Chances are that you’ve heard about the thyroid gland, but aren’t entirely aware of what it does – something we’d like to bring a little light to, this World Thryoid Day (the 25th of May), considering the number of Indians who have a thyroid disorder.
42 million Indians suffered from thyroid disorders in 2011, with recent studies estimating that the number may now be closer to 100 million.
The thyroid gland, found in the front of the neck, below the Adam’s apple, plays a key role in regulating the growth and normal development of children, and in regulating the metabolism of children and adults. It produces two thyroid hormones, T3 (Triiodothyronine) and T4 (Thyroxine), which have an effect on every cell of the body. These hormones work both on their own, and synergistically with other hormones, to carry out a host of functions including:
- Regulating our basal metabolic rate, which includes our oxygen and energy consumption
- Increasing protein synthesis
- Increasing the breakdown of fat
- Regulating bone growth
Thyroid disorders are broadly classified as two categories: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism, the more common of the two, stems from an underactive thyroid gland that doesn’t produce enough of the thyroid hormones, slowing down one’s metabolism and leading to hormonal imbalances, immune problems, muscle pain, weight gain, fatigue, dry skin, hair loss and a slow heart rate, amongst other issues.
Hyperthyroidism is exactly the opposite – the gland is overactive, which means it overproduces thyroid hormones, speeding up one’s metabolism. This may seem like a good thing, but an overactive body can take a toll on the heart, bones and even moods. This heightened pace of production isn’t possible for the gland to maintain, and it eventually exhausts itself and leads to hypothyroidism.
Similar effects – overactivity of the thyroid gland, followed by a burnout that leads to underactivity – can also be caused by autoimmune disorders (such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), where an overactive immune system attacks healthy cells and hormones.
Apart from autoimmune disorders, thyroid conditions can arise because of a range of factors like the inflammation of the thyroid gland and nutritional deficiencies, and can be recognised by a variety of other symptoms, from the development of goitre (the enlargement of the thyroid gland) to fatigue and feeling cold.
While individuals who have been diagnosed with a thyroid condition – or suspects that they may have one – should consult with a medical professional, it may help to understand how nutrition can affect the functioning of the thyroid gland.
Here’s a list of specific nutrients that play a role in thyroid health.
The thyroid gland needs iodine in order to produce its hormones.
This nutrient, however, is notoriously lacking in the modern diet. In fact, iodine was added to salt (for iodised salt) as a government initiative, due to the growing need to regulate iodine deficiency-related disorders worldwide. Now, recent data suggests that iodine deficiencies may be an emerging issue even in industrialised countries previously considered as iodine sufficient.
Given the underactivity of their thyroid gland, an indiviual with hypothyroidism could do with an increased intake of the nutrient and perhaps replace regular salt with iodised salt (after consulting with their doctor).
As another option, iodine-rich seaweed would even offer the nutritional benefits of fibre, calcium, and vitamins A, B, C, E and K.
Note: While iodine is necessary for proper thyroid function, getting too much iodine can also be harmful. Moreover, some people on medication may require less iodine. Any changes to an individual’s iodine intake should be approved by their doctor.
Soy contains nutrients that can inhibit the function of an enzyme called peroxidase, which is essential for the production of thyroid hormones.
Individuals with hypothyroidism should be careful about their soy intake and avoid having it every day (although not all studies have conclusively shown its daily consumption to hamper the gland’s functioning).
Apart from being a powerful antioxidant, selenium is a trace element that forms a structural component of important proteins; two groups of enzymes within the thyroid gland depend on selenium for their functions.
Being an ‘essential’ nutrient, selenium cannot be produced by our body, and so must be obtained from our diet. However, being a trace element, it can be toxic if consumed in really large amounts.
Its recommended daily intake (50 – 70 micrograms/day for adults) can be easily obtained from 1 – 2 handfuls of nuts like almonds and cashews, which also offer other healthy minerals like iron, zinc and magnesium.
4] Omega 3 fatty acids
Thyroiditis is a condition where the thyroid gland is inflamed – which can either account for thyroid issues or simply be a symptom.
Inflammation, a necessary function of our immune system, is regulated by a balanced ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids. Since the modern diet has a far higher prevalence of omega 6 fatty acids, it can lead to a constant state of low-grade inflammation. We could all focus on increasing our intake of omega 3 fatty acids, and reducing inflammation.
While fatty fish, flax and chia seeds and avocados are all great sources of omega 3 fatty acids, supplementing with fish oil or marine algae-derived omega 3 (for vegetarians) can be helpful as well (considering most of them don’t contain DHA, an omega 3 fat of particular importance).
5] Cruciferous Vegetables
Individuals with hypothyroidism should be wary of eating cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kale in excessively large amounts. These vegetables contain compounds called goitrogens that can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb iodine.
While adding copious amounts of these vegetables to smoothies or green juices and drinking them on a daily basis would naturally be inadvisable for someone with hypothyroidsm, they still come with their health benefits and shouldn’t be entirely avoided. Cooking them and combining them with a variety of plant foods can lower the effects of their goitrogens, and also makes for a meal that’s packed with vitamins and minerals.
Also, eating mostly low-calorie, high-nutrition foods (as well as fruits and whole grains) is the cornerstone of any successful weight-management programme – which is especially important when one has a thyroid disorder.
6] Vitamin D
Although their relationship hasn’t been fully understood yet, vitamin D deficiencies are closely linked with hypothyroidism, which makes it a good idea for anyone who has it to check their vitamin D levels and address a deficiency.
Dairy products, eggs and fatty fish (such as tuna and mackerel) are good dietary sources of vitamin D, but may not be sufficient for someone with an existing deficiency – sunlight would be the most effective source. That said, extremely low levels of Vitamin D would be best addressed by speaking to a doctor, who may then recommend supplementation.
It’s been established that the thyroid hormones affect our metabolism. The body’s demand for B-vitamins can be especially high when there’s a thyroid disorder, given the crucial role that these vitamins play in our metabolism (being required for everything from cell division and energy production to facilitating reactions).
Those who eat eggs can find B-vitamins and nearly all the nutrients that are needed for the healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, including selenium and iodine. The various B vitamins are also found in a variety of foods in different amounts, including grains fruits, vegetables and meat, making it a good idea to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible.
A deficiency of this mineral can impair the production of thyroid hormones, because iron facilitates the activity of certain enzymes in the thyroid gland.
That would also explain why thyroid disorders are often accompanied by anaemia, a prevalent condition can develop due to an iron deficiency.
Meat, seafood, beans and dark leafy vegetables are all rich sources of iron.
Barring a few (omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D, to be specific), most of the listed nutrients are best sought from the food that we eat rather than supplements, because of how sensitive the functioning of the thyroid gland is to them. For those already undergoing treatment for thyroid disorders, it is best to speak with your doctor before making any dramatic changes to your diet.
Combining a balanced, nutrient-dense diet with good lifestyle habits like regular exercise can also go a long way. In fact, certain exercises, like aerobic exercise, have been clinically demonstrated to increase the circulating levels of our thyroid hormones, which is helpful for individuals with hypothyroidism.
All in all, given the intricacies of the thyroid’s relationship with our general health, working towards an overall healthier lifestyle is one of the most powerful changes we can make – in any given situation.
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