Autoimmune Thyroid Disease Begins with the Diet, Not in the Thyroid
Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are two common forms of a larger family of diseases called Autoimmune Thyroid Disease, or AITD.
How autoimmune thyroid disease develops remains a mystery. However, research has concluded that some individuals are genetically predisposed to develop Autoimmune Thyroid Disease whereas others are overcome by AITD via environmental toxicity. Still, many people with a family history of AITD as well as those with high levels of environmental toxins in their bodies do not develop AITD. This fact led researchers to look deeper.
What they discovered is that diet has the most profound effect of either promoting AITD or preventing it in spite of genetic predisposition and environmental toxicity.
What is Autoimmune Thyroid Disease?
Like other autoimmune conditions, autoimmune thyroid disease describes the process by which the immune system begins to identify the thyroid as a foreign agent and produces antibodies against it. Those antibodies go on to launch an inflammatory response throughout the body, which is similar to what occurs when the body is fighting an infection.
When this process continues long enough, more severe forms of Autoimmune Thyroid Disease arise. These include Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In most cases, people do not experience any symptoms of their AITD until it reaches these more severe states.
Symptoms of Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are as follows:
|Graves’ Disease||Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis|
Graves’ disease symptoms are reflective of Hyperthyroidism (overactive) while Hashimoto’s thyroiditis symptoms are reflective of Hypothyroidism (underactive). Hypothyroidism can present with other symptoms that seem unrelated to the thyroid such as asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, hoarseness, neck stiffness, pale skin, psoriasis, and vertigo.
Abnormal TSH levels usually help to diagnose both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, yet AITD can persist for years before producing any changes in TSH levels. This along with the inherent delay of AITD to produce symptoms makes thyroid antibody tests far more clinically useful than TSH panels in diagnosing AITD.
You Are What You Eat… and So Is Your Thyroid
The thyroid gland is one of the most valuable players in the endocrine system. The hormones the thyroid produces ultimately affect every cell in the body by regulating metabolism and energy levels as well as reproductive, immune, cardiovascular, and neurological function. This is why thyroid disease manifests symptoms related to these systems. It also explains why the diet, the source of energy, affects thyroid function.
As the only organ whose cells can absorb iodine, it is a common misconception that there are no other dietary elements that affect the thyroid. The thyroid absorbs iodine from food, adds it to tyrosine, and converts that iodine-tyrosine complex into the hormones, diiodothyronine (T2), triiodothyronine (T3), the active form, and thyroxine (T4). Tyrosine is an amino acid essential for brain function particularly with synthesizing brain signals, like dopamine and neurotransmitters. Selenium supports thyroid function more indirectly by regulating the immune response, limiting inflammation, and preventing chronic disease.
Consuming seafood, sea vegetables, organic grass-fed yogurt, organic eggs, raw organic cow milk and unrefined sea salt offer iodine in a more bioavailable form than iodized table salt. People who rely solely on table salt as their source of iodine are at risk of becoming deficient. Tyrosine must also be consumed from healthy food sources including almonds, avocados, bananas, pasture-raised eggs and poultry, pumpkin seeds, and wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is also an excellent dietary source of selenium. Selenium is also abundant in Brazil nuts, dairy products, garlic, onions, sunflower seeds, and tomatoes.
Foods that Damage the Thyroid and Promote Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
Getting sufficient iodine, tyrosine, and selenium in the diet represents only part of what it takes to support thyroid health. A significant part involves avoiding foods that damage the thyroid. These foods have been labeled as thyroid disease triggers:
- Alcohol disturbs T3 levels throughout the body as well as hormone production in the thyroid. Over time these effects suppress the body’s ability to use thyroid hormone. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation or not at all in people with hypothyroidism.
- Bromines are a food additive used in flour that is then used to bake bread and other foods. Bromines also appear in toothpaste, mouthwash, plastic computer hardware, upholstery, and pesticides explicitly used for strawberries. Bromines disrupt the endocrine system as a whole including the thyroid.
- Coffee taken with or within 30 minutes of thyroid hormone medication can block absorption of this hormone replacement therapy altogether. While coffee has not been shown to damage the thyroid directly, its effects on treatment can prolong thyroid disease.
- Fatty or fried foods are capable of preventing the thyroid from producing T3 as well as blocking the body from absorbing thyroid hormone (including thyroid hormone replacement therapy). This dangerous combination of effects leads health professionals to instruct patients to eliminate fried foods and eat minimal quantities of fatty foods like butter, mayonnaise, or fatty meats.
- Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs) often contain a plethora of environmental toxins from the agricultural agents (i.e., pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) used to grow them. Other GMOs are processed with chemicals that attack endocrine function and in turn interrupt thyroid function.
