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Diet and the Thyroid

By Mary-Ann Shearer

Where and what is the Thyroid Gland

The Thyroid is wrapped around your larynx (voice box) in a butterfly shape and is involved in a variety of functions in the body, the major ones being regulating Basal Metabolic Rate (which will affect your body weight), temperature regulation, metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, nervous system function and development, normal heart function, muscle tone, normal growth and maturation of skeleton, bowel movement, a healthy reproductive system in women and lactation in a breast feeding mothers, normal skin function, mental clarity, blood pressure and regulates calcium levels. These are just some of the functions controlled by this unassuming gland.

The thyroid gland is one of many glands that form the endocrine system and as such the endocrine system needs to be looked at as a whole rather than each separate gland as anything that upsets one gland will in turn upset the others. Your thyroid gland tells every cell in your body the rate at which it should function.

Having too little thyroid hormone, called hypothyroidism, results in a slowdown. Having too much thyroid hormone, called hyperthyroidism, races your engine, so you feel all revved up-as if you were burning out. Feeling tired and chilly, having constipation or losing your hair, can mean your thyroid is underactive-but these could also come from overwork, or aging, or a dozen other causes. Feeling totally tense and overworked could mean an overactive thyroid-or just plain stress. That’s why your doctor needs to do the proper blood tests to make sure.

Common problems with an underactive thyroid and too little thyroid hormone

  • feeling tired and listless
  • feeling chilly, especially when other people are comfortable (particularly hands and feet)
  • dry skin
  • hair loss
  • constipation
  • slow-growing and brittle fingernails
  • slow heart rate
  • leg cramps
  • sore muscles
  • depression
  • for women, heavier periods
  • for men, loss of interest in sex, erectile dysfunction
  • weight gain due to fluid retention, but usually no more than 3-4 pounds
  • fuzzy head/cannot think clearly
  • anemia

Common problems with an overactive thyroid and too much thyroid hormone:

  • feeling too hot when others are comfortable
  • shakes and tremors of your hands
  • feeling nervous and irritable
  • sweating more than you used to
  • fingernails growing faster
  • muscle weakness, especially thighs and upper arms
  • faster heart rate, sometimes irregular rhythms and an erratic pulse
  • more frequent and looser bowel movements
  • for women, lighter periods, as well as difficulties in becoming pregnant or in carrying the child to term
  • for men, loss of interest in sex, erectile dysfunction
  • eyes that appear larger than normal

Other thyroid problems

Other thyroid problems show up when the thyroid gland (at the lower front of your throat) swells or gets sore.

These may be signals for other thyroid diseases:

  • an enlarging thyroid, called a goiter, is usually a sign that the gland is overworking but could be a failing thyroid trying to do better
  • lumps or nodules in the gland, found by you or your doctor, may contain cancer or be overproducing thyroid hormone thyroiditis
  • soreness due to inflammation of all or part of the gland can change hormone levels causing either hyper- or hypothyroidism

Your risks are higher if…

  • others in your family have thyroid or other immune-system problems (such as insulin-dependent diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, pernicious anemia)
  • you are pregnant or a new mother. you are a woman over 50 or a man over 60

If you think you have a thyroid problem, make an appointment to see your doctor who knows you and should be in the best position to decide if thyroid tests should be done. In the meantime you can do a lot to help this important gland work efficiently without the use of medication. This is just a brief summary of the thyroid gland which is part of the endocrine system. This system directly or indirectly affects heart, liver, lung, and kidney and skin function so that any problems in these areas may stem from an endocrine system out of balance. It also controls blood sugar, blood pressure, bowel function, allergies, arthritis, muscle , skeleton and brain development, body weight, appetite, Immune function and if fact just about every possible body function can be traced back to this system. If any one of the many glands is out of balance it can upset the function of any other gland.

From a dietary perspective, there are many factors affecting the Endocrine System and in turn the Thyroid gland. I believe that one of the main reasons we have such a problem with our thyroid gland today is the use of artificial sweeteners, lack of essential fatty acids and insufficient sunlight and exercise. In our obsession with our weight we have traded natural foods for artificial sweeteners, low fat foods and are told to stay out of the sun because we may get skin cancer. I will cover each of these issues in turn and we will take a look at the effect they have on the endocrine system with possible effects on the thyroid gland.

