Eating to support your thyroid — simple ways to naturally preserve thyroid function
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Every day women visit their healthcare practitioners suspecting something is wrong
with their thyroid, only to hear that their lab tests look “fine” or that it’s time
to consider the prescription thyroid hormone. It’s a shame that most of these practitioners
don’t have the time to help patients work through the imbalances that fall in between
these two extremes because there are ways to naturally preserve thyroid function
and prevent or reduce medication before things become more serious and irreversible.
Many foods and nutrients — all of them easy to find in your local grocery store
— support and encourage thyroid health, especially iodine-rich foods.
Your thyroid is one of the most important glands in your body. It controls the way
you metabolize food, the way you use energy, lose and gain weight, how well or poorly
you sleep, and much, much more. We know that women are more prone to thyroid conditions
than men, and that many of these problems first manifest during times of hormonal
flux, such as perimenopause and childbearing.
One of the best ways to support the thyroid gland through all of life's important
changes is by eating more carefully. As we approach these transitions, perhaps it’s
time for everyone to take a look at how the foods we eat can help — or hurt — our
thyroid function. You may have heard conflicting information about iodine, soy,
or even broccoli. Let’s get the facts straight by looking at how specific foods
and supplements influence this integral gland, and learn what you can do to support
your thyroid health.
Did you know? Brazil nuts, haddock, and sea vegetables
are all thyroid-healthy foods.
Why nutrients are important for your thyroid
Like every cell and organ in our bodies, the thyroid requires specific vitamins
and minerals to carry out everyday functions. Though there are several nutrients
the thyroid uses, I’ll highlight those that research shows to be most crucial. We’ve
evolved to extract these micronutrients from the foods we eat (see the chart below
for foods you can eat to obtain these nutrients). You may also choose to supplement,
but before starting any supplements for thyroid function, I encourage you to learn
more about your individual needs. If you think you may have a thyroid imbalance,
it’s a good idea to see a healthcare practitioner to request a full thyroid hormone
panel, as well as to have your iodine, selenium, and vitamin D levels tested. Most
functional medicine practitioners are familiar with this style of testing.
Iodine (I). Your thyroid simply can’t function without
this crucial trace element, and if you are iodine-deficient, higher iodine intake
could make all the difference for your thyroid. The essential thyroid hormones that
circulate in our bodies, known as T4 (also called thyroxine) and the more
active T3, are the only iodine-containing hormones in humans. According to a 2012
CDC report, women of childbearing age (20-39) in the US had the lowest urine iodine
levels of any other age group. If you are deficient in iodine, the thyroid just
doesn’t have the most basic building-blocks to make its key hormones, and all the
tissues in the body are negatively impacted as a result.
Selenium (Se). Selenium is another indispensable element
to healthy thyroid function. An array of selenium-based proteins and enzymes help
to do several things: they regulate thyroid hormone synthesis and metabolism; convert
T4 into the more accessible form of thyroid hormone, T3; and maintain just the right
amount of thyroid hormones in the blood and tissues, including the liver, kidneys,
and thyroid gland, as well as the brain. Selenium-containing enzymes also function
in a protective “detox” capacity, preserving the integrity of the thyroid gland
when we’re under all kinds of stress — oxidative, chemical, even social stress!
Selenium also helps the body to more efficiently recycle its iodine stores, which
can become an important concern as we grow older.
Zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), and copper (Cu). There is no doubt
that iodine and selenium are the major players when it comes to trace elements.
But there are three trace metals — zinc, iron, and copper — that play vital roles
in healthy thyroid function as well.
Research has shown that both hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism
(overactive thyroid) can sometimes result in a zinc deficiency. When zinc is low
in the body, TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), T4, and T3 can in turn
become low in the body.
As for iron, research is showing that there is a link between iron deficiency and
decreased thyroid function. If you are both anemic and iodine-deficient, supplementing
with iodine alone is unlikely to resolve the thyroid imbalance — you will also need
to replenish your iron stores.
Copper is a metal that is needed in trace amounts to produce thyroid-stimulating
hormone (TSH). It’s also required for T4, so when your body’s supply of
copper is poor, your rate of T4 production will go down. T4 keeps your body’s cholesterol
synthesis on track, and some scientists believe copper deficiency could be what
makes people with hypothyroidism more prone to developing high cholesterol and heart
Antioxidants and B vitamins. Oxidative stress is what
scientists have found to be associated with degenerative diseases and the aging
process in general. You’ve no doubt heard that antioxidants are good for you. Many
common micronutrients have antioxidant qualities, but beta-carotene (vitamin A),
vitamin C, and vitamin E — along with selenium and iodine as mentioned above — are
important antioxidants that help your thyroid gland neutralize the oxidative stress
it encounters on a daily basis.
In hyperthyroidism, the most common form of which is Graves’ disease, oxidative
stress can be particularly high. The theory is that because the thyroid is more
active, it’s using more oxygen, which leads to an accumulation of oxygenated compounds
that can harm your cells. This is why antioxidants are recommended, especially in
hyperthyroidism. The B vitamins (B2, B3, and B6) are also important for thyroid
function because they are involved in manufacturing T4.
Whole foods to support your thyroid
This chart provides whole food sources of the vitamins and minerals discussed in
this article. There is a wide variety to choose from, so treat your thyroid to a
Primary sources: sea vegetables (kelp, dulse, hijiki, nori, arame, wakame,
kombu) and seafood (clams, shrimp, haddock, oysters, salmon, sardines), as well
as iodized sea salt.
