The thyroid is known as your metabolic master because it controls every single cell in the body. Without enough of the crucial thyroid hormone, every system in the body slows down, resulting in fatigue, weight gain, constipation, hair loss, dry skin, and more. While there’s a genetic component to thyroid disease, it doesn’t exclude the fact that certain lifestyle habits can slow your thyroid dose and in some cases even cause damage to this sensitive (and complicated) organ.
Thyroid disease is a common problem that can cause symptoms because of over- or under-function of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is an essential organ for producing thyroid hormones, which maintain are body metabolism. The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck below Adam's apple.
When your thyroid doesn’t work properly, it can impact your entire body. If your body makes too much thyroid hormone, you can develop a condition called hyperthyroidism. If your body makes too little thyroid hormone, it’s called hypothyroidism. Both conditions are serious and need to be treated by your healthcare provider.
Who is affected by thyroid disease?
Thyroid disease can affect anyone — men, women, infants, teenagers, and the elderly. It can be present at birth (typically hypothyroidism) and it can develop as you age (often after menopause in women).
Thyroid disease is very common, with an estimated 20 million people in the United States having some type of thyroid disorder. A woman is about five to eight times more likely to be diagnosed with a thyroid condition than a man.
You may be at a higher risk of developing thyroid disease if you:Have a family history of thyroid disease. Have a medical condition (these can include pernicious anemia, type 1 diabetes, primary adrenal insufficiency, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, and Turner syndrome). Take a medication that’s high in iodine (amiodarone). Are older than 60, especially in women. Have had treatment for a past thyroid condition or cancer (thyroidectomy or radiation). What causes thyroid disease?
The two main types of thyroid disease are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Both conditions can be caused by other diseases that impact the way the thyroid gland works.
Conditions that can cause hypothyroidism include:Thyroiditis: This condition is an inflammation (swelling) of the thyroid gland. Thyroiditis can lower the number of hormones your thyroid produces. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: A painless disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition where the body’s cells attack and damage the thyroid. This is an inherited condition.
Postpartum thyroiditis: This condition occurs in 5% to 9% of women after childbirth. It’s usually a temporary condition. Iodine deficiency: Iodine is used by the thyroid to produce hormones. An iodine deficiency is an issue that affects several million people around the world.
A non-functioning thyroid gland: Sometimes, the thyroid gland doesn’t work correctly from birth. This affects about 1 in 4,000 newborns. If left untreated, the child could have both physical and mental issues in the future. All newborns are given a screening blood test in the hospital to check their thyroid function.
Conditions that can cause hyperthyroidism include: Graves’ disease: In this condition, the entire thyroid gland might be overactive and produce too much hormone. This problem is also called diffuse toxic goiter (enlarged thyroid gland).
Nodules: Hyperthyroidism can be caused by nodules that are overactive within the thyroid. A single nodule is called a toxic autonomously functioning thyroid nodule, while a gland with several nodules is called a toxic multi-nodular goiter. Thyroiditis: This disorder can be either painful or not felt at all. In thyroiditis, the thyroid releases hormones that were stored there. This can last for a few weeks or months.
Excessive iodine: When you have too much iodine (the mineral that is used to make thyroid hormones) in your body, the thyroid makes more thyroid hormones than it needs. Excessive iodine can be found in some medications (amiodarone, a heart medication) and cough syrups.
1. Steer clear of starvation diets
You have 10 days until your beach vacation. What do you do? Slash the calories, live on a liquid diet, up the exercise, and hope for the best, right? After all, how much damage can that low-calorie diet do? Well, a classic study from The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism discovered that fasting resulted in a 53 percent reduction in serum T3 levels (your active thyroid hormone that increases metabolism) and a 58 percent increase in reverse T3 (RT3) levels, which block thyroid hormone.
On a given day your liver converts T4 (the less active thyroid hormone, thought of as a storage hormone) to RT3 as a way of getting rid of the excess. In a low-calorie situation, where your body needs to conserve energy, the percentage may spike significantly, and (based on the study above) it’s common to find yourself converting 50 percent or more of your essential thyroid hormone into metabolic waste.
On a starvation diet, you also experience a significant increase in cortisol. The acute stress activates this surge because your body is under the impression that there’s less food available.
Bottom line: Avoid starvation diets and be sure to throw in a weekly or bi-weekly cheat meal to keep your metabolism revving.
2. Say no to excessive endurance exercise
Long-distance runs and spinning classes may be doing your thyroid a disservice. Similarly to starving yourself, excessive exercise sends your cortisol levels through the roof inhibiting the conversion of the less active thyroid hormone T4 to the metabolically-potent hormone T3. This also raises levels of RT3, which act as the defensive team blocking your thyroid hormone from getting into your cell. The result? You boost belly fat, decrease metabolically active muscle, reduce thyroid hormone, and spike cravings for comfort foods.
Bottom line: I recommend short, high-intensity circuit training workouts (30-40 minutes) while keeping excess cardio to a minimum.
3. Protect yourself against X-rays
The thyroid gland is one of the organs most sensitive to the risk of radiation – whether it’s from a dental X-ray, mammogram, MRI, or general background radiation. A study from the National Cancer Institute compared the number of dental X-rays received by a group of thyroid cancer patients before their diagnosis with the number received by a group of similar individuals without thyroid cancer. Overall, those who had dental X-rays were twice as likely to develop thyroid cancer. The patients who received more than 10 X-rays had more than five times the risk of developing cancer than someone who had not had any dental X-rays.
Bottom line: To protect yourself I recommend requesting a thyroid shield (a lead apron that covers your neck area) whenever you have to undergo radiation, especially for children and young adults when the thyroid is still developing.
4. Stop smoking!
It’s well known that smoking is bad for your health, but for those with a predisposition for thyroid disease, it can put you at greater risk. Many components of smoke, ranging from thiocyanate to nicotine can lead to increased excretion of iodine and in turn, affect your thyroid’s performance. Scientists also suggest that smoking may influence thyroid hormone levels by affecting the enzyme which converts the active form of thyroid hormone to an inactive form.
One study also suggested that smoking may increase the risk of hypothyroidism in patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a common autoimmune disease.
5. Keep an eye on bloodwork
Long before your thyroid can be diagnosed you may have a warning sign: thyroid antibodies, which are prevalent in Hashimoto’s. If you have a family history of thyroid disease it’s wise to test for these. Their presence predicts a propensity towards hypothyroidism and should be monitored every year. Nipping these antibodies early may preserve your thyroid function.
Bottom line: To get rid of these antibodies I recommend removing food allergies, reducing inflammation, and supplementing with selenium, which has been shown to improve thyroid conversion and therefore reduce antibodies.
6. Detox to save your thyroid
There are thyroid disruptors all around us — in plastic water bottles, pop cans and even lurking in your shampoo bottles. A connection between common chemicals called phthalates and thyroid hormone levels was confirmed by the University of Michigan in a large-scale study.
Researchers at the University of California also linked canned soups to changes in thyroid hormone levels. They discovered that as BPA levels doubled, participants experienced a decrease in T4 levels, putting them on the path towards hypothyroidism.