  1. Aspartame (Trade names are NutraSweet, Candarel and Equal): Aspartame, it is claimed by independent scientists, causes neuro-endocrine disorders, i.e. disorders of the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the endocrine system. Aspartame can upset any of the endocrine glands, but is suspected of slowing down the function of the thyroid thereby slowing down metabolic rate which defeats the reason for taking it. Because of the close links with the CNS, foods that affect the endocrine system could in unknown ways affect the CNS.
  2. Refined sugar Refined sugar affects the pituitary gland by causing a drop in blood sugar, which in turn, causes the pituitary, adrenal and thyroid glands to malfunction. This could result in a number of endocrine disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis. Refined sugar also causes ‘reactive’ hypoglycemia resulting in an adrenaline rush with consequent explosive temper, panic attacks, fainting, epileptic seizure and migraines. This reaction also causes a ravenous appetite and food cravings. Refined sugar also affects the adrenal glands as it affects the blood sugar levels, which puts an unnatural strain on both glands. Typical Premenstrual Tension (PMT) symptoms can result, making people comment that it is just your hormones! As if your hormones misbehave on their own. Typical PMT symptoms are hostility, aggressive behavior, panic attacks, epilepsy, headaches, food cravings and increased appetite and these don’t just happen to women! Recent research also shows reduced progesterone levels in women with PMT. Progesterone helps control menstrual bleeding, has a calming effect and helps prevent asthma, skin eruptions, acne and herpes. A high raw fruit and vegetable diet controls all these aspects too, so you could conclude that a high raw diet helps the body produce sufficient progesterone.
  3. Lack of Essential Fatty Acids – best found in natural unheated foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olives and cold-pressed oils such as flax oil and olive oil. EFA’s help the hormonal system in males and females to function properly and help us to produce prostaglandins, which help to produce progesterone, which helps prevent PMT and associated pain with menstruation, heavy bleeding and menopausal symptoms.
  4. Milk and milk products
  5. Alcohol (consumed or manufactured by the body through bad food combining)
  6. Processed and heated fats, low vitamin intake and excess animal fat intake can compete for the Linoleic Acid (an EFA) available, which the body requires to manufacture several prostaglandins. This in turn, can upset this delicate hormonal balance in some women. This explains why many women with hormonal problems improve drastically when their diet changes to exclude animal fats, and combining properly (no alcohol) and including a low of raw plant food (high vitamin intake). A deficiency in prostaglandins can lead to a breakdown in the immune system resulting in asthma, hay fever, sinusitis, Candida albicans and eczema.
  7. A high protein diet is known to upset thyroid function, so it is best to keep your animal protein intake to not more than once a day. Any diet that promotes a greater intake of protein is encouraging your thyroid gland to malfunction.Other substances that can upset the thyroid gland are:
  8. Caffeine – found in tea, coffee, chocolates and colas.
  9. Vinegar
  10. Any  drugs or medication (remove only with medical supervision)
  11. Gluten – the protein found in wheat, rye, oats and barley. Gluten can have a direct effect on the thyroid function and in fact within 12-24 hours you can find your skin becoming dry and even itchy, the bowels becoming sluggish and your head feeling thick and fuzzy.
  12. Mustard oil (found in high levels in garlic and onions and to a lesser degree in the cabbage family) is an irritant to the digestive tract and the thyroid gland and some sources believe it results in a sluggish thyroid. According to J I Rodale in his book The Complete Book of Food and Nutrition, Dr Kalser of the University of Illinois conducted experiments on himself, some medical students and on dogs, in which the effect of onion consumption resulted in anaemia. It was found that the red blood cell and haemoglobin count were starkly reduced with an increased intake of onion.
  13. Lack of iodine can also result in a sluggish metabolism; iodine is found in kelp, and dark green leafy vegetables and sea salt.
  14. Lack of sunlight and exercise. Both sunlight and aerobic exercise have a profound effect on endocrine function and just 20-30 minutes a day of both will improve thyroid function dramatically. Exercise directly affects the production of the 2 main Thyroid hormones T3 and T4 helping to regulate both. 20 minutes a day

Obviously then, these above substances should be avoided, and a total change in diet and lifestyle needs to be made.

Chronic long-term stress will have a detrimental affect on this entire system particularly the thyroid and adrenal glands and stress management is essential. The first step to stress management should involve an exercise program, a healthy  diet and an action plan to simplify your life and include spiritual balance.

To sum up:

  • Basically a 75% raw, alkaline diet with a maximum of 25% acid forming and cooked food, with the removal of unnatural foods and substances is the only way to get the hormonal system to function properly.
  • Remember that in some people, the balance is extremely delicate and can be easily thrown out by the consumption of animal products – one of the reasons why many people’s overall health improves drastically when they become vegetarian or vegan. Animal produce that is not organic has been produced with the addition of hormones to the animals and these hormones have a detrimental effect on our hormonal system including the thyroid. A recognized animal sanctuary in Gordon’s Bay (W Cape) has found that the birds of prey given commercial raised chickens get extremely ill and die due to the antibiotics and hormones administered to speed up the growth process in the commercial world. (A better return on investment if the animals grow quicker, never mind what it can do to us)
  • It is also important to get at least 30 minutes of sunshine (no glasses or contacts)
  • Exercise every day. Exercise for 20 minutes at least, per day, helps the endocrine system regulate at least 16 different
  • Enough Essential Fatty Acids, which you can get from 1/4 – 1/2 cup nuts or seed and 1/2 – 1 avocado a day or 1 – 2 Tbs. of cold-pressed vegetable oil. Flaxseed oil contains more Omega 3 Essential Fatty acids than other oils and it is suggested that you take 1-3 tbsp per day, depending on the severity of your problem. 1 tbsp a day is great just for maintenance. The natural way Omega 3 & 6 blend and Aim’s Aimega are the only blends that I recommend. Sprouted green foods like barley grass or wheat grass contains a vitamin E succinate that helps the Pituitary gland work efficiently. I suggest 1 glass of barley grass (2-4 tsp of BarleyLife – the dried juice) and 2 glasses of wheat grass each day just for maintenance more if your condition is serious. I have also found the Maca root, Lyceum and Licorice to be of great benefit and the best products I use are Multi Maca and Lyceum Plus from the Forever Living company. hormones, so get moving!

For more information read my book “Perfect Weight” which focuses on this system in great detail, in particular the chapters on “Happy Hormones”, “Exercise” and “Sunlight” Available from most book shops in South Africa


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