Secondary sources: eggs, asparagus, lima beans, mushrooms, spinach, sesame
seeds, summer squash, Swiss chard, garlic
Brazil nuts, tuna, organ meats, mushrooms, halibut, beef, soybeans, sunflower seeds
(Note: selenium content of land-based foods is contingent on soil substrate selenium
Fresh oysters, sardines, beef, lamb, turkey, soybeans, split peas, whole grains,
sunflower seeds, pecans, Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, ginger root, maple syrup
Beef, oysters, lobster, shiitake mushrooms, dark chocolate, crabmeat, tomato paste,
pearled barley, nuts, beans (soybeans, white beans, chickpeas), sunflower seeds
Clams, oysters, organ meats, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, white beans, blackstrap molasses,
Kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash/pumpkin, spinach, cantaloupe, broccoli,
asparagus, liver, lettuce
Guava, peppers (chili, Bell, sweet), kiwifruit, citrus, strawberries, broccoli,
cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, papaya, parsley, greens (kale, turnip, collard, mustard)
Whole grains, almonds, soybeans and other beans, sunflower seeds, peanuts, liver,
leafy green vegetables, asparagus
Brewer’s yeast, organ meats, almonds, wheat germ, wild rice, mushrooms, egg
Brewer’s yeast, rice bran, wheat bran, peanuts (with skin), liver, poultry
Brewer’s yeast, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, fish (tuna, salmon, trout), liver,
beans (soybeans, lentils, lima beans, navy beans, garbanzos, pinto beans), walnuts,
brown rice, bananas
A note on soy and foods that may disrupt thyroid function
Some studies have shown that the isoflavones in soybeans inhibit the enzyme responsible
for adding iodine to thyroid hormone, thyroid peroxidase (TPO). These and
other studies also indicate that if you have low iodine in your body, the soy isoflavone
could bond to what iodine you do have, leaving you with an inadequate reserve for
thyroid hormone production. However, if you have sufficient iodine in your body,
eating soy will most likely not be a problem. And I’ve seen soy help so many women
with menopausal symptoms that it would be a shame not to consider it as an option.
(Just be sure it is not genetically modified soy.)
There are hundreds, if not thousands of other compounds found in edible plants that
inhibit the TPO enzyme. The isothiocyanates found in the Brassica family
of vegetables — broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and so on — can
reduce thyroid hormone in the same way. An enlarged thyroid is sometimes referred
to as a goiter, and these compounds are sometimes categorized as goitrogens.
Such compounds have also been found in very small amounts in countless other foods
— from peaches and peanuts to strawberries and spinach!
T-Balance — natural support for your thyroid
Our thyroid formula, T-Balance, includes key thyroid-supportive herbs, plus the
two most important minerals for thyroid health: iodine and selenium. T-Balance has
helped many women support their thyroids, while naturally boosting energy.
Learn more about T-Balance and our Personal
Program for Thyroid Support.
The bottom line is that: as long as you get enough iodine from your diet,
as well as other micronutrients essential to thyroid function, I would not recommend
cutting soy and other healthy foods out. Simply pair these foods
with the iodine-rich and micronutrient-rich foods listed in the chart above, or
lightly steam them to counteract their activity. See our article on goitrogens for
more about how to address the goitrogenic compounds found in certain foods.
There is one food I do strongly recommend avoiding if you have a thyroid
condition: gluten. A distinct connection between celiac disease,
gluten intolerance, and autoimmune thyroid issues has been observed, and many of
my patients find that when they remove gluten-containing foods, they feel much better
and notice fewer problems with their thyroid.
Finding your balance — the Women to Women approach
I know that supporting your thyroid naturally can be more complicated than simply
popping a pill, so I want to recap some key points about how to eat for thyroid
health. One thing I can say for sure: as you learn more about your body and how
to support it, I promise you’ll feel better and better!
- Start with whole food, and supplement as needed. Getting
as many pro-thyroid nutrients through wholesome foods is ideal, but I know this
isn’t always easy or even possible in our busy lives. Supplementing with a top-quality
multivitamin–mineral complex, like the one we offer in our Personal Program, will
provide the foundation you need for preventive thyroid health. If you already have
thyroid imbalance, talk to your practitioner about using supplements before a prescription.
The problem with prescriptions like Synthroid (levothyroxine) is that once
you go on them, your thyroid backs down, and it can be difficult to get off of thyroid
- Support your thyroid with herbs. Herbs like bacopa monnieri,
hops, sage, ashwagandha, and coleus forskohlii all support healthy thyroid function.
In fact, we’ve put these herbs together with iodine and selenium in our exclusive
thyroid support formula, T-Balance. T-Balance can help boost your energy and support
healthy thyroid function and metabolism.
- Get tested. I recommend having a full thyroid hormone
panel, which is routine for many practitioner visits. But I also recommend testing
your iodine, selenium, and vitamin D levels. Together, the results of these various
tests should give both you and your practitioner a better sense of underlying conditions
and how to begin your treatment.
- Address stress issues. Your thyroid doesn’t operate well
under continued stress. This is because cortisol, our primary stress hormone, inhibits
thyroid hormones, eventually leading to hypothyroidism. One way to minimize physical
stress in the body is by eating well and often. We suggest 3 balanced meals and
2 healthy snacks a day.
You and your thyroid deserve a break — sit and enjoy!
This is perhaps one of the most overlooked pieces of advice in our modern lives:
sit and enjoy your food! As women in today’s world, we are expected to
do and be so many things that eating while standing at the kitchen counter, driving,
or seated at your computer seems normal. But as you may have read in my article
on hypothyroidism in menopause, the thyroid is very sensitive to stress. Give your
mind, your body, and your thyroid a break by sitting in a comfortable space while
you eat. Enjoy your meals in peace with friends and family, and talk, laugh, and
allow the food you consume to nourish your thyroid, too. You deserve this break,
and your body will thank you for it!
Comment on this article:
Related to this article:
References & further reading
on eating for thyroid health
Last Modified Date: 05/27/2011
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP