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Your Thyroid: Understanding The Keys To Health

One of the largest glands in your body, your thyroid (located in your neck) controls how quickly your body uses energy, makes hormones, and even how sensitive your body is to other hormones. It is essential for regulating your body’s metabolism.

Sadly, many people today face thyroid issues. Perhaps even more sad is that these same people seek treatment in standard medical procedures that either completely eradicate and cripple their thyroid gland or that mask the underlying causes of their thyroid problems. (This, when the thyroid is one of the easiest glands to support nutritionally by eating Real Food.)

When Your Thyroid Malfunctions

When your thyroid is under-active, it’s called hypothyroidism. Symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Low basal temperature ( cold intolerance)
  • Dry and coarse skin
  • Hair loss
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Weight gain
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Poor memory, forgetfulness, dementia
  • Nervousness and tremors
  • Immune system problems
  • Heavy menstrual periods

You can experience the symptoms of hypothyroidism when 1)the thyroid gland is not producing enough hormone, or 2)your liver is not properly converting the output of the thyroid gland (T4) into the active form of the thyroid hormone that works in your body’s cells (T3).

When your thyroid is overactive, it’s called hyperthyroidism. Symptoms of an overactive thyroid include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Heat intolerance
  • Dry and coarse skin, clammy skin
  • Hair loss
  • Warm hands and feet
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Poor memory, forgetfulness
  • Nervousness and tremors
  • Immune system problems
  • Light menstrual periods
  • Frequent defecation
  • Racing or erratic heartbeat

How To Keep Your Thyroid Healthy

The best way to nutritionally support your thyroid health is by eating a diet that supports an even, steady metabolism. What does that diet look like? Here are some tips:

Avoid Goitrogens.

Goitrogenic foods block the production of thyroid hormone. Soy in all its forms should be avoided (soy milk, tofu, soy protein, you name it). Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage are also goitrogenic, but the goitrogenic compounds in those can be minimized by cooking.

Eat More Coconut Oil.

Coconut oil is loaded with healthy saturated fats to support your liver function, which in turn will support your thyroid function. It is also full of metabolism boosting medium-chain fatty acids.

Avoid Sugars & Grains.

A diet high in these forms of carbohydrates wreaks havoc on your metabolism.

Get More Vitamins A, D, & K12.

These fat-soluble vitamins promote a healthy metabolism. You should avoid synthetic forms of these vitamins, instead getting the nutrients from real food (like liver, milk & butter from grass-fed cows, and egg yolks from pastured hens), superfoods (like fermented cod liver oil), or exposure to the sun.

Get Enough Iodine

The hormones produced by the thyroid gland are partially made up of iodine. Insufficient amounts of dietary iodine can be highly detrimental to proper thyroid functioning. The best sources of iodine are fish and shellfish, followed by sea vegetables like kelp, yogurt, and dairy from grass-fed cows.

This post is part of the Understanding The Keys To Health series.

(photo by photo_pelle)
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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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35 Responses to Your Thyroid: Understanding The Keys To Health
  1. Ginny
    June 10, 2010 | 12:35 pm

    This post is very timely for me. My sister in law was just diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and is having lots of problems with the meds she was prescribed.

  2. Kristina
    June 10, 2010 | 1:18 pm

    I am so happy! You have made a beautiful comprehensive explanation of this, which contained a couple of keys that I was missing, specifically the liver/thyroid connections, since I knew there was something not right with my liver or my thyroid. I’ve been researching thyroid for a while because I am hypo-thyroid but not wanting to go on medication. I just knew there was something that could be done naturally but had a hard time finding it! Low basal temperature is the most frustrating part of this for me. Luckily I was already going on raw milk and butter and avoiding grains and sugars, so I’ll continue with that and add fermented cod liver oil.

    • KristenM
      June 10, 2010 | 1:22 pm

      And don’t forget the coconut oil! I highlighted it because it is so packed full of good saturated fats and medium-chain fatty acids. Many who take it therapeutically stir in a tablespoon into a glass of hot tea and drink it about 20-30 minutes before eating meals.

  3. Gretchen
    June 10, 2010 | 1:21 pm

    One caveat on iodine: there is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis that is the most common cause of hypothyroid, especially in women. Supplementing iodine or eating an excessive amount of particularly iodine-rich foods such as seafood can cause a thyroid crash, as the hypothyroidism is not necessarily due to an iodine deficiency, and excessive iodine intake can weaken the thyroid further. You still want to get enough iodine, but it’s especially important that it be from whole food sources as you suggest here, and that it’s kept to reasonable amounts; this is one of the places where it’s especially important not to try to make it up with supplements and it’s also good to not binge on the richest food sources.

