For women in the UK, thyroid problems represent one of the most common hormonal conditions of all. We know that one in ten women will be diagnosed with a thyroid problem during their life time, but experts have stated that as many as 50% of all cases are never diagnosed in the first place.
One of the most frequently occurring problems is hypothyroidism (an under active thyroid). If this condition is severe it is usually detected by conventional blood tests and treated with medication. However, mild hypothyroidism is often undiagnosed and borderline results can sometimes be dismissed. It is in these milder forms of hypothyroidism that nutrition can have the greatest impact.
What is the thyroid?
Your thyroid gland is found in your neck and is shaped like a miniature bow-tie. It produces a number of hormones which are vital for your body to produce energy and deliver oxygen to your cells. It plays a part in virtually every bodily process. The thyroid is the master of your metabolism, and plays a huge role in the rate you produce energy from food and therefore your ability to lose weight. It is also very much involved in the reproductive system and thyroid imbalance is linked to a whole range of female hormonal problems.
Could you have an under active thyroid?
Although there are many things that can go wrong with the thyroid, one of the most common is an under active thyroid. This occurs when you fail to produce enough thyroid hormones for your body to work effectively. Your metabolism and a wide range of other bodily functions are slowed down, often leading to weight gain.
One of the greatest challenges in diagnosing mild cases of under active thyroid is that most symptoms of the condition are the types of general complaints people may suffer from overwork, stress and poor diet. Nonetheless if you answer positively to many of the questions below, you may well have an under active thyroid:
Do you feel constantly fatigued?
Do you suffer from low mood or depression?
Are you sensitive to the cold and suffer especially with cold hands or feet?
Are you finding it impossible to lose weight despite changing your diet and exercise patterns?
Is your hair/ are your nails dry and brittle?
Have you lost hair, particularly from the outer side of your eyebrows?
Do you get aches in your muscles and joints?
Do you have a very low sex drive?
Have you suffered with any menstrual problems, including heavy periods or loss of periods?
Have you suffered from more than one miscarriage?
Do you have a tendency to be constipated?
Do you have problems with memory and concentration?
Do you have high cholesterol?
Testing for Hypothyroidism
To check whether our thyroid is functioning as it should, levels of 3 hormones are critical. The first are called T4 and T3, which are hormones produced the thyroid itself and the other is called TSH, a hormone which instructs your thyroid to produce T4 and T3. Abnormal levels of these hormones are a good indicator of hypothyroidism.
However this method is thought to be largely ineffective at diagnosing cases of mild hypothyroidism. Blood test techniques give information only about your hormones at a particular point in time. Sometimes urine tests can be more helpful as these can measure thyroid hormones over a 24-hour period. Along with other indicators like body temperature, these tests provide a good indication of mild hypothyroidism that might have remained undiagnosed.
What should you eat if you are hypothyroid?
If you do find you have an under active thyroid there are a number of dietary measures you can take to help manage your condition. This basically involves reducing intake of foods that inhibit thyroid function and increasing intake of the vitamins and minerals vital for your thyroid to work efficiently.
Foods to avoid Goitrogens
Goitrogens are substances found in a number of foods that may inhibit the proper function of your thyroid. Cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale, turnips, broccoli, spinach, mustard, millet, soy products and peanuts are all sources of goitrogens. Many of these are foods that are positively beneficial to health so they shouldn’t be avoided completely. For example a one cup serving of any of the listed vegetables 2-3 times per week, and a standard, 4-ounce serving of tofu twice a week is likely to be tolerated by most individuals with thyroid hormone deficiency. There is also some indication that cooking these foods can deactivate the chemicals that affect the thyroid gland, so lightly steaming vegetables is a good idea.
Foods to increase The essential nutrients for thyroid function
Iodine: The majority of the iodine in your body is found in the thyroid gland and is used in the production of thyroid hormones. A common cause of underactive thyroid is a lack of iodine. Good food sources include kelp, yoghurt, eggs and iodized salt.
Selenium is involved in making thyroid hormones active in the body so low selenium levels may in turn lead to low active thyroid hormone levels. Brazil nuts, seafood and fish are excellent sources of this mineral.
Vitamin A This vitamin has been shown to be beneficial especially in conjunction with Vitamin C and E and selenium. People with hypothyroidism have been shown to have an impaired ability to produce vitamin A from vegetable sources such as carrots and fruits so care should be taken to include other sources such as dairy products, eggs and liver into the diet.
B Vitamins are very important to the body’s synthesis of thyroid hormones. They are also vital for energy production. These are usually plentiful in a healthy diet and are found in whole grains, legumes, eggs, dairy, meat, nuts and seeds.
Zinc. Studies suggest that severe zinc deficiency can cause hypothyroidism, but like iodine deficiency, it is rare for people living in the developed world to have a severe enough deficiency to cause a serious problem.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that is needed in the production of thyroid hormones. If you have an underactive thyroid you may benefit by taking a tyrosine supplement. Depression is linked with a low thyroid function and studies suggest tyrosine supplementation may also be beneficial in this condition. Copper plays an important role in the metabolism of tyrosine. Although copper deficiency is uncommon, people taking zinc supplements for more than a few weeks should take copper (unless they have Wilson’s disease) as zinc interferes with copper absorption. The safest way of ensuring balance is to take a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement rather than one mineral in isolation.
The Supplement Issue:
There are many thyroid support supplements available on the market, some of which may be beneficial for an under active thyroid. However if you do have hypothyroidism it is not advisable to self-prescribe these products without professional guidance as the wrong supplement could make your condition worse.