Foods to Promote Thyroid Health

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.

3. Shellfish

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.)

3. Millet

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.)

3. Coffee

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.

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What people are saying

  1. debbie says

    So if I have a healthy thyroid (as far as I know) and am 24 weeks pregnant, what kinds of foods are best to eat? How about for my 33 month old son? Those that slow down or speed up the thyroid? Should I avoid anything in particular? Also, I just read that peanuts are goitrogenic so I should be avoiding them (and for various other reasons as well).

    Last question – if my family doesn’t seem to have health issues, do you still recommend that we avoid gluten grains?

    Thank you for your blog. I am learning so much.

  2. Lindsay says

    THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH for this!!!!!
    I have finally gotten my thyroid back online and that was before I knew food could exacerbate the condition! Like Goitrogens! Thanks for getting this out there; real food rules.

  3. Danielle says

    Great information – I have Grave’s disease too, and beat round one with drugs, with the same threat of drastic measures being hung over my head. Thanks for the info on gluten – It’s funny, but I do feel much better without gluten. And, great point on having the whole T3 and T4 panel checked – I’ve been trying to spread that word, too, as many missed diagnoses exist.

  4. says

    Thank you for this Jenny. I have hypothyroid and am on synthroid to manage it. I had no idea about this stuff. Thyroid issues run in my family as my dad and his 3 siblings are all on synthroid and my sister has Graves. I am a coffee addict. It’s major. I really need to stop and this motivates me even more. Great post.

  5. says

    Thanks for providing this information. A natural treatment option for Grave’s is L-Carnitine, high dose daily will suppress an overactive thyroid (http://search.lef.org/cgi-src-bin/MsmGo.exe?grab_id=0&page_id=1624&query=graves%20disease&hiword=DISEAS%20DISEASEA%20DISEASEAN%20DISEASEAS%20DISEASEBASED%20DISEASED%20DISEASEE%20DISEASEIN%20DISEASEIS%20DISEASENO%20DISEASEOR%20DISEASES%20GRAVE%20GRAVEL%20GRAVELY%20GRAVESS%20disease%20graves
    ). Work with an integrative medical provider who can help you.It does not have the toxic effects that pharmaceutical drugs do with better chance of controlling the symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

    Grave’s can cause a loss of B vitamins so it is wise to take a B complex and look into B 12 deficiency. People who have gluten or other food intolerances that may cause intestinal inflammation and poor absorption are prone to B12 and B vitamin deficiencies. Since you are feeling tired it wouldn’t hurt to evaluate need to for some B vitamin supplementation. A urine methylamonic acid is the most accurate measurement of B 12 deficiency. Hope that helps. It is vital to prevent neurological and brain damage (dementia) that can occur with low vitamin B12 levels.

    This information is just that, not medical advice.

    I like your site.

    Thank you.

  6. says

    Great info. I learned about soy as a goitrogen but have always read that fermented soy doesn’t have those same effects. Have you read about negative effects from fermented soy?

  7. Jenny says

    Ricki –
    Actually, fermented soy is strongly goitrogenic. The two primary components of soy that inhibit thyroid hormone synthesis are genistien and daidzein, neither of which are broken down during fermentation. Indeed, there’s some evidence that the fermentation of soy may actually increase the availability of genistien and daidzein as fermentation breaks down large carbohydrates allowing for the full release of these two isoflavones.

    Unfermented soy contains a very large amount of phytic acid which binds minerals preventing their full absorption and nutrient malabsorption is linked to thyroid disease and other autoimmune diseases.

    Good question, though. You’ve always got good ones!

  8. says

    Great post. I missed it earlier when we were on vacation (still haven’t caught up on my blog reading). You covered all the basics very well, including many important topics about diet that many doctors fail to tell their patients.

    I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in 2006, but I suspect it had been affecting me for many years before that. Low thyroid function was likely a factor in my difficulty in conceiving ( I try to suppress worry that it affected my son, because when I finally did become pregnant I was probably mildly hypothyroid).

    It’s been a difficult journey to get this condition well-tended to, but it’s been worth the effort to feel better and get my life back. Once you are over 40yo doctors tend to dismiss thyroid symptoms as perimenopause, stress form doing too much, or “an anti-depressant deficiency”. My TSH level was checked for more than ten years (esp during infertility testing) but the hypothyroidism still wasn’t diagnosed, though the result was always in the upper “suspicious range” and I had *many* symptoms that were worsening with time (my old TSH results were alway what is now considered “out of range” by many labs and doctors).

    Once I realized my HMO doctors weren’t competent to understand and treat this (or only had one cookie-cutter way to treat it), I had to change doctors several times in order to get the care I needed. Along the way, I learned everything I could about hypothyroidism and ways to improve it. In addition I cleaned up my diet and lifestyle to optimize thyroid function (drastically lowered sugar and starch intake, dropped pre-prepped and processed foods from our diet, and went gluten-free, managed my schedule better, began some strength training, etc.).