    You’re at increased risk for Hashimoto’s if you have a family history of it or of other autoimmune diseases such as Type I diabetes. It creates antibodies which can be tested for, and in later stages it damages the thyroid in a characteristic way, so this form of hypothyroid can be detected by a doctor who is looking for it. In the early stages it can seem like hyperthyroid or go back and forth, because the thyroid might swing wildly between overcompensating hormone production and being unable to produce enough, until the thyroid is damaged enough that it stops producing enough hormone permanently.

    Eating whole foods as you suggest above will support the thyroid in someone with Hashimoto’s, and supporting the thyroid can slow the progression of the disease and make it have less impact — it may even keep it from triggering to begin with even if you’re genetically predisposed.

    It is not necessary to completely avoid all goitrogenic foods (crucifers in particular are incredibly nutritious) as long as you eat roughly the same amount every week. I personally avoid unfermented soy and don’t eat any crucifers or fermented soy within four hours of taking my medication, and I try to eat what soy I do eat with mineral-rich foods. I do eat crucifers regularly, mostly cooked but some raw, and my hormone dose is easily titrated to my normal diet. It’s important not to binge out on raw crucifers, though, or to go without entirely for a long stretch of time, as that could cause periods of hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism relative to my steady-state dose. I don’t know if raw sauerkraut breaks down the goitrogens or not, but I haven’t had any issues with eating it along with a variety of other crucifers.

    • KristenM
      June 10, 2010 | 1:28 pm

      Thanks, Gretchen.

      I’ve always been a proponent of eating nutrient-dense foods rather than taking supplements, and you’ve presented one more reason for doing so!

      • Gretchen
        June 10, 2010 | 4:01 pm

        I’ve also lost weight back to my teenage weight, and am maintaining that easily, despite being hypothyroid and while eating all sorts of great foods including pastured meat and eggs and milk. My husband has halved his blood pressure medicine and turned his lipid numbers around. Whole foods taste so good, too; we’re spending more time cooking now, but we’re also eating better than we ever have, both in nutrition and flavor. This despite the fact that I had developed multiple food allergies and celiac disease which is a lot of why I got *interested* in learning how to cook from scratch. Before that happened, I never would have imagined that having to cut wheat and corn and other foods out of my diet would mean that I ate *better*.

  4. Melissa
    June 10, 2010 | 2:10 pm

    Hey, Kristen. This is a really great review of the issues… I wrote about your post on MY blog today:
    http://theclothesmakethegirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/food-renegade-talking-thyroid.html

    I had half my thyroid removed about 18 months ago, and the doc thought the remainder would still work, but alas, it did not. While we’ve been sorting out my synthroid dose, I’ve also been eating very clean, high-quality real food — and I’m convinced that’s why I gained 5 lbs. not 45 lbs. My thyroid function is just about where I need it to be now… I no longer have cold feet, I’m getting leaner, and all of the “I feel like I’m losing my mind” emotional roller coaster rides have disappeared. Thyroid disease is very lonely because the diagnosis can be so challenging. Thanks for posting this — not only for those with wonky thyroids, but also for the people who love them. This can really help them understand what someone with thyroid issues goes through.
    .-= Melissa´s last blog post …Food Renegade: Talking Thyroid =-.

  5. Walter Jeffries
    June 10, 2010 | 7:36 pm

    “Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage are also goitrogenic, but the goitrogenic compounds in those can be minimized by cooking.”

    Hmm… Not good news. Raw cabbage and such are what we call our winter salad. It keeps and we have it when the summer greens are gone.

    • KristenM
      June 10, 2010 | 7:54 pm

      I’m right there with you. I don’t think its all that bad to occasionally eat cabbage, etc. raw so long as you’re not at risk for any thyroid problems. But if you are at risk, or if you eat is as your main green for so many months out of the year (without fermenting it into sauerkraut), then you can try parboiling the cabbage, then draining & refrigerating it. It’s less crisp, but still nice & cold.

  6. Diana
    June 10, 2010 | 7:49 pm

    Thank you so much for this. I was diagnosed with sub-clinical hypothyroidism last fall. I had been on medication, but recently went off of it as an experiment. I didn’t notice a big difference, but I was thinking about starting back up on it to see if I noticed an effect with taking it. I was hesitant because I knew there were foods that I could eat/not eat that would help. This gives me the confidence to stay off the medication and really try to control it with food.

