The thyroid controls hormones and can affect nearly every cell in the body. It plays a major role in regulating metabolic rate, your body’s rate of energy production. And it’s also part of the endocrine system, which plays a vital role in the metabolism of the body (via several endocrine glands that are responsible for the secretion of endocrine hormones).
Hormones are chemical signaling molecules, produced by the endocrine glands, and secreted directly into the bloodstream. In the communication between cells, hormones are like letters, and the cardiovascular system is the postal service. When the glands do not produce the right amount of hormones, diseases develop that can affect many aspects of life.
Thyroid hormones, which regulate how the body uses energy, are secreted by the thyroid gland in the neck. The two main hormones the thyroid produces and releases are T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). These hormones, like many of the hormones made in your body, are important players in both physical and psychological health.
Even slight imbalances in their production or activity can have powerful adverse effects on emotional wellbeing. When functioning correctly, the thyroid helps to increase basal metabolic rate, stimulate vitamin metabolism, regulate carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism, and regulate long bone growth.
The thyroid gland is negatively impacted by a number of external chemical influences, such as chlorine, excess estrogen, fluoride, and heavy metals (for example, mercury or cadmium).
Low thyroid hormone levels can lead to poor digestion, constipation, weight gain, elevated cholesterol and fatigue. It can affect neurotransmitters which can lead to loss of motivation and depression.
And there are many more diseases and disorders associated with the thyroid, including hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism (too much or too little thyroid hormone) and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disorder.
It’s also important to remember that no organs in the body function totally independently, all are connected and work with each other — so if there is a problem with one it will affect the whole body (and if you fully heal one, you will heal the whole body).
So what can you do to naturally improve your thyroid function?
Iodine plays an essential role in thyroid function. Iodine is absorbed in the digestive tract, so maintaining healthy gut function is crucial in helping the thyroid hormones to work correctly. Fermented food sources and probiotic supplementation may help. You can get iodine naturally from iodized salt, saltwater fish, or by eating sea vegetables (seaweed) such as wakame and nori.
Zinc is crucial to proper immune system functioning, wound healing, and thyroid function. Zinc is found in nuts, seeds, lentils, yogurt, ricotta cheese, and wild rice.
A diet rich in selenium is also essential for T3 production. Selenium rich foods include dark green vegetables, such as dandelion green and Swiss chard, sardines, brazil nuts, brown rice, pinto beans, and dates.
Maca, which is a type of cruciferous vegetable from Peru and looks similar to turnips, is also beneficial. Maca powder is readily available and can be used in tea or smoothies.
And the amino acid tyrosine can benefit thyroid function. Tyrosine is found in chicken, turkey, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, almonds, avocados, bananas, pumpkin and sesame seeds.
Up to one quarter of the cases of thyroid deficiency are missed by the blood tests commonly used to screen for it. The test results can be interfered with by the presence of heavy metals in the body, excess estrogen, the use of birth control pills, or chronic stress.
And there are also many people whose thyroid function would appear normal according to blood tests, but who have trouble making the T4 to T3 conversion.
So it is very important to be sure that you are getting a diet that is rich in the necessary nutrients. And, of course, exercise greatly affects the level of circulating thyroid hormones too — besides its many other health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and maintaining a healthy weight.
Ayda Ersoy is a nutrition and fitness director at The Diet Doc Hawaii. She can be reached at DietDocHawaii.com, Ayda@DietDocHawaii.com or (808) 276-6892