The thyroid gland is the primary regulator of cholesterol, blood sugar, temperature, reproductive health, growth, and weight. Hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid affects over 30 million females and 15 million males in the United States.1 No wonder this highly affects the population since it is common to have lifestyles with high stress, poor sleep, minimal exercise, and diets high in processed foods.2 The most common type of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition where your body wrongly attacks your thyroid cells, resulting in cell death and improper thyroid hormone regulation.3 Lifelong pharmaceutical treatments are available to boost your thyroid, but can it be healed naturally through diet or lifestyle changes? The good news is that by identifying the culprit, you can incorporate the needed foods, vitamins, and wellness approaches into your lifestyle to support your thyroid naturally via functional medicine!
The Functional Medicine Approach
Are you a fan of optimizing your lifestyle to promote your health? If so, a functional medicine approach is right for you in treating your thyroid! Once you determine your cause of hypothyroidism, take the necessary steps to modify your diet and lifestyle. This will increase your metabolism and overall thyroid wellbeing. This approach is different from conventional pharmacological therapy because it considers your disease-causing, lifestyle, and diet factors. The diagram below displays the main differences between the two approaches for hypothyroidism.4
Did you know that nutrient-dense foods can boost your thyroid’s health while processed, inflammatory foods promote harmful effects? Listed below are a few diet changes you can make to benefit your thyroid.
- Remove gluten – Foods with gluten like bread, cookies, and crackers may be contributing to your thyroid issue if you have a gluten sensitivity.5 A gluten sensitivity blood test can be performed by your doctor to see if an inflammatory reaction occurs when you consume those foods, resulting in weight gain, fatigue, and headaches. You could also remove the foods with gluten for three weeks to see if any symptoms go away.5 If they do, this could indicate a diet lacking gluten may be right for you.
- Increase anti-inflammatory and nutrient-dense food intake – Anti-inflammatory foods like leafy green vegetables, fruits, and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are beneficial for lowering your risk of heart disease and decreasing inflammatory reactions.6 Furthermore, these foods include vitamins that help make your thyroid hormones active to carry out metabolism. Healthy fats can be found in avocados, olive oil, cheeses, eggs, nuts, seeds, and peanut butter.6 Foods with refined sugar, refined vegetable oil, cow’s milk, and unhealthy trans and saturated fats should be avoided in your diet because they promote inflammatory processes.2 These unhealthy fats are found in many processed foods, fried foods, red meats, ice cream, whole milk, and butter.
If you find it difficult to consume foods with crucial vitamins for thyroid functioning or your vitamin levels are still low, you may consider adding nutritional supplements to your diet. However, it is best to start with increasing your intake of nutritious foods to limit excess supplementation side effects.
- Iodine – You may recall that too much iodine damages your thyroid, but too little iodine inhibits the hormonal conversion of inactive thyroxine (T4) to active triiodothyronine (T3).7 Without T3, your thyroid is unable to regulate your temperature, weight, growth, and energy. Iodine is highly found in seaweed, shellfish, and eggs. It can be dangerous to increase your iodine intake, so be sure your iodine blood levels are monitored by your doctor.
- Selenium – Selenium is vital to kick-starting the conversion of T4 to T3 and decreasing inflammation. The best options for selenium-dense foods include salmon, turkey, grass-fed beef, shrimp, and Brazil nuts. Yet, too much selenium is damaging because it causes upset stomach, fatigue, and nerve damage.7
- Magnesium – Magnesium is needed to increase your T3 levels. If you experience constipation which is a common symptom of hypothyroidism, asthma, or muscle pain, you may have poor magnesium intake.7 The following foods are high in magnesium: nuts, dark chocolate, avocados, and spinach.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – Like iodine and magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids are needed for active thyroid hormone production. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that decrease inflammation and relieve fatigue.6 Key foods include flax seeds; walnuts; and fish like salmon, sardines, and trout. Remember, you want to avoid fish that are high in mercury content because it can damage your thyroid’s ability to function.6
- Vitamin A – Without enough Vitamin A, T3 is unable to be produced. The best foods for increasing this vitamin include liver, carrots, sweet potatoes, and kale. Keep in mind that too much Vitamin A can lead to stomach problems.7
- Vitamin D – Low Vitamin D levels are associated with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.6,7 Vitamin D helps make T3, reduces inflammation, and relieves muscle pain. Even spending more time in natural sunlight can increase your levels. If your schedule does not allow for more outdoor time, you could increase your intake of dairy products, mushrooms, eggs, and salmon.
