7 Essential Foods & Nutrients This Endocrinologist Loves For Thyroid Health
Considering an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, optimizing thyroid health is top of mind for many. Your thyroid affects so many bodily processes, after all, and dysfunction can lead to a slew of unfavorable symptoms, including fatigue, weight gain, hair loss, brain fog, and much, much more.
And while thyroid dysfunction is attached to genetic factors, "the biggest thing that trumps everything is lifestyle," says board-certified endocrinologist Brittany Henderson, M.D. Meaning, it is often possible to optimize thyroid health and alleviate some symptoms through your diet.
"The overall theme, here, is to identify [and avoid] foods that are inflammatory to your own immune system," Henderson continues on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. It differs for everyone (some people can't tolerate nightshades; others find them just fine) and it's all about discovering what works for your body.
However, there are a few foods and nutrients with known anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit thyroid health. Below, Henderson lists her favorites:
"Selenium is a vitamin that is good for peripheral conversion of thyroid hormone, so it's good to help with the thyroid axis," says Henderson. Specifically, selenium is the main component of selenoproteins, which your body needs to produce thyroid hormones1. If your levels are low, it's more difficult for your thyroid to make those hormones.
Additionally, says Henderson, selenium is also an antioxidant, "so it helps with oxidative stress at the level of the thyroid." Considering you want to lower inflammation to maintain optimal thyroid health, free-radical-fighting nutrients are key.
To get your fill of selenium, Henderson recommends Brazil nuts—but be mindful not to go overboard, especially if your diet includes other selenium-rich foods. Brazil nuts are significantly high in the mineral, which is why Henderson suggests sticking to just two or three nuts per day.
Iodine (in moderation)
Iodine is important for thyroid health, but again, you don't want to go overboard. See, while you do want to get some iodine in general, studies have found that increased iodine intake is associated with flare-ups of Hashimoto's disease2.
Henderson notes that the recommended daily allowance is 150 micrograms for an adult and perhaps 220 micrograms for a breastfeeding adult—but at the end of the day, it's a case-by-case basis. "Really talk to your physician to make sure that it's the right thing for your specific needs," she says. Consider how much iodine you're already getting in your diet (sea vegetables, like dulse, nori, kombu, and arame are all rich in the mineral) before adding any more.
When it comes to thyroid function, "zinc is really important," says Henderson, as it's required for thyroid hormone production. In fact, research shows that zinc deficiency is associated with hypothyroidism3 (or underactive thyroid). The recommended daily intake of zinc4 is 11 milligrams for men and 8 milligrams for women, and you can find it in a variety of foods, like oysters, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more.
Next on Henderson's list is iron: Iron is necessary for the production of thyroid peroxidase5—aka, the enzyme used to make your thyroid hormones, and research shows a lack of iron is associated with hypothyroidism6.
The general recommendation for Americans7 is 8 milligrams a day for men and 18 milligrams for women, and you can find a robust list of animal- and plant-based sources here.
With thyroid health, "you really want to decrease inflammation as much as possible," says Henderson, "so that you can get that whole process to quiet down and preserve what's left of thyroid function."
And, lo and behold, turmeric is top-notch for quelling inflammation: The golden spice inhibits the production of pro-inflammatory genes8, which blocks the inflammatory response pathway, and it increases the body's natural antioxidant capacity9 to defend against free-radical damage. It's a case for using turmeric in your meals, for sure, as well as whipping up a mug of golden milk.
Ashwagandha, a potent adaptogen known for stress relief, has been shown to support the thyroid and increase the production of both T3 and T4 thyroid hormones10. In one study, participants with subclinical hypothyroidism who supplemented with ashwagandha were able to normalize their thyroid hormone levels in eight weeks10.
However, Henderson brings up a caveat: "Ashwagandha is a root vegetable," she says. "[So it can work] as long as you don't have issues with nightshade vegetables." Nightshades can be potential irritants to those with autoimmune conditions, which can affect those with autoimmune thyroid disorders, like Hashimoto's disease.
The relationship between omega-3s and inflammation is well documented, and research shows the fatty acid (DHA, in particular) can decrease the inflammation associated with thyroid dysfunction11. Gut health and thyroid health are also intimately connected (known as the gut-thyroid axis12), and omega-3s play a significant role in gut health—so much so that researchers consider them prebiotics13 that feed your healthy gut flora.
Henderson is a fan of fish oil, and you can also consume wild-caught salmon, oysters (which also coincidentally contain zinc!), avocados, and chia seeds to get your fill of the healthy nutrient.
While everyone may have different immune triggers, the foods above have anti-inflammatory properties that can help support thyroid health. At the end of the day, though, Henderson recommends identifying what works for your own body. At the very least, she notes, "A diet that is heavy in plants, lean proteins, and food that is not processed (where you can actually identify the ingredients on the label) is really important."
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.