Eating for a Healthy Thyroid

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We’re full throttle into January 2011 and, some might say, in the midst of the “winter doldrums.” Where I live, the weather has been cold and somewhat snowy. January doesn’t have a whole lot going for it, but it does happen to be Thyroid Awareness Month! So in its honor, I thought I’d focus on the role of nutrition in thyroid disorders this week.

Quick Thyroid Facts

To learn more about thyroid disease, please read Diabetes Self-Management‘s excellent article called Thyroid Disorders and Diabetes, by Patricia Wu, MD. Dr. Wu gives a great overview of what the thyroid does and details the two most common thyroid disorders, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. But as a quick summary, here are some key points about diabetes and thyroid disease:

  • Thyroid disorders are more common in people with diabetes than in people without diabetes. About one-third of people with Type 1 diabetes have a thyroid disorder, and thyroid disorders are also common in people with Type 2 diabetes.
  • Too little thyroid hormone leads to hypothyroidism, the most common type. Symptoms of hypothyroidism, or a sluggish thyroid, include feeling tired, feeling cold, weight gain, depression, dry hair and skin, and constipation.
  • Too much thyroid hormone causes hyperthyroidism, which isn’t as common as hypothyroidism. Symptoms include weight loss, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, muscle weakness, and diarrhea.
  • Hypothyroidism, if not treated, may lead to increased levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats), possibly raising the risk of heart disease. Hyperthyroidism can affect blood glucose control and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Make sure your levels of two thyroid-related hormones, thyroxine (T4) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) are measured at least once a year.

Food and Hypothyroidism

Food is more likely to play a role in the treatment of hypothyroidism than in the treatment of hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid. If you do a search on the Internet, you’ll find literally millions of Web sites focused on what to eat for your thyroid, along with plenty of “diets” for a healthy thyroid. Most of this information is geared for someone with hypothyroidism and is based on the premise that an underactive thyroid, which slows your metabolism, is responsible for your weight gain — jump-start your thyroid and you’ll soon be burning calories left and right, if these sources are to be believed. The reality is that while you may gain some weight due to a sluggish thyroid, the real treatment is to take the right type and amount of thyroid replacement, along with following a healthful eating plan and getting regular physical activity.

There are some tips for eating and hypothyroidism that you might keep in mind, however:

  • This sounds like a no-brainer, but take your thyroid medicine as directed by your physician. Skipping doses or taking it at different times of the day can prevent it from working as it should. Remember, too, that you might need to take thyroid medicine for the rest of your life, so get into the habit of making it part of your daily routine.
  • Take your thyroid medicines on an empty stomach. Food can decrease the absorption of this medicine, especially foods high in fiber (bran cereal, whole-grain toast, fruits, vegetables, beans, etc.). Don’t stop eating high-fiber foods; just eat them several hours apart from taking your thyroid medicines.
  • Also, avoid taking calcium supplements or supplements that contain iron (such as a multivitamin/mineral) along with your thyroid medicine. These too can block absorption of the medicine.
  • Iron deficiency is a cause of hypothyroidism. Women of childbearing age are more likely to be iron deficient. Ask your health-care provider to check your iron status if you have hypothyroidism.
  • Certain foods, while good for you, can affect the production of thyroid hormone. These include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and collard greens. You don’t have to avoid them, but don’t eat them at the same time that you take your medicine. Cooking these vegetables seems to lessen this effect.
  • Go easy with soy foods such as soy milk, tofu, miso, and tempeh. Soy contains a substance called genistein, which can decrease thyroid hormone production. Again, it’s not that you can’t eat soy foods, but limit them to a few times per week.
  • Eat foods that can help your body boost its production of thyroid hormone. These foods contain nutrients such as B vitamins, selenium, zinc, tyrosine, and iodine. Poultry, seafood, lean meat, whole grains, onions, beans, almonds, avocados, seeds, and low-fat dairy foods may be helpful. Go easy on fatty and sugary foods (this will help your diabetes management, too!).
  • Don’t take dietary supplements, such as iodine supplements, geared towards treating thyroid problems without first discussing this with your health-care provider. Also, don’t stop taking your thyroid medicine in the hopes of “treating” hypothyroidism by diet alone.
  • Watch your portion sizes. This seems like a no-brainer, but if you need to lose weight, cut back on how much you eat. A dietitian can help you work out a weight-loss meal plan.

Here’s to a healthy thyroid in 2011!

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