Practical nutrition and lifestyle interventions for thyroid support:
I’m back for Part II of Nutrition for Hashimoto’s and Hypothyroidism! If you didn’t catch Part I: Know What You’re Dealing With, be sure to read it for background on these diseases before diving into this post. I hope my experience and insights can help you overcome your health challenges and feel your very best, despite receiving this difficult diagnosis.
There are a lot of things you can do on your own to support thyroid health. While it can be overwhelming and complicated, approaching Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism from an empowered and informed place will help you get rid of the worry and reduce difficult symptoms.
Quit the gluten…and the dairy too. I know! Nobody wants to be told to go gluten-free. But seriously, this one move could do wonders for your body. The gluten protein has a very similar molecular structure and protein sequence to that of the thyroid. This is called molecular mimicry, which means, since the body is already primed to attack the thyroid with Hashimoto’s, the presence of gluten further confuses the body and intensifies that autoimmune reaction, putting your thyroid at a greater risk for damage. 50% of people with a gluten sensitivity are also sensitive to casein, a protein in dairy, due to the same molecular reaction. This is quite a complicated topic that I’m just barely brushing the surface of. If you’d like more on this topic, check out Dr. Amy Meyer’s post Is Gluten to Blame for Your Thyroid Dysfunction?
In my own personal case, I was already mostly gluten-free when I was diagnosed. I found that going completely, “no-gluten-cheating-free” and dairy-free played a big part in helping me feel better. An elimination diet is a great way to see how these foods impact your health, without paying for a lab test. I tell my clients to avoid possible triggers for at least 3 weeks—completely—and make note of improvements. Then, introduce one food at a time with several days in between and make note of any symptoms that arise, you’ll not only discover food sensitivities this way but you’ll gain a better connection to how each meal makes you feel. I do want to point out, food allergies and sensitivities are very different reactions—sensitivities can occur days after eating an offending food, which makes them really hard to pin down. Another tricky part of this is that you may only have internal symptoms, like silent inflammation or thyroid antibodies, without other physical signs like a stomach ache or rash. It’s helpful to work with a qualified practitioner (ah-hem, someone like me!) to truly get to the bottom of potential food intolerances.
Eat real food, with lots of protein and healthy fat. Going gluten-free doesn’t mean you’re automatically healthy. Trust me, there are PLENTY of gross, processed foods out there touted as gluten-free that lend nothing to your nutritional status. It’s vital to provide your body with nutrient-dense foods in order to feel your best, I’m talking about colorful vegetables and fruits (especially lots of leafy greens), nuts and seeds, grass-fed meats and eggs, and of course (as long as you can tolerate it) dark, dark, dark chocolate.
And let me be very real about something: Fat is your friend. The whole low-fat craze of the 90’s left our country with higher rates of diabetes and cholesterol than ever before, thanks to all the refined carbohydrates replacing the fat. BUT, this is a big but, it must be high-quality fat you’re consuming. Avocados and avocado oil, olives and olive oil, coconut and coconut oil, raw nuts and seeds, and fat from free-range/grass-fed animals is necessary for optimal health. Omega-3 fats, like those found in fish oil, are anti-inflammatory and can be an extremely healthy addition to a thyroid protocol, as long as they’re from a super-clean, third-party verified source, to be sure they’re free from toxins.
I mean, 60 % of your brain is made of fat, and all of the membranes of your cells (which make up your entire body) need fat. Do you get it? Fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat and your body truly needs it for structure and function.
Trans fats on the other hand, like those in a fast-food fryer or in many packaged baked goods, will destroy your healthy because your body doesn’t know how to process them.
Same goes for refined white flour and sugar and preservatives and chemicals… eating real food in it’s most natural form is always the safest bet for your body and sugar and refined carbs increase inflammation in the body, which is a recipe for disaster when you’re trying to calm autoimmunity. I highly recommend limiting any added sugar and when you do consume it, focus on natural sources like dates, maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar, which at least have some vitamins and minerals as opposed to nutrient-free white sugar.
If you’ve tinkered with your diet using the tips above, and stuck with it consistently for several months without much benefit, it’s worth looking into the Autoimmune Paleo Diet. This is a much more restrictive diet but folks with all different kinds of autoimmunity have found immense relief in sticking with this way of eating.
I highly suggest experimenting with your diet to see how different food groups make you feel.