    I’ve got my first order of coconut oil coming! And I’ve been trying REALLY hard to avoid soy (it’s hard!). I am sad that I need to limit my grains…. :(

    Anyways, thank you so much for this information!

    • KristenM
      June 10, 2010 | 7:58 pm

      Grains (God bless them) are the downfall of anyone wanting a steady metabolism and even blood sugar levels — even traditionally prepared grains (sprouted, soaked, fermented). The only people I know who can eat them without radically affecting their metabolism are high-cardio athletes — runners, cyclists, and swimmers.

  7. Deanna Eberlin
    June 10, 2010 | 8:14 pm

    Thank you so much for this post!

    Earlier this year I had my thyroid scanned because I have a very large nodule on it. (About the size of a ping pong ball.) According to the scan everything is functioning properly, but I do have symptoms of hypothyroid- especially the poor memory, cold hands, intolerance to cold, and weight gain. I’m thinking maybe it’s a liver thing.

    I’ve been Primal for quite a long time, so there are no grains in my diet, and sugars are minimal- fruit and dark, dark chocolate (99%). The goitrogenic veggies are a problem. I love cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Cabbage is wonderfully cheap so I probably eat more than I should.

    I’ve started drinking coconut milk in my coffee and am working on getting some coconut oil. The only thing I’m really lacking from your recommendations is eating enough fish and shellfish. The one thing I can’t seem to find on the net is exactly how much coconut oil is recommended for best results- both in aiding the thyroid but also losing weight. Just by feel though, it seems my nodule is slightly smaller. Maybe this coconut milk is doing something?
    .-= Deanna Eberlin´s last blog post …Dandelion Wine =-.

    • KristenM
      June 10, 2010 | 8:18 pm

      Those who take coconut oil therapeutically typically take a tablespoon 20-30 minutes before meals. Many lick it straight off the spoon; others stir it into hot tea (my personal favorite)!

  8. Deanna Eberlin
    June 10, 2010 | 8:36 pm

    Ok so now my question is… is 1/4 cup (100 calories) of coconut milk as effective as a tablespoon of coconut oil? I put that much in my coffee daily. Coconut oil would be more cost effective I’m sure, but the milk gives my coffee that nice creamy texture.
    .-= Deanna Eberlin´s last blog post …Dandelion Wine =-.

    • KristenM
      June 10, 2010 | 8:42 pm

      I don’t know. It would probably depend on how much fat is in that coconut milk (varies according to brand). Anyhow, the benefits are from the fat, so the more coconut fat you work into your diet, the better!

  9. Deanna Eberlin
    June 10, 2010 | 8:51 pm

    I’ll have to do some label comparing and experimenting. I know it’s all fat, but I don’t know how many grams, so I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the tips. So very helpful. =)
    .-= Deanna Eberlin´s last blog post …Dandelion Wine =-.

  10. CharlesWelling
    June 10, 2010 | 9:40 pm

    Your Thyroid: Understanding The Keys To Health http://ht.ly/1X142

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  11. Natalie
    June 10, 2010 | 9:47 pm

    This is frustrating b/c I do all this. I’ve recently had an increase in PMS symptoms (more breast tenderness and sometimes, not always, a shorter luteal phase). Ironically, starting AFTER I began eating Real Food (raw milk, pasture eggs, butter from grass fed cows, FCLO, etc). I had all my hormone levels tested and the only trend seen was a fall in my thyroid numbers over the past six months. It’s w/in normal range, but, every time we test it, it’s lower and it’s creeping quickly to abnormal. Though, aside from the PMS, I feel WONDERFUL. Much more energy, better skin, less anxiety, etc. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I even cut out caffeine (though, I do brew kombucha and wonder if I sound start brewing it with decaf tea instead – what do you think?). Can a thyroid jump dip up and down a bit from time to time? I don’t know why the heck I would we looking at a hyperthroid? Or, maybe my midwife, who’s had the testing done, is just being overly-cautious?

    • KristenM
      June 11, 2010 | 12:24 am

      Hi Natalie –

      Three thoughts. The first is that your liver has a lot to do with your thyroid hormone levels, too. So, be sure to check out this post:

      http://www.foodrenegade.com/your-liver-understanding-the-keys-to-health/

      The second is that I’ve heard great things about Maca and PMS. (Anne Marie @ Cheeseslave knows more about this. I’ll try to hunt down the link to a post she’s done on it.) But that seems worth researching and possibly trying, too.

