The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in your throat, just behind your Adam’s apple. Because it serves as the body’s thermostat — continuously regulating things like temperature, hunger levels and energy expenditure — thyroid problems can cause widespread symptoms.
According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, there are roughly 20 million Americans suffering from some type of thyroid disorder (mostly hypothyroidism and to a lesser extend hyperthyroidism). (1) Surprisingly, it’s estimated that more than half of those (60 percent) in the world suffering with thyroid issues are completely unaware this is the root of their problems, including weight gain or fatigue.
The American Thyroid Association reports that a whopping one in eight women in the United States is impacted by a thyroid disorder at some point during her lifetime. (2) Are you currently one of them, and if so, what can you do to protect your condition from worsening? Below you’ll learn about natural remedies for thyroid disease or other thyroid problems, including the types of foods that keep symptoms under control, ways to manage stress and supplements that might help reverse the condition.
What Are the Most Common Thyroid Problems?
Thyroid disorders and thyroid disease can have a negative impact on just about every area of your life. From weight issues to depression and/or anxiety, the thyroid gland is vital to keeping your physical, mental and emotional life in balance.
While there are other thyroid issues as well, the majority of cases fall into one of these two categories. Hypothyroidism is by far the more common type of thyroid problem. Most people with hypothyroidism are women, especially those who are of reproductive age or middle-aged. (3)
To give you an understanding of how these problems develop, here’s a helpful overview of the primary way in which the thyroid gland works.
The thyroid gland controls many aspects of metabolism, including regulating the production of various hormones that enable the body to carry out vital functions — such as digestion and reproduction, for example. Sometimes the thyroid gland winds up pumping out either too much or too little of certain hormones. Either scenario is problematic for things like body weight regulation and mood stabilization, although the symptoms caused by these two types of hormonal imbalances affect people differently.
Two of the most important hormones that the thyroid produces are called T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). These two hormones, once released by the thyroid gland, travel through the body via the bloodstream, converting oxygen and calories into energy. This energy is crucial for cognitive functions, mood regulation, digestive processes, a healthy sex drive and much more. (4)
Several nutrients, such as iodine and selenium, play an important yet often overlooked role in regard to the thyroid functioning properly. Iodine and amino acids (the “building blocks” of proteins) are converted by the thyroid to the hormones T3 and T4. Research shows that either too much or too little iodine can impact this important process and contribute to thyroid dysfunction. (5)
The same can happen when someone is lacking B vitamins, zinc and other minerals, including electrolytes. Additionally, problems absorbing and converting nutrients from the diet can make matters worse. (6) Leaky gut syndrome (also referred to as intestinal permeability) is one contributing cause to symptoms of thyroid problems since it raises inflammation levels and interferes with certain metabolic processes.
Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Problems
In the case of hypothyroidism, your body literally slows down. This is why symptoms like weight gain, brain fog and sluggishness are common. Hyperthyroidism causes the opposite effect — almost a sped-up metabolism, to the point that your heart may beat faster and you may have a hard time eating properly or keeping enough weight on.
As you can see, because your thyroid controls appetite, body heat and some aspects of energy expenditure, changes in thyroid hormones can cause your metabolism to either crawl or to go into overdrive. Neither is comfortable or healthy, and both are dealt with in similar ways (improving your diet, stress levels and lifestyle).
The most common symptoms of hypothyroidism are: (7)
- Persistent fatigue, lethargy, and sometimes depression or low motivation to exercise
- Moodiness and sometimes anxiety
- Intolerance to cold and frequently feeling chilly
- Dry hair and skin — skin might feel cool to the touch and the toes/fingers might look a blue/purple color in some cases
- Brain fog, trouble concentrating and forgetfulness
- A horse voice
- Unexplainable weight gain
- Constipation, bloating and other digestive issues
- Muscle weakness, sometimes aches or pains, and other discomforts
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism commonly include:
- Nervousness or symptoms of anxiety
- Insomnia and sleep troubles
- Racing heart
- Eyes that appear large and sometimes bulge
- Unexplained weight loss
- High amounts of perspiration
- Muscle weakness
- Multiple bowel movements
- Thin, brittle hair
What Causes Thyroid Problems?
In the case of hypothyroidism, the thyroid doesn’t produce enough of the thyroid hormones T3 or T4 (or both). According to the American Thyroid Association, in the United States by far the most common reason for hypothyroidism is a condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, where the body mistakenly attacks the thyroid, thus compromising its functioning. Hashimoto’s takes place due to an autoimmune response (the body attacking its own tissue), which interferes with normal production of hormones. Causes of Hashimoto’s disease can include high amounts of stress, nutrient deficiencies (such as low iodine), low immune function (immunosuppression) and toxicity. (8) However, on a worldwide level, a iodine deficiency in the diet is the No. 1 cause of hypothyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, is when the body has too much of the needed thyroid hormones. According to the American Thyroid Association, the No. 1 cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease, but lumps on the thyroid or taking too much T4 in tablet form can also contribute to hyperthyroidism.
Thyroid Problem Risk Factors:
There are many factors that can contribute to thyroid problems, ranging from genetics to poor lifestyle habits — like skipping sleep and eating too much inflammatory foods. Research shows that some of the most significant known risk factors for thyroid problems include:
- Deficiencies in three important nutrients which support healthy thyroid function– iodine, selenium and zinc deficiency
- Poor diet high in processed foods with things like sugar or unhealthy fats. Too much caffeine and/or alcohol can also contribute to emotional stress and poor gut health.
- Emotional stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression: Mental stress can interfere with normal adrenal functioning an wear down the entire immune system, kidneys, liver and thyroid. (9)
- Poor gut health, which is related to leaky gut syndrome and triggers inflammation. This impairs normal nutrient absorption, can lead to autoimmune reactions, can reduce oxygen reaching the organs and causes less blood flow through the gastrointestinal tract. It may also interfere with enzyme production, which makes it harder to digest certain things (especially grains, dairy and fats).
- Reactions to some immunosuppressive medications. These may be used manage other autoimmune disorders or even cancer.
- Genetic factors. Research shows that thyroid problems tend to run in families. (10)
- Pregnancy or other hormonal changes
- Inactivity, lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle
- Toxicity due to chemical exposure or contact with other environmental pollutants (11)
- In the case of infants or young children, a genetic pituitary disorder, defective thyroid or lack of the gland entirely can sometimes be a cause (12)
Natural Treatments for Thyroid Problems
Because the two main types of thyroid problems, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, are basically the opposite problems, treatment for each is very different. In one case we want more of the thyroid hormones, and in the other case the sufferer needs less of that same hormone. Therefore options for treatment differ depending on each patient’s particular disorder and the specifics of the case. Here’s how thyroid problems are usually treated with conventional medicine: (13)
- When it comes to hypothyroidism, the body is in need of more thyroid hormones. One common treatment in the medical world is taking synthetic thyroxine or T4. There are a number of types of T4 prescription available. Most people respond to this therapy, but there are also those who don’t. In these cases the sufferer sometimes takes a combination of the synthetic version of T4 and T3 to help.
- In the case of hyperthyroidism, in the United States the most common treatment is the use of radioactive iodine, aka radioiodine. Anti-thyroid medications are used to reduce and normalize thyroid function. This treatment usually takes a few weeks or months to curb the hyperthyroidism.
- Other options are drugs that stop the production of the thyroid hormone or surgery to remove a large amount of the actual thyroid gland. All of these treatments run the risk of side effects, are costly and aren’t always effective. There are some natural approaches to treating thyroid problems that I recommend beginning with before taking medications, which are detailed below.
1. Get Enough Iodine, Selenium, Zinc
Many (but not all) patients with hypothyroid diseases are deficient in iodine (most cases of hypothyroidism worldwide are from a lack of iodine) — therefore increasing your iodine intake can likely help your thyroid produce more of its needed hormones.
Iodine is a key mineral for helping to convert and release thyroid hormones, yet iodine-rich foods (like seaweed) are limited in the typical Western diet. Other than consuming sea veggies like dulse or kelp, you can iodine from foods like raw dairy, certain wild-caught fish like tuna and some fermented grains. You might benefit from iodine supplements in low doses (usually best when being monitored for side effects) if you experience lots of breast tenderness, fatigue, weight gain and have a cold body temperature. However, too much iodine (such as taking high doses of supplements) actually aggravates thyroid disorder symptoms, so follow dosage directions and seek your doctor’s advice if you’re unsure.
Selenium helps balance levels of T4 hormones, so try to eat plenty foods high in selenium like Brazil nuts, spinach, yellowfin tuna or halibut, canned sardines, grass-fed beef, turkey, and beef liver. Those with Celiac disease or autoimmune disorders may be most deficient in selenium, so a supplement might be necessary in these cases.
