Julie Whittington, RD

Healthy tips from a Registered Dietitian

Treatment of hypothyroidism includes healthy lifestyle choices

An estimated 5 million Americans (mostly women over 50 years old) currently suffer from hypothyroidism.  Broken down, the word hypothyroidism means low functioning thyroid.  The thyroid gland, though small in size, influences almost all of the metabolic processes in your body.  It is possible to have hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism if the thyroid is over or under active, causing too many or too few thyroid hormones in the body.  Various diseases (including cancers), inflammatory conditions, surgeries and exposure to various compounds such as iodide and lithium can all contribute to thyroid problems.

One of the most common complaints of hypothyroidism is fatigue.  Other symptoms can include increased appetite and weight gain; constipation; mood fluctuations (i.e. depression, anxiety, problems with concentration/memory); dry skin, hair and nails; heart disease and/or high cholesterol; increased sensitivity to cold; muscle aches and other body pains; worsening symptoms of PMS and menopause; and possible fertility complications.

Diagnosing thyroid problems is done with blood tests that evaluate the levels of thyroid hormones in your bloodstream.  Hypothyroidism is classified by high levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) and low levels of T4 (hormone thyroxine).  However, if you have normal levels of T4 and T3 (another thyroid hormone), but higher than normal levels of TSH, you may have subclinical hypothyroidism.  According to the American Thyroid Association, about 10 percent of Americans have this condition. 

Discuss any concerns or questions you may have with your doctor.  While medication is often used to treat hypothyroidism, you can also improve your hormone balance and address side effects of the condition with a healthy eating plan, the appropriate amounts of physical activity and attention to stress reduction.

In terms of eating, several things are recommended for those with hypothyroidism.  First, avoid refined carbohydrates such as white sugars and white flour.  Switch to whole grains and other complex carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables) that do not have such a harmful effect on your insulin and satiety levels.  Next, aim to avoid saturated and trans fats.  Instead, incorporate healthy fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds and fish.  Also, try to limit or avoid goitrogens – substances in cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts), strawberries, peanuts, pine nuts, spinach, horseradish, peaches, radishes, bamboo shoots, millet and soybeans.  These substances have been shown to suppress thyroid function by limiting iodine uptake (which can cause goiter – or, enlargement of the thyroid gland), especially in raw form.  Another substance to avoid is caffeine since it can slow thyroid function.  Finally, you may wish to incorporate daily dietary supplements.  For instance, a daily multivitamin, additional vitamin D (in order to get 800-1000IU per day) and fish oil supplements may be warranted.  Iodine supplements are sometimes recommended – cautiously, however, in order to prevent overdose.  Discuss supplement questions with your doctor.

Physical activity is another key component to healthy living in addition to treating hypothyroidism.  Start slowly and once thyroid hormone levels improve, consider increasing the frequency or intensity of your routine.  Again, discuss your plans with your doctor.

In order to improve stress management, consider incorporating relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and therapeutic yoga.  You may also benefit from meeting with a psychotherapist to ensure you are maintaining a good life balance.

Much like other diseases and illnesses, thyroid problems can upset the balance in your life.  Remember, too, that often the unbalance in your life predisposes you to developing health problems.  Either way you look at it, if you set your goals to improve eating, exercise and stress management, you will likely become a healthier person at a lower risk of chronic disease.

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