Like treating many health conditions, lifestyle modifications play a role in stimulating your health and reducing risk of further complications.
- Stress relief – In today’s fast-paced world, you may find it hard to limit stressful situations or find stress relief. Increasing cortisol or the body’s stress hormone suppresses your thyroid hormones and promotes inflammation. You are at a higher risk of infection if you have chronic stress, so managing your stress and following-up with your doctor are beneficial.5 However, there are a few ways you can learn to manage your reaction to stress like joining a stress management program or finding things to do that make you calm. Some activities that can lower your stress include walking, working-out, drawing, journaling, and baking. The options are limitless, so find what works for you!
- Activity – By participating in activities that stimulate movement like walking, running, playing with your pets, or participating in sports, this encourages your thyroid to function properly and makes it easier for your hormones to work.5 The activity does not have to be performed all at once or be a strenuous activity. If you are not used to exercising, try walking 10 minutes a day for three days a week. Gradually increase your time each week to work towards a goal of 150 minutes a week.2
- Adequate sleep – By establishing a sleeping routine to get quality sleep, this can help your overall health and thyroid functioning. According to the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC), adults should get at least seven hours of sleep per night.8 If you are having trouble falling or staying asleep, you may find it helpful to meditate, read, or drink a cup of hot tea to relax your mind for a good night’s sleep.
- Minimize toxin exposure – Excess exposure to toxins not only increases inflammation and your risk of health conditions, but it harms the thyroid. Limiting your exposure to radiation, contrast dyes, and pesticides can keep your thyroid hormones intact.5 Mercury, a common metal found in saltwater sea creatures, is highly toxic and affects your body’s regulation and development processes.2 Therefore, you may need to reduce your intake of high mercury-containing foods like king mackerel and bigeye tuna.6 Other changes include avoiding tobacco products, eating organic foods, and using natural cleaners. One way that both reduces stress and toxins is using a sauna because it removes toxins from your fat cells while you relax.5
Insteading of solely treating you based on your hormone levels, signs, and symptoms, a functional medicine approach considers your physical, social, environmental, and nutritional needs. Assessing you fully helps to identify the primary cause of your thyroid disorder that may be a mystery if only conventional treatments are used. For more information on the functional medicine approach to hypothyroidism, talk with your doctor or functional medicine specialist.
- Hyman M. A 7-step plan to boost your low thyroid and metabolism. Dr. Hyman website. https://drhyman.com/blog/2010/05/20/a-7-step-plan-to-boost-your-low-thyroid-and-metabolis/#close. Accessed August 3, 2021.
- Klimenko E. Functional medicine approach to autoimmune thyroid disease. Dr. Klimenko website. https://www.drelenaklimenko.com/autoimmune-thyroid-disease/. Accessed August 3, 2021.
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Mayo Clinic website. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothyroidism/symptoms-causes/syc-20350284. Accessed August 3, 2021.
- Los angeles functional medicine doctors of holistic and integrative medicine. Southern california center for anti-aging website. https://socalbhrt.com/functional-medicine-doctor-los-angeles/. Accessed August 3, 2021.
- Hyman M. 6-Steps to heal your thyroid. Dr. Hyman website. https://drhyman.com/blog/2015/06/10/a-comprehensive-6-step-strategy-to-heal-your-thyroid/. Accessed August 3, 2021.
- Hyman M. The functional medicine approach to hypothyroidism and hashimoto’s disease. The doctor’s farmacy. 2021. https://drhyman.com/blog/2021/03/11/podcast-hc47/. Accessed August 2, 2021.
- Drecher L. Supporting the thyroid: Food as medicine. https://www.ultrawellnesscenter.com/2018/03/15/supporting-thyroid-food-medicine/. Ultrawellness center website. Accessed August 3, 2021.
- Are you getting enough sleep? CDC website. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/features/getting-enough-sleep.html. Accessed August 3, 2021.