.
#7: Cook All Cruciferous Veggies
All of our favorite cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower also contain goitrogen that can suppress thyroid function. You don’t need to cut these foods out because they are enormously nutritious, containing loads of fiber and key cancer fighting nutrients, but it’s a good idea to avoid eating them raw. Cooking deactivates goitrogens, so always steam or sauté your veggies prior to eating.
#8: Avoid Chemical Exposure
One of the biggest but least known roadblocks to a healthy thyroid is overload of chemicals that disrupt iodine entry into the thyroid, impairing thyroid hormone release. Exposure to chlorine and fluoride in water and bromine in vegetable oil and artificial dyes all displace iodine in the body. Protect yourself by getting a water filter and avoiding processed foods and drinks with artificial sweeteners.
#9: Protect Your Gut
Your gut is like the central command area for hormone and neurotransmitter production. Not only does about 20 percent of thyroid hormone conversion occur in the gut, but insulin, cortisol, and neurotransmitters are all affected by gut health. Taking a probiotic, eating probiotic foods, and consuming indigestible fiber from plant foods can all shift your gut health in your favor.
#10: Get Good Sleep
If you’re burning the candle at both ends, or staying up late watching TV or on your phone, your entire hormonal cascade will be off: Release of the sleep hormone melatonin will be reduced, cortisol will be elevated the following day, and insulin and glucose control will go awry. Thyroid activity is downregulated and body temperature drops, meanwhile you feel lazy and disinclined to exercise when you are tired. Establish a set bed time and adopt non-screen based habits in the hour before bedtime.