We all have a butterfly-shaped gland in our neck that we pretty much take for granted until it stops working right. The thyroid is a very important organ that regulates metabolism, the chemical process of converting food into energy.
The thyroid is small and weighs less than one ounce. It is found in the front of the neck directly below the larynx (Adam’s apple) and has two lobes (halves) that flank the trachea (windpipe). A narrow band of thyroid tissue (the isthmus) connects the two lobes.
The thyroid has one job:
“The function of the thyroid gland is to take iodine, found in many foods, and convert it into thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid cells are the only cells in the body which can absorb iodine. These cells combine iodine and the amino acid tyrosine to make T3 and T4. T3 and T4 are then released into the blood stream and are transported throughout the body where they control metabolism (conversion of oxygen and calories to energy).”
For reasons medical scientists do not understand, some people’s thyroids begin to secrete either too much or too little of the metabolic hormones essential to good health and life itself. We do know that all thyroid disorders are caused by a weakened or compromised immune system.
By the time my symptoms became impossible to ignore, I visited a family physician who said I had a severe case of Graves Disease – hyperthyroidism. Fortunately, I never developed a noticeable goiter, an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland that presents as swelling in the front of the neck.
A specialist told me lab results showed that my thyroid was pumping out seven times the normal level, causing a dangerously rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), pronounced hand tremors, and debilitating fatigue and weakness. I slept about 18 hours in 24 and could not pick up a bucket half-full of water.
My endocrinologist rushed me in for the standard treatment for advanced cases of an overactive thyroid such as mine: an oral dose of a nuclear medicine called radioactive iodine (RAI, also called I-131). RAI is an isotope of iodine that emits radiation. It is also used to treat thyroid cancer by killing off diseased cells.
Since the thyroid only has one job – to process iodine – consuming a small dose of RAI by swallowing allows it to be absorbed into the bloodstream where it collects in the thyroid gland and starts to destroy the gland’s cells.
The thyroid cells that take up iodine absorb most of the RAI, with little effect on the rest of the body.
It took two treatments of RAI to beat down my overactive thyroid gland. Now, I have hypothyroidism – below-normal thyroid function.
Many older women lose thyroid function as part of the aging process. Doctors consider hypothyroidism far better than what I had (Graves) since an inexpensive thyroid hormone supplement makes the gland’s “management” easy. However, it bothers me that I am now bound to take a Big Pharma drug for the rest of my life.
I looked into what can be done to boost low thyroid hormone levels naturally. The answer shouldn’t surprise anybody: diet and exercise.
Some foods help the thyroid and some harm it. Knowing one from the other can guide your dietary choices.
THYROID FOOD FRIENDS TO EMBRACE
Salt with iodine (or iodine supplements): fish and dairy products are high in iodine.
Leafy greens such as lettuce (all kinds), spinach, and kale provide magnesium for metabolic health.
Nuts to you, especially Brazil nuts. All nuts are high in iron but just a few Brazil nuts meet your daily selenium need. Enjoy limited amounts of high-calorie cashews, almonds, and pumpkin seeds – which aren’t technically nuts, of course.
Seafood such as shrimp and fish, and sea vegetables such as seaweed, are all loaded with iodine.
Cruciferous vegetables sound imposing, but you know them as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and kale
Chlorophyll is the pigment that gives plants their green color and, together with sunlight, nourishes organic growth. As a liquid supplement, it removes heavy metals that can interfere with thyroid function.
THYROID FOOD FOES TO AVOID
Kelp contains so much iodine that it can worsen a thyroid condition.
Kale is a mild goitrogen, a substance that disrupts the production of thyroid hormones by interfering with iodine uptake in the thyroid gland, so limit your portions, especially if you are on a low-salt diet and eating big servings of kale.
Soy is similar to kale in that it can hamper thyroid function, but shouldn’t be a problem unless you consume very little salt and a lot of soy, soy milk, or edamame.
Organ meats (liver, heart, kidneys, and tripe) are high in lipoic acid, a fatty acid. Patients with hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis who take levothyroxine should be cautious about taking alpha lipoic at the same time or shortly after. A 1991 study showed that alpha lipoic acid can inhibit the conversion of T4 into T3 so wait four hours after taking levothyroxine before consuming lipoic acid foods or supplements.
Gluten (the protein in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye) can damage the small intestines of people with celiac disease, a long-term autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the small intestine. Avoiding or eliminating gluten in the diet may have a significantly positive effect on people with either low- or high-performing thyroid conditions.
A WORD ABOUT EXERCISE
The health benefits of regular exercise – even low-impact activities such as walking briskly – are so well established that there isn’t much more to add here.
A car that sits too long without being driven wears out much faster than one that gets fired up and runs around the block a time or two. Your body is much the same.
Thyroid health depends on a strong immune system. Fresh air, a healthy diet, walking barefoot on the ground, mediation, and habitual exercise can all support immune system resilience and so add to your overall well-being.