Women are amazing: I believe they hold up the world. Unfortunately, they are not always so amazing when it comes to paying attention to their own health. One of the most under-diagnosed issues that affects women is thyroid disorders. Often ignored as part and parcel of being an overworked, overwhelmed mum, a thyroid in trouble may be the cause of those niggles you’ve learned to live with.
Many of us don’t pay much attention to our thyroid, but this small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of our throat plays a big role in our hormonal health. When our thyroid is struggling, we struggle.
What does the thyroid do, how can it go wrong, and what can we do about it?
Our thyroid does a great deal. The hormones it produces affect our health, from head to toe. It is responsible for regulating our metabolism and energy production. It affects our menstrual cycle and fertility, and poor thyroid function can also contribute to depression.
There are different types of thyroid disorders, but the most common are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism – an under-active thyroid
When you have hypothyroidism, your thyroid is producing too little thyroid – it’s underactive. An underactive thyroid is thought to be ten times more common in women than in men. It is underactive because your thyroid isn’t secreting enough hormone and so your body is having to work harder to do what it needs to do. There is also autoimmune thyroiditis, known more commonly as Hashimoto’s disease.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism can include the following:
Feeling tired all the time
Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
Dry skin and hair
Being more sensitive to the cold
Hyperthyroidism – an overactive thyroid
In hyperthyroidism, it’s the other way around. Your thyroid is producing too much hormone – it’s overactive. Hyperthyroidism is less common.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
Increased heart rate
Hyperthyroidism can also be autoimmune. This is known as Grave’s disease.
Thyroid issues are detected by a blood test. Your GP will be looking at your TSH – thyroid stimulating hormone - and your T4 levels. If your levels are out of range, your GP may recommend medication to help.
However, for some women, their TSH and T4 levels are within the reference range, but they are still experiencing symptoms that suggest a thyroid disorder. This is more common in under-active thyroid conditions and is called subclinical hypothyroidism. Your levels may be a whisper away from being out of range, in which case medication may not be considered necessary – but you still feel lousy. Working with a registered nutritional therapist is one option for exploring your thyroid health in more depth, and what dietary and lifestyle interventions may help.
Thyroid problems can affect women in any decade of their life, but often go undiagnosed or just unnoticed – especially in new mums since the symptoms mirror so many that are experienced in the post-natal period:
“Tired, overwhelmed, anxious, losing hair? Well, you’ve just had a baby!”
Though not common, women can experience thyroid problems triggered by pregnancy. Postpartum thyroiditis tends to begin within 6 months of giving birth. Women typically experience a period of hyperthyroidism, followed by hypothyroid. It’s worth having a chat with your GP if you think this may be a problem for you.
Does what I eat affect my thyroid?
While there aren’t specific foods that will treat thyroid issues, there’s a great deal you can do to support your health through diet and lifestyle choices.
Aim to eat a diet full of good quality protein (eggs, meat, fish, pulses, nuts and seeds), complex carbohydrates (brown rice, sweet potatoes and lentils, for example) and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Minimise processed foods and sugar. Of course, this is good advice whether you have a thyroid problem or not, but there are also three nutrients that are particularly important for you if you have hypothyroidism: iodine, selenium and zinc. Don’t rush to supplement these three – always think food first. You should get sufficient amounts from your diet.
“There are three nutrients that are particularly important for you if you have hypothyroidism: iodine, selenium and zinc”.
Iodine is a component of thyroid hormones T3 and T4 and deficiency is associated with hypothyroidism. Foods that include iodine are seaweed (look for Dulsi flakes in the supermarket or health food shop), fish, dairy and egg. Aim to include these in your diet. Avoid supplementing without professional guidance as this can make things worse.
Selenium is a mineral that plays an important role in thyroid function. Best obtained from our diet, food sources include Brazil nuts, tuna, eggs and sardines.
Zinc is another mineral that our thyroid needs to work optimally. Zinc-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, chicken and shellfish.
What should I avoid eating for my thyroid?
Goitrogens are often listed as foods to avoid with hypothyroid problems. Compounds that may interfere with thyroid function, they include vegetables like cabbage, kale, cauliflower and broccoli, and also foods containing soybeans. However, as long as these are not eaten in excess, and the vegetables are cooked, they are unlikely to cause a problem.
To avoid gluten, or not? This is contentious. Some research shows that gluten-grains may aggravate autoimmune thyroiditis, because gliadin, the protein in gluten, resembles thyroid tissue. Antibodies to gliadin may cause the body to attack thyroid tissue.
Other health professionals disagree and argue that gluten does not need to be removed from the diet. However, I do remove gluten for a period of time for clients with thyroid issues, particularly if they are autoimmune, and monitor their symptoms and blood work.
If you are hyperthyroid – so, that’s when your thyroid is in overdrive – you should AVOID iodine-rich foods. However, you can still enjoy food sources of selenium and zinc.
Thyroid supplements – do they work?
There’s a myriad of thyroid supplements on the market. Please be cautious. Every woman’s thyroid picture is different, what works for your friend or sister may not be appropriate for you and may even make the problem worse. This is particularly true with supplementing with zinc, iodine and selenium.
If you think your thyroid may be the reason you are struggling, your GP should be your first port of call. If you'd like to make changes to your diet and would like advice on the right supplements to support you, consider working with a BANT-registered nutritional therapist.
Thalia Pellegrini is a BANT-registered Nutritional Therapist (FdSc DipION BANT CNHC) and mum of two. Known as the Knackered Mums’ Nutritionist, she creates bespoke nutrition plans that work for a mum’s busy lifestyle, whether she wants to improve her energy, resolve hormonal imbalance, lose weight or just have a better relationship with food.
Head to www.thaliapellegrini.com where you can download your free copy of her Fantastic Five-Minute Breakfasts recipe collection. She offers free 20-minute Discovery calls to mums who want to find out more about nutritional therapy. Plus, she shares recipes, blog posts and her #mumlife on Instagram @thaliapellegrini_nutrition