Similarly, the mineral zinc and also B vitamins (especially vitamin B12) are needed for thyroid health and may be missing in your diet, especially if you rarely consume animal foods. The best sources are usually animal proteins (beef, turkey, eggs, etc.), which also provide much-needed amino acids, as well as certain anti-inflammatory plants like green peas, asparagus, chickpeas, cocoa, Brussels sprouts, sesame seeds, flaxseeds, nuts like pistachios, and mushrooms.
2. Manage Stress and Rest Enough
When you’re under a good deal of either physical or emotional stress — such as feeling very anxious, overworked, fatigued, angry or going through a traumatic experience — your body may remain in a “fight-or-flight” mode where stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are elevated. This has negative effects like narrowing of blood vessels, increased muscular tension and blood pressure, and release of inflammatory proteins and antibodies that can suppress immune function and damage the adrenal/thyroid glands. This is one reason why people with thyroid problems often experience hormonal changes related to lowered libido, fertility problems, mood swings and so on.
To keep the endocrine glands from becoming overloaded it’s important to take stress seriously and tackle the root causes of mental strain. Employ multiple methods to handle stress like utilizing these natural stress relievers: getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night, meditation, exercising, journaling, joining a faith community or support group, dealing with addictions, and scheduling time to do fun things with supportive people.
3. Reduce Toxicity
Ingesting chemical toxins — from things like medications, hormonal birth control or other hormone replacements, and commercial beauty or cleaning products — can contribute to leaky gut and inflammatory reactions. Use natural products as much as possible, decrease intake of any unnecessary medications, clean up your diet and quit smoking.
4. Supplement When Necessary to Reduce Inflammation
In addition to eating foods that provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids — like wild-caught fish, flaxseeds and walnuts — it’s wise to consider a supplement as well. Probiotics are also very beneficial for dealing with poor gut health and improving immunity. Both may help stabilize your mood and support adrenal/thyroid functions. Probiotics, “good bacteria” that reside in your gut and communicate with your brain about the body’s overall state of health, can be found in foods like fermented dairy (yogurt or kefir), cultured veggies and also supplements.
Finally, taking adaptogen herbs can also help your body battle the negative effects of stress by supporting the adrenals and balancing hormones. These include ashwagandha, tulsi, ginseng, licorice root and rhodiola.
Precautions When Treating Thyroid Problems
Because the symptoms of thyroid problems, like fatigue, muscular pains, mood changes and depression, can also be caused by various other disorders, it’s best to consult with a doctor if your symptoms become very strong. Once you confirm you have a thyroid disorder, begin to explore your treatment options by finding the root cause of your condition.
When you (and your doctor) determine a lack of iodine could be the entire cause or a contributing factor to your hypothyroidism, consider adding kelp to your diet. It’s also critical to stop taking supplements and get a professional opinion if your symptoms get worse, because this may mean you’re treating one type of thyroid problem (hypothyroidism caused by low iodine and other nutrients, for example) when you really need to be treating another (hyperthyroidism).
Hypothyroidism isn’t always caused by lack of iodine. In fact, if you take iodine or kelp and feel like you’re getting worse, make sure you consult with your physician and get your levels rechecked. It can also be caused from heavy metal toxicity like mercury. Heavy metals from amalgam fillings have an affinity for the thyroid and can disrupt your hormone balance and thyroid function. For this reason I also recommend reducing toxic exposures and consider seeing a holistic dentist who can remove the silver (amalgam) fillings using the DAMS protocol and bring you through a proper detox program as well.
If you’ve been dealing with pains, consider that correcting any loss of cervical lordosis of your spine can help. Going through a program of corrective chiropractic care is greatly beneficial in this case.
If you decide to add kelp to your foods, you have many options. But be cautioned if you opt for kelp tablets, and consult your health care practitioner to determine the right amount to take on a daily basis. Be sure not to take over that amount, or you could then be dealing with hyperthyroidism.
In summary, remember with any health issue it’s wise to first consult nature and improve your diet in order to help the body restore its own natural balance. Your body does the right thing at the right time. Remove the interference (toxicity or deficiency), and let the body heal.
- The thyroid gland serves as the body’s “thermostat,” helping continuously regulate things like temperature, hunger levels, sex drive, mood and energy expenditure through the release of certain hormones.
- The two most common thyroid problems are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Women are affected much more often, especially with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune condition.
- Symptoms of thyroid problems can affect your weight, moods, libido, fertility, digestion, body compensation and energy.
- Natural remedies for thyroid problems include improving your diet, reversing deficiencies, reducing stress, staying active and avoiding toxicity/chemical exposure.