Written by Dwiti Kacharia
10 mins read
Thyroid conditions affect more people than you might think; it’s important to be educated about them in order to recognize the symptoms. In this article, we’ll cover what thyroid disease is, and how you can make basic lifestyle changes to help address it completely or at least minimize the symptoms.
To put the prevalence of this disorder into perspective: it is estimated that 200 million people in the world have some form of thyroid disease. In Canada, a staggering number of people are affected—recent studies indicate that 1 in 10 Canadians suffer from a thyroid condition of one type or another. Of those, as many as 50% are undiagnosed. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
Statistics source: Thyroid Foundation of Canada
Thyroid disease is an underactive (hypothyroidism) or an overactive (hyperthyroidism) thyroid gland. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that drapes across the front of your windpipe. If you place your fingers on the sides of your Adam’s apple and swallow, you’ll feel your thyroid gland sliding under your fingers. It releases thyroid hormone, which controls the growth and metabolism of essentially every part of your body. At the most basic level, the thyroid hormone is responsible for coordinating energy, growth and metabolism in your body. Problems can occur when this hormone’s levels are too high or low.
Common Causes of Thyroid Disorders
Your thyroid gland produces two main hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which influence every cell in your body. They maintain the rate at which your body uses fats and carbohydrates, help control your body temperature, influence your heart rate, and help regulate the production of protein. Your thyroid also produces a hormone that helps regulate the amount of calcium in your blood (calcitonin). An inadequately performing thyroid gland leads to either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism may be due to a number of factors, including: Autoimmune disease, over-response to hyperthyroidism treatment, thyroid surgery, radiation therapy and medications. In a few cases, hypothyroidism could also be a result of congenital disease, pituitary disorder, pregnancy and Iodine deficiency. For detailed information on these causes click here.
Likewise, Hyperthyroidism is largely caused by either Graves’ disease, hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules or thyroiditis. For detailed information on these causes click here.
Common Symptoms of Thyroid Disorders
The pituitary, a tiny gland in the middle of your head, releases thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is the signal to the thyroid gland to release thyroid hormone. Sometimes TSH levels increase, but the thyroid gland doesn’t release enough thyroid hormone in response. This is known as primary hypothyroidism, as the problem begins at the level of the thyroid gland.
Other times, TSH levels decrease, and the thyroid never receives the signal to increase thyroid hormone levels. This is called secondary hypothyroidism. Some common symptoms of hypothyroidism or ‘low thyroid’ levels are:
- Feeling tired
- Gaining weight
- Feeling cold
- Weakness and aches in muscles and joints
- Hair loss
- Itchy and dry skin
- Feeling down or depressed
- Trouble concentrating or remembering
- Heavy or irregular periods
High amounts of T4, T3, or both can cause the thyroid gland itself to swell into a goiter, which can be either symmetrical or one-sided. Your eyes may also appear to bulge, which is a sign of exophthalmos, a condition that’s related to Graves’ disease. Some other common symptoms are:
- Difficulty concentrating
- More frequent bowel movements
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty sleeping
- Menstrual irregularity
- Difficulty conceiving
- Sensitivity to heat
- Muscle weakness
It is important to note though, that most of these symptoms are common and could apply to other conditions, or could be nothing serious when considered in isolation. However, if you notice more than a few of these symptoms together, visiting a doctor and talking to them about your concerns is advisable.
To learn more about symptoms or the different types of thyroid diseases, click here.
However, not all news is grim. Although most thyroid conditions require lifelong treatment, they’re largely treatable through simple and affordable daily medication. It’s possible to live a normal, healthy life through consistent yet simple lifestyle changes.
How Basic Lifestyle Changes Can Positively Impact Your Thyroid
While you can’t change genetic predisposition to conditions like thyroid disorders, sticking to healthy choices in life can do wonders to curb the effects of hyper or hypothyroidism.
