The endocrine system produces hormones that travel through the blood to carry chemical messages throughout the body. The skin, liver, kidneys, stomach and small intestines are all organs that play a role in the endocrine system; producing, storing, and sending out hormones that support proper bodily function.
The biggest contributors to the endocrine system, however, are glands.
Glands are small but powerful organs that control bodily functions by releasing hormones. The endocrine glands include the pituitary gland, hypothalamus, thymus, pineal gland, testes and ovaries, adrenal glands, pancreas, parathyroid, and the thyroid gland.
The thyroid gland gets a lot of attention these days. This small, butterfly-shaped gland sits in front of the neck, and the hormones the thyroid releases (T3 and T4) are responsible for controlling the metabolism, breaking down food and storing it as energy. These thyroid hormones also affect breathing, heart rate, and weight, among other bodily functions.
This relationship between the thyroid gland, metabolism, and body weight is one of the reasons the thyroid seems to get much more "buzz" than some of our other endocrine system glands. One of the signs of hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, is weight loss, while hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, is generally associated with weight gain.
In addition to unexplained weight loss or gain, thyroid problems can also lead to fatigue, dry skin, puffy face, muscle aches, depression, and joint pain.
Can a nutrient-dense diet affect our thyroid and keep it functioning normally?
Top 5 Nutrients for Thyroid Health
Antioxidants play a role in defending against oxidative stress in our bodies. Clinical studies show hypothyroid patients had significantly lower levels of both enzymatic antioxidants like SOD (superoxide dismutase) and non-enzymatic antioxidants like vitamin C, carotenoids, and glutathione, compared to that of healthy subjects.
Be sure to eat plenty of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables for thyroid support. Blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, and sweet cherries are all fruits bursting with antioxidant activity. Red bell peppers have even more antioxidant vitamin C than oranges do, and kidney and pinto beans contain high antioxidant levels as well. Be sure to choose organic fruits and vegetables, especially if they're on the Dirty Dozen list. Aside from eating foods high in antioxidants, I also like Uckele's Mega-Antioxidant for a good dose of antioxidants.
The B-vitamins are a group of nutrients needed to support many bodily functions. B-vitamins include thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, inositol, cobalamin, and choline. In one clinical study of hypothyroid patients, approximately 40% had a deficiency in vitamin B12 (cobalamin).
Foods high in Vitamin B12 include shellfish, clams, mackerel, beef liver, crab, dairy, eggs, and cheese. For vegans, finding a natural source of vitamin B12 can be difficult. Look closely at your multivitamin to be sure this crucial nutrient is included in your formula, and try to incorporate nutritional yeast or B12 fortified foods into your diet.
Iodine is a trace element needed by the body to produce the T3 and T4 hormones produced by the thyroid. These are the only hormones in the body that contain iodine, and a deficiency in this nutrient can negatively affect thyroid function and hormone production. Iodine is naturally present in soil and seawater, and The American Thyroid Association recommends eating plenty of iodine-rich foods, and looking for a multivitamin containing iodine. Excessive amounts of iodine can actually contribute to thyroid issues, so try to get your iodine from foods, unless otherwise directed by a health care professional.
Eat your vegetables - your sea vegetables! Seaweeds like kelp, dulce, and nori are a great way to get more iodine in your diet. Shellfish and saltwater fish also contain iodine, and dairy, yogurt, cheese, and eggs can also raise iodine levels.
The thyroid combines iodine with tyrosine, an amino acid, to produce thyroid hormones, making it another necessary nutrient for healthy thyroid function. Even too little L-tyrosine can limit the amount of thyroid hormones the body can make. L-tyrosine supplements can sometimes cause a feeling of "the jitters", or insomnia, in some people. If L-tyrosine has a stimulating effect on you, reach for food sources of this amino acid instead.
Foods that are high in tyrosine include spirulina, egg whites, salmon, turkey, quail, shrimp, cottage cheese, mustard greens, and spinach.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, like those in fish oils, can increase the ability of the thyroid hormones to regulate cellular metabolic rates. Adequate amounts of these essential fatty acids can support the thyroid to keep the metabolism boosted. In addition to thyroid support, getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can support brain function, and may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Get your daily dose of omega-3 essential fatty acids from sardines, salmon, flax seeds, walnuts, pasture raised meats, wild rice (it's actually a grass!), and kidney beans. If you can't find a source of sustainable sea food, a quality fish oil supplement can provide the omega-3 fatty acids to keep you thriving.
A Thyroid-Supporting Blend
There are a handful of thyroid-supporting supplements on the market today, but I prefer Uckele's Thyro-lift. It contains a blend of nutrients and amino acids in a powerful enzyme base. It also contains ingredients that offer glandular and mineral support and overall support for the endocrine system.
Avoid these for Thyroid Health
Goitrogens, naturally occurring substances found in various foods, can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland. Goitrogens affect normal thyroid function by blocking the body's ability to use iodine, in turn inhibiting the secretion of thyroid hormones.
Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and kale, can contain goitrogens. These same dark, leafy green vegetables are a natural source of vitamins, fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants, so does that mean to cut them out entirely if you want to support a healthy thyroid? Not so fast.
Cooking cruciferous vegetables can turn off the enzyme that leads to enlarged thyroids. For those with hypothyroidism, talk to your doctor about eating cooked cruciferous vegetables. For those just looking to support a healthy thyroid, be sure to steam, grill, or sauté these greens to get their beneficial nutrients without the goitrogens.
Soy can also be a goitrogen, and can inhibit thyroid hormone absorption. Keep soy consumption limited, and preferably to a fermented form like tempeh, in order to reduce the risk of affecting thyroid health.
Lastly, studies link exposure to PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) with changes in thyroid function. PFCs are a class of chemicals that are used to make a wide variety of consumer products: in carpets and on clothes, on fast-food wrappers, inside microwavable popcorn bags, and lining pet food bags. The chemicals in these products break down very slowly and remain in the body for a long time.
Researchers found that PFCs were linked to changes in thyroid function, disrupting the endocrine system and lingering in the body with possible long-term effects.
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
MedLine Plus: Thyroid Disease http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/thyroiddiseases.html
University of Maryland Medical Center http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/hypothyroidism
Mayo Clinic: Hypothyroidism http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hypothyroidism/DS00353
ThyroidScience.com Clinicial Study Dec. 2008 http://www.thyroidscience.com/studies/pasupathi.08/Pasupathi.12.31.08.pdf
PubMed Feb. 2009 Vitamin B12 Deficiency Common in Hyporthyroidism
Medline Plus HealthDay July 2013 Chemicals in Carpets, Cosmetics Tied to Thyroid Problems