Causes and Solutions
Why are so many people’s thyroids under siege? It all depends on whom you ask. A nutritionist might blame our unhealthy addiction to processed foods, while an environmental scientist will cite research that links toxins in the water supply to weakened immune systems. Still others will caution that our overly stressed lifestyles and lack of sleep are throwing our thyroids off kilter.
Regardless of the reasons, all experts agree that the best way to treat a thyroid problem is to prevent it from developing in the first place. Diet is a good place to start.
The first thing to look for: iodine deficiency. “Iodine is the most important mineral for production of thyroid hormone,” Thompson explains, “and many people don’t get enough of it.” In 1924, U.S. salt companies iodized salt in an effort to eliminate iodine deficiencies. Today iodizing salt is mandatory in 120 countries but is voluntary in the United States. While ordinary table salts still contain iodine, kosher salt and some gourmet sea salts do not. Nor do the majority of salts that end up in processed or fast foods.
Over the past 20 years, the percentage of Americans with low iodine levels has quadrupled. In a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one in 10 Americans are deficient in iodine.
To boost iodine levels, Thompson suggests you use iodized sea salt for seasoning. She also advises eating more seafood and sea vegetables, such as kelp, nori and wakame (these are featured in sushi, soups and many other Asian dishes and are widely available in health-food stores and larger markets).
Many nutritional experts advise people who suspect or know they have thyroid problems to avoid eating large amounts of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, especially when raw. These vegetables can have a depressive effect on thyroid function.
Another food that may depress the thyroid is soy. While soy can be an important protein source, it is not your thyroid’s favorite food. “In high quantities, soy depresses thyroid function,” says Shomon. Eating soy in moderation is fine, but if you have soymilk for breakfast, a soy smoothie for lunch, a soy burger for dinner and take soy supplements to protect against heart disease or hot flashes, it may be time to cut back.
There is a wide array of nutrients helpful in promoting healthy thyroid function. At the top of Thompson’s list are gamma linoleic acids (GLAs), such as evening primrose oil and black currant oil, both of which help the thyroid produce hormones. The mineral selenium and the amino acid tyrosine help convert the inactive T3 thyroid hormone to the active T4 version. Thompson suggests a selenium supplement or a supplement that combines selenium with iodine and tyrosine.
Because an inflamed or swollen gland often accompanies thyroid problems, it’s also important to include anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, such as the essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3. Finally, water is essential for proper immune-system function, so whenever possible, choose filtered or pure spring water over sodas and other drinks. Sip water throughout the day, not just when you become thirsty (a sign you are already dehydrated).
You can also support your thyroid by minimizing sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, dairy and wheat as well as flavor and color additives, as these foods pose a challenge to many people’s immune systems, says Thompson.