Heal your gut. Your diet directly impacts this, but there could be a whole lot of other things happening in the background. How does this relate to your thyroid, all the way up there? Well, your gut is responsible for absorbing nutrients, keeping out pathogens that can create illness, and eliminating your toxins, among other vital mechanisms. When it’s not functioning properly, your entire body is affected. Leaky gut, a disorder that means there are gaps in your digestive tract that allow undigested food and foreign particles to leak into your bloodstream, has been found to play a role in autoimmunity.
There is also the important piece of the microbiome—the bacteria living in your gut that are essential to all those functions; imbalances of these bacteria are increasingly linked with autoimmune disease. You can incorporate fermented foods like sauerkraut or low-sugar kombucha into your meal plan to support those good bacteria. There may also be bad bacteria you need to eliminate, a fungal imbalance like Candida, or a parasite. You might also benefit from digestive enzymes that assist your body with breaking down certain types of foods. The topic of gut health could truly be it’s own thirty or more blog posts, so again, working with a trust-worthy and educated health practitioner can help you dig into the deep realm of gut health and find customized answers to your unique needs.
Reduce stress, prioritize sleep. I see your eye rolls, people. Yes, this is much easier said than done, and I was totally guilty of knowing this piece of the healing puzzle without putting it into practice for a very long time. I wish I would have gotten it under control sooner, though, because, as I’ve watched my life become less stressful and I’ve become more kind and caring to myself, my thyroid improved and my overall health did as well. Dealing with stress is a vital part of treating autoimmune disease.
I put stress and sleep into one category because I don’t think you can really have one without the other. If you’re super stressed you’re not getting optimal sleep, and if you’re not sleeping well your body is stressed. Take a good hard look at your day to day, identify what the most stressful parts are, and make an effort to either eliminate them from your schedule or find a new process of dealing with that task. Ask people for help! Keep a journal! Schedule yourself an extra free hour here or there if it means you’ll feel less pressured with the demands of your day, just get creative and understand that it doesn’t make you a bad person or less of a hard worker to put your health first.
Sleep is the time our body needs to be still and quiet and focus on healing. Without enough of it, our stress hormones get all out of whack and we are physically and psychologically compromised; this includes your immune system (which is kind of important when addressing autoimmunity). Acknowledge what kinds of sleep practices are helping or hurting you. Maybe you love eating chocolate at night or having a few glasses of wine, but then you notice you’re always waking up in the middle of the night. Or, you might be the person that decides to cram all the extra tasks of the day in at night at the expense of your precious time in bed. And don’t even get me started on TV’s in the bedroom = terrible for your circadian rhythm. It might seem like these things are making you happier or more productive in the moment, or that they help you fall asleep, but if they’re hurting your quality of sleep you’re gaining nothing form them. Have your chocolate as an afternoon snack instead, or go to bed early and wake up early to complete extra tasks in the morning, instead of burning the midnight oil and throwing your stress hormones out of balance.
Once again, realizing that I am just one of those people who needs my 8 hours and making that non-negotiable changed my world. It might be hard at first, but your body will quickly adapt to a new sleep schedule and thank you for it! And I get it that new parents don’t have this luxury… and I know lots of new moms are diagnosed with Hashi’s and hypothyroidism because of their hormonal changes. It’s important to be real with yourself and the stage of life you’re in, all I’m saying is do your best to tune into your sleep needs and allow yourself to make that a priority when possible.
Reduce inflammation. Any chronic disease involves inflammation, especially those of the autoimmune variety. And while we do need a certain level of inflammation for the body to heal on a basic level, such as the redness around a small cut or the heat we feel in a sprained ankle, unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices can create an excessive internal inflammation that can happen without us actually realizing it, increasing our risk for other diseases as it progresses. Eating a whole-foods diet is step one for addressing inflammation. White flour, artificial ingredients, excessive alcohol and sugar consumption, and unhealthy fats like canola oil can all contribute to inflammation. Reducing inflammatory factors in your life helps to decrease thyroid inflammation, and support whole-body health, and beyond diet there are several things you can do. One, which is currently a bit trendy, is turmeric. This is another Ayurvedic spice that has numerous healing qualities. Bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple, and omega-3’s from wild-caught, third-party tested fish oil can also be really beneficial supplements in reducing inflammation.