- Limit Dietary Stress
Certain foods contain toxins or chemicals that cause inflammation, sensitivity, allergic reactions and rapid fluctuation in blood sugar level. This triggers an immune response leading to dietary stress. Some simple food intake restrictions can help with a healthy gut and promote healthy digestion:
- Eliminate heavily processed foods
- Skip table salt
- Add good fats like olive oil, avocado, salmon and healthy nuts in your diet
- Limit sweets
- Reduce caffeine intake
- Drink in moderation
- Avoid eating too much in one sitting
- Give your body a nightly food break of 10-12 hours at least
- Eliminate toxins by consuming organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free food
- Try a Thyroid Friendly Diet
- Gluten-free diet:
Celiac disease is three times more common in people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease than in the general population. For those with celiac disease, going on a gluten-free diet may help reduce inflammation and lose weight.
Read here for more information on The Celiac and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease Connection
- Low-glycemic diet:
A low-glycemic diet is low in sugar and simple carbohydrates that are quickly absorbed, such as bread, rice, pasta, cereals, potatoes, and corn. The benefit of this diet is that it helps to balance blood sugar spikes, which cause dietary stress.
- Low-carbohydrate diet:
Cut down on “bad” fats and simple carbohydrates. Stick with complex carbohydrates found in whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables, and minimize soft drinks, potato chips, candy, crackers, and other junk foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients. These include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils, and omega-3 fats found in certain kinds of fish. Seeds, nuts, and legumes are also healthy choices. Getting enough protein should not be a problem. Most people in developed countries get plenty of protein in their diets. This helps to keep your blood sugar level balanced.
- Autoimmune protocol diet:
The autoimmune protocol diet focuses on reducing inflammation and healing your immune system. It’s appropriate for any type of autoimmune disease and involves eliminating specific foods for six to eight weeks, then reintroducing them slowly.
- Elimination diet:
Food intolerances and allergens; dairy, soy, and nuts, for example—can cause inflammation and make it harder for you to maintain a healthy weight. It might be worth it to try an elimination diet and/or get allergy testing to determine if you have any food sensitivities or allergies.
*Please consult your doctor to understand any particular health risks for your individual condition before following any of these dietary approaches.
- Be Aware of Goitrogenic Foods
For people with thyroid problems, high intake of goitrogens can worsen thyroid function by:
- Blocking iodine: Goitrogens may prevent iodine from entering the thyroid gland, which is needed to produce thyroid hormones.
- Interfering with TPO: The thyroid peroxidase (TPO) enzyme attaches iodine to the amino acid tyrosine, which together form the basis of thyroid hormones.
- Reducing TSH: Goitrogens may interfere with thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which helps the thyroid gland produce hormones.
Some examples of the most goitrogen-rich foods include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, strawberries, peaches, and peanuts. For more details on what foods contain Goitrogens and how it affects thyroid problems read here.
- Increase Dietary Fiber
Dietary fiber helps improve digestion. Eating whole-grain foods and a variety of vegetables and fruits ensures that you have an ample supply of dietary fiber.
- Manage stress: Chronic stress impairs thyroid function at many different levels. Practice regular meditation, yoga, breathing exercises or a downtime with some music to help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Shape Up: Exercising helps boost your energy levels, assists in maintaining a healthy body weight and lowers stress levels. A regular exercise routine also helps to maintain sound body functions and complement your medication regime.
- Get some sun: Sun exposure has been shown to be protective against autoimmune disease.
- Get adequate sleep: A sound sleep, assists in other bodily functions and is important to deal with any daytime fatigue. Avoid caffeinated drinks after 2pm to ensure you can hit the bed in time.
- Iodine and selenium: most optimal to get from food, but in cases of significant deficiency, supplementation may be necessary—consult your doctor for appropriate dosage.
- Vitamin D: supplementation is required when sun exposure is not sufficient to achieve adequate levels.
Neglecting a thyroid problem can lead to serious complications. But with proper treatment and a healthy lifestyle, thyroid disease is easily treatable. Moreover, most thyroid diseases are treatable, often resulting in normal thyroid function. Antithyroid medication, radioactive iodine, and surgery are examples of effective treatments that can help restore thyroid function to normal. Radioactive iodine and surgery also can “cure” the hyperthyroidism by removing the thyroid. Visit your doctor if you think you might have a thyroid condition.