      And, finally, I notice you didn’t say much about your consumption of fish or shellfish — the best sources of iodine. If you’re not doing it already, you should make it a goal to eat some sort of fish or shellfish at least once a day. If you’re concerned about toxins and/or mercury, you can also take a probiotic supplement (like those sold on my Resources Page) since the right balance of gut flora can do A LOT to help properly eliminate toxins from our system before they have they chance to harm us.

    • Ann Marie @ CHEESESLAVE
      June 11, 2010 | 8:10 am

      Natalie -

      Are you drinking or bathing in fluoridated water? That’s another thing that can harm the thyroid.

      Perchlorate is another thing added to water. We have it here in Los Angeles. It’s essentially rocket fuel. Very hard on the thyroid.

      Also bromine. It’s in flame retardants (in mattresses, carpeting, etc.) and also in pesticides. And in Mountain Dew (yuck!).

      How are your adrenal glands? Have you had them tested? If your adrenals are shot, the thyroid can’t function properly.

      What kind of test did you do? Not all tests are accurate.

      Ann Marie
      .-= Ann Marie @ CHEESESLAVE´s last blog post …How to Quit Coffee =-.

      • Natalie
        June 11, 2010 | 12:21 pm

        Kristen: I take a New Chapter probiotic daily and drink kombucha daily. I eat fish once a week and take a krill oil pill daily. I was doing FCLO but am in the process of an overseas move. So I didn’t buy any when my supply ran out a few months ago. When I get to Germany, I have contacted someone there from WPF who has told me where to get good quality CLO. You could be on to something about iodine as I only use himalyain salt. Hum. I recently tried Vitex to help regulate PMS and it didn’t work. Though, I only tried it for five weeks and it is slow acting. I know it’s widely used in Germany and may give it another go when I arrive. I will look into Maca. Thank you.

        Ann Marie: I filter my water. But, it is a fridge filter. I’ve looked into floride filters and can’t find any that would suit our budget. I think water in Germany is not chlorinated – but it is florinated. If you know of a good, reasonably priced filter to get rid of flouride, let me know. We will be renting so I can’t get a house filter. Only a countertop. My budget would be no more than $150.

        I can’t remember what test was done and my medical chart is packed. I know that this month’s reading showed a hyperthyroid .033 or something like that.. But, when they ran the test that is run when the other number shows up abnormal, that number was w/in normal range (.74 maybe?). So, that means that I am still w/in normal range. Midwife suggested working with an endocrinologist when I get to Germany just to get to bottom of it even though it’s in normal range. However, maybe it’s not a normal range for me? I have no hyper symptoms aside from the sudden increase in PMS and shortened luteal phase. My sleep is great, I recently put on five pounds when I stopped going to the gym for a month (that was a quick, easy gain). But, Obviously something is going on. But, a good friend, who’s a PA, told me that sometimes our body just does that as we age on and off. She recently had six months of spotting and a short luteal phase that lasted six months and then resolved on it’s own as quickly as it came on with no diet or exercise change. So, she warned me not to get too frantic about this. Though the consistant decrease in thyroid numbers has me a tad concerned.

        I am sure I’ve been exposed to bromine as our new house had brand new carpet. This would make a lot of sense as my symptoms came on a few months after we moved in. We have now moved out and will have no carpet in Germany.

        I do plan on getting my adrenals checked in Germany. I would LOVE to see a holistic MD for this. However, my husband won’t support it b/c it’s not covered by insurance. I’ve tried to fight him on this and it’s just way too much stress. So, I’m hoping to get referred to a German endocrinologist as I know many German docs use holistic and modern medicine in combination.

  12. Brandy
    June 10, 2010 | 9:51 pm

    This is an EXCELLENT post!

    When my 6yr old was under a year old, I started having a lot of those symptoms and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism (the most recognizable ones, though, were the extremely heavy, prolonged periods … and the weight gain. I gained 50-60lbs even though I had started exercising and was actually eating less because I had little appetite) . My grandmother and I are the only ones on my mom’s side of the family to have ever been diagnosed with it. I faithfully took my meds for several years. It took over a year for the meds to help my thyroid levels to reach normal levels.

    Then I couldn’t afford my meds … so I started taking them every other day to help the medication last a bit longer. Not good, I know … but I did what I had to do.

    Then I realized it had been WEEKS since I had taken any Synthroid and I actually felt fine! My husband and I were eating much better than we previously had been (but not as well as we do now). So I never renewed my prescription.

    It’s been a few years now … and my levels are still completely normal. NO Synthroid in all that time. I even went through a pregnancy, which doctors said could mess with my levels, and I was still normal.

