How to honor National Thyroid Awareness month? If your thoughts are “what’s my thyroid and what does it do?” I’m here to help you learn about thyroid health.
What is my thyroid?
Your thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of your neck under your skin. The thyroid is part of the endocrine system, which is made up of glands that produce, release, and store hormones in the bloodstream for them to reach your body’s cells.
The thyroid gland uses iodine, which is found in the foods you eat, to make two hormones – thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
Why is the thyroid important?
The two hormones released by the thyroid gland are essential for all the cells in your body to function properly. In your body tissues and cells, T4 is converted to T3. The T3 derived from T4 or secreted as T3 from the thyroid gland regulates the activity of your body’s tissues and cells.
The thyroid has a plethora of functions in the human body. Functions include regulating:
- heart rate
- metabolism (the process of how your body transforms the food you eat into energy)
- brain development
- body temperature
- skin and bone maintenance
- cholesterol levels
- and more
For the thyroid to function properly, T3 and T4 levels must be neither too high nor too low.
What happens when the thyroid isn’t working properly?
When one or both of your T3 and T4 levels are not in range, your body’s functions respond adversely. T3 and T4 regulate your heart rate and how fast your intestines process food.
If they’re too low, your heart rate may be slower than normal and you may experience constipation and weight gain. Conversely, if your T3 and T4 levels are too high, your heart rate may speed up and you may experience diarrhea or weight loss.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when there’s too much T3 and T4 in the body. Symptoms include:
- hair loss
- sensitivity to high temperatures
- missed menstrual periods
- weight loss
Hypothyroidism, on the other hand, occurs when there’s too little T3 and T4 in the body. Symptoms include:
- dry skin and hair
- heavy periods
- trouble sleeping
- weight gain
Treating thyroid health should be done by a medical professional with an individualized approach. While many factors contribute to the thyroid’s function, there are certain nutrients you can consume which have been found to support the thyroid.
Research shows that some vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients may benefit people with thyroid conditions. However, it’s also important to work one on one with a medical professional to tailor interventions based on your specific health needs.
Selenium is an important mineral that plays a key role in your thyroid gland’s ability to produce the thyroid hormone T3. Low selenium levels can lead to cellular damage and reduced thyroid activity. Since the body does not make selenium, it must be obtained from your diet.
Selenium is found naturally in certain foods, such as:
- Brazil nuts
- seafood (sardines, salmon, tuna)
- meats (beef liver and ground beef)
- fortified cereals and bread
Research shows that eating two Brazil nuts per day is as effective as taking a selenium supplement to increase selenium levels.
Other easy ways to increase your selenium intake include alternating your daily turkey sandwich for tuna or adding some eggs to breakfast (don’t skip the yolk!).
Iodine is a trace element found naturally in seawater and soil. It’s also an essential mineral, meaning the body requires it to function but doesn’t make it on its own, therefore you must consume it in your diet.
Iodine is known to control thyroid function. Both iodine deficiency and excess are associated with an increased risk of thyroid disorders. Most Americans have no trouble meeting the recommended intake of iodine (90 mcg per day for toddlers to 150 mcg for teens and adults), due to the iodization of salt in the United States and its presence in many foods.
Iodine is found in most dairy products, such as:
- cheddar cheese
- seafood (cod, shrimp)
- meat (beef, chicken, liver)
- enriched cereals and grains
Zinc is sometimes referred to as the “catalyst” for thyroid hormone production. The RDA for zinc is 8mg for females and 11mg for males over 19 years old. However, zinc needs to increase to 11 mg per day for females during pregnancy and lactation.
A zinc deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism can also lead to a zinc deficiency, as thyroid hormones are required for the absorption of zinc.
Zinc is present in:
- meat (beef, lamb, pork)
- seeds (pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, peanuts, pine nuts, squash seeds)
- dairy products
- dark chocolate (yum!)
Looking for a way to sneak more zinc into your diet? Try sprinkling some nuts and seeds on top of your yogurt, oatmeal, and salads.
Iron is an important mineral necessary for many bodily functions, including thyroid hormone production.
The most common causes of iron deficiency include inadequate dietary intake, inflammation, poor iron absorption in the gut, and blood loss through menstruation. Low iron levels can lead to an increased risk of thyroid deficiency, causing fatigue, hair loss, anxiety, and constipation.
While it is important to work with a healthcare professional to assess individual symptoms, adding more iron to your diet is an actionable step to combat potential deficiencies.
Iron is found in many plant and animal products. However, the iron found in animal foods (known as heme iron), such as those present in beef, liver, chicken, sardines, salmon, and oysters, is more bioavailable than its plant-based (non-heme) counterpart. Non-heme iron is found in cooked lentils, spinach, chickpeas, and tofu.
For those who follow a plant-based diet, be sure to pair your non-heme iron sources with vitamin C-containing foods such as citrus, bell peppers, or tomatoes to enhance iron absorption.
Many of us grew up thinking that dietary fats were terrible for our health. While there are certainly some sources of fat that hinder our health, there are other health-promoting dietary fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of essential fatty acids that are classified as polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3s have many health benefits including lowering bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglyceride levels, as well as supporting thyroid function.
Research shows that omega 3’s can decrease inflammation that otherwise can cause compromised thyroid function and other adverse health outcomes.
Omega-3’s are found in:
- fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna
- nuts and seeds (such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds)
- fortified foods
The Dietary Guidelines of America recommend at least 8 ounces or two servings of omega-3-rich fish per week to reap the benefits. If fish isn’t your thing, don’t worry. You can also meet your omega-3 needs with nuts and seeds.
In summary, the thyroid gland is a vital hormone that plays a major role in metabolism and the healthy growth and development of the body. It also regulates multiple important bodily functions.
Unfortunately, an estimated 20 million Americans struggle with some form of thyroid disease, and approximately 1 in 8 women will struggle with thyroid issues in her life.
So, in honor of National Thyroid Awareness Month, book an appointment for a thyroid screening today. It is important to work with your doctor and be regularly screened for potential deficiencies.
If you’re interested in learning more about how these nutrients can fit into your diet to support your thyroid and overall health, work one on one with our Nao Medical Nutritionist today!