In the spring of 2004, I was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease – an autoimmune disease characterized by hyperthyroidism. I’d felt unwell for years before and it had finally come to a point. I was diagnosed as if by accident after having given up on finding a cause for my exhaustion, sleeplessness, tremors and general sense of poor well-being. Indeed, routine blood work at a health fair yielded a result for TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) that was virtually nonexistent. Of course, TSH is a poor marker of thyroid health so you can imagine just how sick I was.
A stint on anti-thyroid medications under the ever-looming threat of radioactive ablation of my thyroid gland, proved relatively effective, but what truly reversed the illness was better care placed on the foods that nourished my body.
So early this summer – I noticed the exhaustion returning. It surprised me; after all, I eat well aside from a love affair with chocolate I just can’t shake. That’s not to say thyroid disease is entirely prevented or mitigated by diet alone, but eating well couldn’t hurt. Upon recognizing that peculiar sense of fatigue, I went in for some lab work. If you’re concerned about the possibility of thyroid disease, don’t settle for a TSH test alone; rather, ask for your doctor or endocrinologist to test your TSH, T4 and T3 levels in addition to testing for antithyroid antibodies. A TSH test alone doesn’t give you the full story.
My labwork indicated that my thyroid was in perfect working order, and I realized it probably wasn’t a thyroid gone awry that had caused my exhaustion; indeed, our farmers market had just begun and we’d had all sorts of family visitors in and out for a month solid. No wonder I was so damned tired! Nevertheless, the little thyroid scare caused me to revisit the importance of good nutrition and thyroid health. Here’s a hint: what you avoid is just as important as what you eat.
Foods that May Speed Up a Slow Thyroid
1. Sea Weed
Naturally rich in iodine as well as trace minerals, sea weed has long been considered a food that supports thyroid function. Indeed, native peoples subsisting on their traditional diets often went to very great lengths to obtain sea vegetables in effort to avoid goiter. Iodine is critical to thyroid health and function. Without adequate dietary iodine, your body is unable to manufacture the thyroid hormones. Of course, excess intake of iodine-rich foods is also implicated in thyroid disease. Remember: moderation is the key, not excess. (Want to up your sea vegetable intake? Try my coconut milk kanten with wild plums or my cucumber and daikon radish salad with hijiki.)
2. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil also supports proper thyroid function as it slightly stimulates thyroid hormone production and the metabolism. In this way, wise incorporation of coconut oil into the the diet is thought to support thyroid health and help sufferers of hypothyroidism to lose weight. Coconut oil may also help to reduce cholesterol in hypothyroid patients as thyroid suppression in and of itself raises blood cholesterol levels. Coconut oil is largely comprised of saturatef fat and saturated fat promotes thyroid function.
Shellfish, like sea vegetables, are naturally rich in iodine – the nutrient that is critically important to thyroid function as iodine molecules are used inthe production of thyroid hormones.
Foods that May Slow Down a Speedy Thyroid
1. Fermented Soy Foods
Soy is very goitrogenic. A strong suppressor of thyroid hormones, some research indicates that soy may even be more effective in thyroid suppression than anti-thyroid drugs. Don’t forget that soy is a potent food, and that while sufferers of hyperthyroidism might welcome soy’s thyroid-suppressing effects, take care to eat soy in its fermented state in foods like tempeh and miso as soy also contains antinutrients like phytic acid which impair the body’s overall ability to absorb many nutrients.
2. Raw Cruciferous Vegetables
Raw cruciferous vegetables also suppress thyroid function. Cruciferous vegetables like kohlrabi, cabbage, cauliflour, rapini, turnips and brussels sprouts contain goitrogens that interfere with iodine uptake and, in that way, also interfere with production of thyroid hormones. (Want to get more raw cruciferous veggies into your diet? Try my Simple Slaw with Flaxseed Oil & Honey.)
Millet, like cruciferous vegetables, contains goitrogens and interferes with iodine uptake. Cooking millet, as well as goitrogen-rich cruciferous vegetables, may mitigate its antithyroid effects to some degree.
Foods that Aren’t Doing Anyone’s Thyroid a Favor
1. Gluten-containing Grains
Recent research into autoimmune diseases and autoimmune thyroid disease in particular indicates that there’s a strong connection between celiac disease and thyroid disease. Indeed, study published in Digestive Diseases & Science indicates that sufferers of autoimmune thyroid disease have roughly a 400% greater chance of also suffering from celiac disease than control groups. Moreover, some research indicates that after 3-6 months on a gluten-free diet, those pesky anti-thyroid antibodies virtually disappear. That’s a poweful case to remove wheat, barley and other gluten-containing grains from your diet if you suffer from any form of autoimmune thyroid disease.
2. Unfermented Soy
Unfermented soy foods – particularly those rich in concentrated isoflavones and genistien – contribute to autoimmune thyroid disease. Reasearch into soy formula and its effects on babies indicates that babies fed soy formula are more likely to develope autoimmune thyroid disease and large concentrations of unfermented soy may adversely thyroid function in adults. If you eat soy, keep to small amounts and always choose fermented forms. (Learn more about the nastiness of too much soy consumption in my post about the Soy and Illinois Prisoner Case.)
Coffee is simultaneously stimulating and goitrogenic which spell trouble for both hypo- and hyperthyroid sufferers. As a strong stimulant, it can wreak havoc on those suffering from hyperthyroidism as that added stimulation is the very last thing they need. Moreover, for those suffering from hyperthyroidism, coffee also interferes with iodine uptake and thus may inhibit the formation of thyroid hormones. Bad news for everyone.
A Note on Balance and Moderation
As with everything, if you suffer from thyroid disease or suspect you do, consult first with a physician and have that physician run the full panel of thyroid tests. If your thyroid disease is found to be severe, work with an endocrinologist and a complementary physician of naturopathy or integrative medicine. Remember, just because you suffer from hypothyroidism that’s not adequate cause to overeat iodine-rich foods; likewise, if you suffer from hyperthyroidism, that’s not adequate cause to overeat soy-rich foods as overeating any food can actually worsen the issue.
Lastly, take solace in the natural, wholesome beauty of well-composed dishes. Consider how miso (goitrogenic) is paired with seaweed and dashi (iodine-rich). Or take a look at the way fresh seafood (iodine rich) is paired with pickled daikon (goitrogenic). Once you’ve achieved euthyroid status, eat complementary foods.
Image courtesy of UC Travis at Davis.