    Eating better foods DEFINITELY can help.
    .-= Brandy´s last blog post …Selfless Love and Concern =-.

  13. Jennifer
    June 11, 2010 | 7:15 am

    Your blog is quickly becoming my favorite source for health and wellness information. I am a wellness coordinator at a holistic practice and sometimes find myself struggling to define certain issues to patients in layman’s terms. Your posts help me so much!
    .-= Jennifer´s last blog post …Center for Chiropractic & Wellness Voted Best in the Triangle 2010! =-.

  14. Alisa - Frugal Foodie
    June 11, 2010 | 11:49 am

    Oh how I wish my thyroid could be adjusted via those tips, but I have tried them all, at once and individually for lengths on end (though I am happy cruciferous veggies do not effect my thyroid since I love them!).

    I have hereditary thyroid disease that went undetected for quite a while since I have never had weight issues. I am quite active, eat a whole foods diet, etc. But the only thing that effects my thyroid levels (both the T3 and T4 are depressed) is altitude. Strangely enough, my levels are normal enough to stay off of medication when I live at sea level, but the higher the altitude (I have lived at sea level, 3000 ft and 7000 ft), the lower my levels. I only found one study done in Peru where they found a notable difference in thyroid levels among those living at sea level and those at high altitude. So strange how the body works!
    .-= Alisa – Frugal Foodie´s last blog post …“Raw” Liquid Gold Salad Dressing =-.

  15. amy
    June 11, 2010 | 3:42 pm

    can we talk more about grains? i find it difficult to wrap my head around whole grains (soaked/sprouted/whatever) being something to avoid. sugar is well-understood, but grains? they are a prominent source of energy from what i’ve experienced and studied.

    and, how can one keep their weight up without eating grains. (especially as a vegetarian) are we talking about a certain quantity of grains or what are the specifics?

    i so appreciate your blog and all the effort you expend!

  16. FoodRenegade
    June 14, 2010 | 12:17 pm

    Want to keep your thyroid healthy? Here’s how to do it with #realfood: http://su.pr/2OFQBS

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  17. Paramjit
    June 16, 2010 | 10:44 am

    I learnt something here about Goitrogenic foods. I never realized this. Also great tips on how coconut oil can help. Thanks for the very useful information
    .-= Paramjit´s last blog post …Understanding Fat Loss and Weight Loss =-.

  18. LibertyImages
    June 18, 2010 | 10:47 am

    Food Renegade talks #thyroid (a bit of a quick 101 course): http://ht.ly/20jTr

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  19. Jen
    June 18, 2010 | 11:18 am

    Thanks for posting this. As a Hashimoto’s patient, I knew about most of the information in the post, but the comments have been extremely valuable!

  20. miah
    September 15, 2010 | 4:09 pm

    great post. i was diagnosed with hypothyroid twelve years ago; just in my last pregnancy, this year, was the diagnoses called hashimotos. (it was a psychiatrist who diagnosed me, and i never saw an endrocronoligist until this year).

    i DO eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables & tofu. they’re all cooked, generally. how bad is it to eat cooked cruciferous veggies. i would say i eat them (cooked or sauteed) four times a week, more if possible.

    also: i do think, after reading the related link, i have even more adrenal issues than thyroid. sort of an exact bill. how do i test it? doctors?

  21. Mikki
    September 18, 2010 | 1:49 pm

    As someone with Hashimoto’s, I want to recommend “Thyroid Power,” by Richard and Karilee Shames. There’s a wealth of info about environmental toxins, nutrition, medications, and questions to ask your doctor.

    I haven’t yet investigated chelation and other detoxification methods, but I’ve heard that those techniques may also work in reducing or eliminating the need for meds.

  22. Kristin Lindsey via Facebook
    July 7, 2014 | 9:41 pm

    This is timely for me. Thanks!

  23. Food Renegade via Facebook
    July 7, 2014 | 9:58 pm

    Glad to hear it helped, Kristin Lindsey!

  24. Bente Knutsdatter Aaro via Facebook
    July 8, 2014 | 8:47 pm

    Tove Mikkelsen

  25. Joan McDaniel
    July 18, 2014 | 11:32 pm

    Good article. People need to know more about their over or under active thyroid. The medical world use of pharmaceutical drugs and nothing else like Iodine is wrong and causing many people illness. When you complain the doctor often treats you like “It is all in your head” I wrote an article about that very thing on my web-site.
    Joan
    “It’s Not In Your Head, It’s In Your Thyroid!”
    http://coconutcreamcare.com/2012/07/20/its-not-in-your-head-its-in-your-thyroid/

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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