- Gluten not only attacks gastrointestinal health, it also induces systemic inflammation that disrupts thyroid function. Found in foods processed from grains, like barley, rye, and wheat, gluten can even prolong thyroid disease by inhibiting the absorption of thyroid hormone (including thyroid hormone replacement therapy). One study found that celiac disease and hypothyroidism often develop together, and gluten is likely responsible for this.
- Halogens, namely fluoride and chloride, which are relatives of bromine limit the amount of iodine that gets transported into the thyroid thereby blocking the conversion of T4 to T3, which is the active form of thyroid hormone. Besides food, halogens are also found in water, medications, and the environment.
- Non-fermented soy, including edamame, miso, and tofu, often disguised as a natural health food, can alter endocrine function via its isoflavones that inhibit absorption of thyroid hormone replacement therapy. Research shows women are particularly susceptible to the effect of phytoestrogens found in soy, which include damaging the thyroid as well as deteriorating brain cells.
- Refined sugar, found in sweets, sugary beverages, and processed foods offer a lot of calories with no nutrients. This can exaggerate the weight gain already induced by an underactive thyroid and challenge nutrient absorption in the gut.
- Sodium, another ingredient used excessively in processed foods, spikes blood pressure that is already endangered by an improperly functioning thyroid. Even at the expense of trying to increase iodine levels, this is not worth it. Sodium intake should not exceed 1,500 milligrams per day to prevent further damage to the thyroid.
- Too much fiber from whole grains, vegetables, beans, and other legumes interrupt thyroid hormone replacement therapy by blocking its absorption. Fiber is essential to digestion and gut health, so limit intake to 20 to 35 grams daily.
How to Heal Autoimmune Thyroid Disease Naturally and Support Endocrine Function
Healing the thyroid is a three-way quest of addressing:
- Genetic predisposition – this involves examining a person’s family history, physiological response to stress, and food sensitivities.
- Environmental toxicity – requires looking at lifestyle choices such as beauty products, cookware, tobacco use, etc.
- Thyroid-supportive diet – a more immediate step, directly impacted by what is consumed or not consumed.
An Integrative/Functional Health Practitioner can assist with all three of these steps by taking a detailed history. Blood tests will also be helpful, as they may reveal undiagnosed nutrient deficiencies.
Deficiency in selenium, vitamin B12, or ferritin can trigger Hashimoto’s thyroiditis:
- Selenium deficiency can cause anxiety or issues with blood sugar regulation while
- Vitamin B12 deficiency can induce anemia, digestive problems, inflammation, and compromised nutrient absorption, which can produce a deficiency in other essential nutrients.
- Ferritin deficiency generates hair loss because the body cannot hold onto iron without ferritin to store it.
These deficiencies must be treated first so as not to deplete the benefits of a thyroid-supportive diet.
Healing the Gut and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
Healing the gut is the next significant step toward gaining the benefits of a thyroid-supportive diet. Nutrients are absorbed from food in the gut; so, any inflammatory condition, like leaky gut syndrome, will make it impossible to absorb adequate nutrients and contribute to the nutrient deficiencies addressed in the last step.
Taking probiotics and eating probiotic-rich food balances bacteria in the gut, enhances gut health overall, and maximizes digestion.
People with food sensitivities should also evaluate whether they may have a gut infection. H. pylori, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and parasites can all trigger the production of thyroid antibodies and contribute to intestinal leakiness.
The Thyroid Supportive Diet
After checking for nutrient deficiencies and healing the gut, the thyroid-supportive diet can take effect by eliminating gluten and eating foods dense in nutrients.
Eliminate gluten by avoiding all grains containing gluten including wheat, rye, oats, barley, and spelt. Most food items that say “gluten-free” contain rice or corn and excessive consumption of these will disturb blood sugar balance and trigger the inflammatory, thyroid antibody production response all over again. Complete the diet with healthy fats, lean protein, like turkey and lamb, and plenty of vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables: kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, Brussel sprouts, and radishes, support the thyroid by increasing glutathione levels. While some studies questioned another ingredient in cruciferous vegetables called glucosinolate and its possible link to causing goiters, other studies praise these vegetables for their cancer-fighting abilities. Deiodinase enzymes, also found in cruciferous vegetables, were discovered to be essential to thyroid hormone production. Nutritionists conclude that cruciferous vegetables’ advantages outweigh their disadvantages for the thyroid but should be consumed in moderation (around 5 ounces a day, cooked) since they are capable of blocking iodine absorption.
Consuming some fruits is okay too, yet moderation is still vital for blood sugar balance. Plant-based foods rich in antioxidants and electrolytes that can be eaten are:
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits
- Green beans
- Purple grapes
A bonus step in healing the thyroid is to support the body’s detoxification. Something as simple as a green smoothie or gentle detox designed for the liver can help prepare the body to receive nutrients.
Some people find success following the Paleo diet; however, it is always best to consult your integrative/functional healthcare practitioner before changing to a different eating regime. Remember that thyroid disease develops slowly, so it is more than okay to heal the thyroid slowly.
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