Key Thyroid Nutrients/Herbs:
Selenium: Selenium is a trace mineral that is essential for thyroid health, as it helps that conversion of T4 to T3. It has also been found to reduce inflammation specifically in autoimmune thyroid disease, which could mean less destruction to the thyroid gland, and may also decrease antibody levels. Selenium’s benefits don’t stop there, it also plays a part in the synthesis and metabolism of thyroid hormones. Those are all a big win in the thyroid battle! And it acts as a potent antioxidant and is essential for general immune function. So obviously, it’s an important nutrient to pay attention to. Brazil nuts are the best dietary source of selenium; eating just 2-3 a day can get you enough of this mineral for optimal thyroid and immune system health. You can also get selenium from grass-fed beef, sardines, turkey, and eggs, among other foods. Selenium supplements may serve a purpose for certain people, but discuss these with your natural health practitioner before taking. 200mcg is the normal therapeutic dose and be sure to look for the selenomethionine form for optimal absorption.
Iodine: This nutrient is a bit controversial when it comes to natural thyroid support, but iodine is one of the key building blocks in creating thyroid hormones and without it, they simply can’t be produced. Iodine deficiency is a leading cause of hypothyroidism, but supplementing with too much iodine can also harm the thyroid—a delicate balance is very much needed. The best way to safely include more iodine in your diet is through eating seaweed, eggs, wild saltwater fish, and wild-caught shellfish. Selenium is also key in balancing iodine levels, so including the selenium-rich foods mentioned above is a great way to consciously reap the benefits of iodine. The same goes for supplements—if taking an iodine supplement it’s imperative to also take selenium. It’s always a good idea to work with a qualified practitioner when it comes to supplementation and monitor your reactions and blood work accordingly.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency is really common in those living with Hashimoto’s. Studies have found that supplementation with vitamin D, in this case, can actually slow the progression of the disease, decrease antibodies, and benefit cardiovascular health through balancing cholesterol. Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin, helping with calcium absorption, muscle function, hormone balance, and immune support. Not only is vitamin D deficiency linked to autoimmunity, it also leads to an increased risk of infection. I highly recommend requesting to add vitamin D to your blood work panel if it hasn’t been tested already, specifically the 25-hydroxyvitamin D, AKA the 25(OH)D test, which is the most accurate and relevant to understanding how much is stored in your body. This nutrient is called the “sunshine vitamin” for a reason, as it can be obtained from time spent in the sun (without sunscreen), however, latitude, genetics, and season all play a part in this. You can eat cod liver oil, sardines, salmon, eggs, and mushrooms to get extra vitamin D in your diet, though food sources are minimal compared to what we need and what the sun can provide.
Supplements are always an option, just make sure you look for D3 and take them with a meal that contains some fat in order to aid absorption. A really important thing to note about taking vitamin D supplements is that since it is a fat-soluble vitamin, it can build up over time. Continuing to monitor your vitamin D status with blood work as you supplement over several months will help you see if you’re on the right track.
Zinc: Zinc is another mineral that plays a role in converting T4 to T3. It’s also necessary for the hypothalamus to monitor thyroid hormone levels and support their production accordingly. It also works in the body as an antioxidant. The best food sources of zinc are lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass-fed beef, and chickpeas. If you’re taking a supplement, look for zinc picolinate. 15mg is usually enough for most people (who aren’t vegetarians), and preferably look for one that is combined with a couple milligrams of copper, as taking too much zinc without copper can lead to a deficiency in the latter.
Ashwagandha: This is a traditional Ayurvedic herb, meaning it’s been used as medicine in India for centuries. It’s what’s known as an adaptogen, so it helps your body adapt to stress and change. This helps your stress hormones like cortisol even out, supports a balanced sleep and wake cycle, and may possibly just make you a more happy and calm person. I’ve noticed major benefits from supplementing with this beautiful herb. Ashwagandha is especially cool because of its impact on thyroid hormones—it can help the conversion of that abundant T4 into that biologically active T3, which your cells use more readily for all those important functions I mentioned in Part I of Nutrition for Hashimoto’s and Hypothyroidism. I recommend looking for one that contains the patented KSM-66 version, as many studies are supportive of this specific type of ashwagandha.
Well! That is a whole lot of thyroid information, and honestly this topic is so deep I know I could include more. But these are the focus areas that have helped me the most, and I hope they help you, too! It’s essential to find a practitioner you feel comfortable working with who hears your concerns and is agreeable to your requests. It’s also important to be safe about diet changes and supplements, track any changes you make so you can know if something is working for your body.