    I still need to take thyroid hormone, though. For several years I took synthetic T4, then was able to persuade my doctor to add synthetic T3 (he only prescribed synthetics), with good results. But this year I changed to an out-of-network doctor who takes a more holistic approach and I switched to Nature-throid natural desiccated thyroid hormone and I think that was the icing on the cake.

    • Leylakiona says

      I have never heard of the kind of hormone you are taking. I am on synthroid. I was off the charts with hyperthyroidism. In 2007, I finally got some answers when I suggested to my doctor that I thought I was getting a goiter. For 8 months I was on a high dose of meds, but no results. My doctor said I would have to get probably 2 doses of radioactive iodine treatments. I did. This whole time, I was on the Nutrisystem diet of soy foods. (Probably had a lot to do with it. I told everyone, but no one picked up on it.) Is there any hope for me now. Can the right foods help me? What do I need to eat? Is my thyroid completely dead? How does this affect my pre and post menopause hormones? Any advice would be appreciated.

  9. craig says

    ive had my blood tested abut 8 months ago.. they said i think it was my T3 was a little low but nothing to worry about and get retested in about 6-8 months.. well yesterday they retested and i think its going to come back the same..
    but im always tired..
    dont want to do anything..
    legs n back hurts..
    just got over a bout with diarehia from antibiotics killy all the good florla in my stomach…
    starting to gain weight… dont get me wrong.. im to skinny anyways, im 6.7 tall and was down to 159 with the florla stuff and now im back up to 165 and use to be 215 all the time. and thats a perfect weight for someone my height..
    im at my wits end and dont really trust my docs..

    constint sinutitus.. no meds..
    failed back surgury.. fentenal patch 7.5 micro grams for pain..
    was on assacol for a year…
    any feedback sure would be great.. your welcome to email me at
    rtrout9496@aol dot com
    thanks
    craig
    craig

  10. says

    Wow, color me upset. I thought fermented soy was okay. Ugh. And daikon? Have the same question as Julie, above. I would hate to give up my Kim Chi. I do recall that the cruciferous veggies are fine when cooked, though.

  11. denise says

    I have overactive thyroid and am wondering what food I should eat and what I should stay away from. I need help.

  12. h. morales says

    OK. I was diagnosed with hyperthyroid on 2 Feb 2010. Since, I’ve seen 3-4 regular doctors and two endocrinologist. I travel a lot and it was difficult for me to get the special treatment I needed. Of course, I relied on multiple articles on- line (and yes..old fashion books) to learn about my condition. What I found was that in those articles I often found contradictory information. So I remained confused.
    When I was finally able to see an endocrinologist, after I saw the first one, I had to get a second opinion. Well, the two gave me almost completely opposite recommendation. One increase my dosage, the other said it was too high. One said that the only treatment was radioactive treatment,; the other said surgery. So I remain confused.
    I just wish somebody would admit that they don’t have a clue on how to treat this. Much less can someone tell me how my thyroid became inoperative.
    I’m going to a chinese doctor.

    • Salome says

      Hello all I was diagnosed with hypothyroid when I was 15. They put me on thyroxine, which worked although I was not happy with having to take a pill for the rest of my life. At 18 I talked to a nutrionist, and I got really good information. I think the main cause of thyroid in-balance is flouride in drinking water. She recommended that I boil my water used for drinking and eating. It took me a few years to actually do this (got a terra cotta water jar, holds 3 gallons, and a large stainless steel stock pot) but I swear that this is the biggest step I took to re-balance my thyroid. In addition to this I saw an herbalist (western, although I highly suggest Chinese medicine) and I was put on an herbal formula specialized for me, together with re-writing my eating habits. In this time, I cut out almost all processed foods and ate meat rarely. I made lots of green smoothies and raw foods. After 6 months I was tested as normal, and I haven’t had symptoms since! I am now 25, pregnant and I still tested as normal. Like I said, it’s all about the water. I am currently using Culligan water, but I hope to get a Berkey filter someday! The foods best for thyroid are (off the top of my head) broccoli, spinach, kale, spirulina, yams and sweet potatoes. Avoid soy, iodized salt, (big debate about iodine) MSG and other preservatives.
      I am not as sure about hyper thyriod, but I believe the same thing about water and of course eating wholesome foods.
      Thanks so much for this website!

      • Dana says

        Chlorine is a halogen element, in the same elemental “family” as iodine. So, by the way, are fluorine (found in fluoride) and bromine (used in processed foods–check the labels). It’s my understanding that if you intake or are exposed to these chemicals regularly, they can displace the iodine your thyroid would otherwise be uptaking.

        A simple charcoal filter will remove the chlorine from your water (saves the energy you’d use to boil it). Nothing short of reverse osmosis will do anything about the fluoride and, of course, avoid it in your dental products. (I’ve been avoiding fluoride for years but had the worst tooth decay when I was still using it. I find diet has helped with the other minor decay I’ve gotten since.) And avoiding refined flours and junk food (and reading labels) will go a long way toward avoiding brominated foods, although there are other possible environmental sources to avoid as well (do a Google search about it).

  13. says

    That is a very good tip particularly to those new to the
    blogosphere. Simple but very accurate info… Appreciate your sharing this
    one. A must read post!

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