International Thyroid Awareness Week is all about shining a spotlight on thyroid conditions, but do any of us really know what the thyroid does?
According to the British Thyroid Foundation, it is an endocrine gland in your neck which makes two important hormones that are secreted into the blood: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). “These hormones are necessary for all the cells in your body to work normally,” they say.
It plays a crucial role in your growth and development and massively impacts your metabolism.
Thyroid conditions aren’t just about underactive or over-active thyroids – this year, the focus is on thyroid cancer, autoimmunity, infertility, anxiety and depression, and iodine deficiency.
Campaigners at International Thyroid Awareness Week say: “Feeling tired, nervous, irritated or anxious, finding no sleep, having hot flashes or heart palpitations, suffering from increased sweating or losing weight – for millions of people around the world these conditions are attributed to many a cause such as aging, menopause or depression, but rarely to thyroid dysfunction.
“Basically few people really know much about the small thyroid gland located at the back of the neck and its vitally important function. Any dysfunction of the thyroid has profound impact on health and wellbeing.”
HuffPost UK Lifestyle spoke to several experts to find out how your diet can support a healthy thyroid.
Nutritionist Karen Poole says: “A thyroid problem is often difficult to diagnose as the symptoms are varied and the condition does not always present the same in each individual so the first port of call should always be your GP to get the situation clarified.
“Typical symptoms are fatigue, low mood, weight gain or loss, poor temperature regulation, dry skin and hair, depression, hair growth or loss, lack of concentration, hypertension, raised cholesterol… and the list goes on. Looking after the thyroid is very important and should be a consideration in every weekly routine especially as we get older and our systems need more support.”
British Dietetic Association spokesperson, Gulshinder Johal advises: “Without sufficient iodine your body cannot produce T3 and T4 hormones.
“Good sources of iodine are iodized salt, sea vegetables, milk and milk products and some cereal products. Iodine is usually well absorbed but certain foods such as turnips, cabbage, cassava, millet and sweet potato can impair absorption.”
But don’t overdo it. Johal says that very high iodine intakes can lead to hyperthyroidism where your body produces too much thyroid hormone. “It is therefore recommended that moderated amounts of iodine rich foods such as seaweed are consumed.”
“Iodine and tyrosine needed to make thyroxine”, says Poole. “Tyrosine is found in lean protein fish, chicken or beef, almonds , banana, dairy, avocado and beans.
“Other essential choices would be wholegrains, buckwheat, carrots, pineapple, corn, prunes, sunflower seeds, peppers, beans, green leafy vegetables, oats, brazil nuts and courgette.”
“A low vitamin D intake has been linked with a decrease in the thyroid hormones,” says nutritionist Emily Maguire. “As well as obtaining vitamin D from sunlight, good dietary sources include eggs (the whole egg and not just the white), oily fish and whole butter (not highly processed vegetable spreads).”
Good for your heart, good for your thyroid. “Healthy fats found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables can help promote a healthy thyroid gland. There is some evidence that suggests these healthy fats may promote thyroid hormone uptake in cells,” says Johal.
Maguire agrees. “The ingestion of omega 3 fats (eg.oily fish and cod liver oil), zinc (eg.red meats and spinach) and selenium(eg.Brazil nuts and poultry) have also been shown to help the thyroid function at a healthy level.”
Selenium is a mineral, and is used in the production of the T3 hormone. Johal says: “This can be found in foods such as Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, meat products, fish, offal and eggs. Selenium also plays an important role in preventing cell damage.”
Zinc, iron and copper
“These minerals play an important part in the production and regulation of the thyroid hormones,” says Johal.
Good sources are meat and meat products, cereals, nuts, eggs, pulses and green leafy vegetables such as spinach.
“If you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, where the body produces low levels of thyroid hormone, ensure you are taking any medication prescribed,” she advises. “Also be aware that there are certain foods, such as non- fermented soya products, which may inhibit the absorption of Levothyroxine and should be consumed separately.”
These also help:
Stress can impact your thyroid function. Maguire reveals: “More and more individuals are reporting having problems within their thyroid function. There are various factors that can contribute to this including the environment that we live in and experiencing chronic stress; the more stress you are under the worse your thyroid can function.”
Poole advises: “Stress can also impact upon mood, energy production and weight gain and will exacerbate the thyroid symptoms. Realistic and regular stress management techniques are really important and should be a part of your daily routine.
“Look to plan at least 30 minutes into each day and do something that makes you feel relaxed and peaceful, for instance burn an essential oil, play music, read, walk, cook, meditate or if needed explore some more structured options like personal therapy or CBT. Exercise can stimulate thyroid hormone synthesis and conversion as well as helping to promote positive mood and support weight management.”
Poole says: “Caffeine stimulates cortisol release, inhibit iron absorption and depletes endorphins our feel-good helpers, increasing the potential for low mood and lack of energy.”