8 Common Food Mistakes That Could Be Harming Your Thyroid: A Doctor Explains
Healthy metabolism, energy, hormone balance, and mental focus are among the benefits of a healthy functioning thyroid gland—and what you need to bring your best and happiest self to the world. In fact, your thyroid—a butterfly-shaped organ in the front of your neck—has a lot of say in everything from your weight to your fertility to your mood to your mental concentration and memory.
The foods you eat—or don't eat—can have a big impact on your thyroid health. Whether it's your goal to prevent or reverse a thyroid problem, especially Hashimoto's, the most prevalent form of thyroid disease, affecting at least 30 million people in the United States alone, these eight common "food mistakes" can get in your way.
1. Skipping meals and abandoning all carbohydrates
Your thyroid's job is to regulate how much energy you spend—or save. It does this with messages it receives from your brain, which keeps tab on how much energy you're taking in from your food, compared to how much you need and how much you're spending. When you're on the side of low "funds" because you've been eating a super-low- or no-carb diet, or you've been skipping meals because you're busy or restricting, your brain tells your thyroid to slow down, forcing you to save rather than spend energy. Your body complies and you not only get more tired, but you gain weight and store any available energy as unhealthy forms of cholesterol.
Solution: Eat regular meals and learn how to cycle healthy carbohydrates1 into your diet, which I teach you how to do in my new book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution.
2. Being stubborn about gluten
While not everyone is gluten intolerant, women with celiac disease are more likely to develop Hashimoto's because those same antibodies that get produced in celiac disease may inadvertently attack your thyroid2. Celiac disease is underdiagnosed and can cause a host of problems from anemia to depression to skin symptoms.
Solution: If you have autoimmune thyroid disease, completely eliminate gluten from your diet because celiac testing isn't definitive, and even non-celiac gluten intolerance, when severe enough, can affect the thyroid. How do you know if gluten was a problem for you? Symptoms improve and your thyroid antibody levels start to go down after a few months off of gluten.
3. Going crazy over raw kale
On one of our episodes together on The Oz Show, none other than Dr. Oz himself shared with me that he'd been overdoing the green juice and as a result he ended up with hypothyroidism. He's not the only one! Raw kale, and other veggies in the Brassicacae family, including broccoli, Napa cabbage, green and red cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts act as "goiterogens," meaning they can slow down thyroid function and cause enlargement of the thyroid gland leading to neck swelling.
Solution: When cooked, the chemical component in these veggies doesn't cause any problems, so keep your raw kale salad and green juice to one to two times per week if you're trying to prevent a thyroid problem, and less than this or skip it if you're trying to reverse a slow thyroid.
4. Overlooking the iodine
Iodine is one of the main nutrients our thyroid depends on in order to make thyroid hormone—the active stuff that does the work that the thyroid's famous for. Yet Americans are notoriously low in quite a few nutrients, iodine among these, often because we're not getting enough in our diets.
Solution: Add one tablespoon of dulse flakes to your daily diet and take a multivitamin with iodine. Caution—some individuals with Hashimoto's have reported a "flare" when supplementing iodine, so keep it low, go slow, and stick to the dulse flakes if you don't tolerate iodine well. If you wonder whether you need to supplement, have your serum iodine level checked first to see if you're actually deficient or low in iodine.
5. Eating tuna and other high-mercury fish.
As much as I love sushi and fish, I avoid the high-mercury varieties at all costs because mercury is so hazardous to our health. One area of major impact is on your thyroid3, where it can bind and prevent the formation of thyroid hormone.
Solution: Completely avoid high and even moderate mercury-loaded fish, especially Bluefin and Bigeye tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, and shark. Limit intake of canned light and albacore tuna, halibut, and mahi mahi, among others. To learn more about which fish to avoid, head over to Seafood Watch or the Environmental Working Group.
6. Accidental halides: pizza, pies, other brominated products, and fluoridated water.
A halide is an atom with a negative charge. Bromide and fluoride are elements (yes, as in from the periodic table of elements—hello, high school or college chemistry class!) that happen to be in the same family as iodide, that same stuff your thyroid needs to make thyroid hormone. They also happen to interfere with thyroid hormone binding and are in everyday products you might be getting exposed to. Fluoride is in your toothpaste and tap water (and anything made with tap water, for example, soups, whole grain cooked in tap water, and many canned goods packed in water), and bromide is in many different processed flour products, from pizza dough and pie crusts to muffin mixes.
Solution: Read labels, ask questions, and when in doubt, skip products that include brominated flour; drink pure spring and filtered water whenever possible and avoid fluoride toothpaste.
7. Using artificial sweeteners
OK, chances are if you're reading mindbodygreen you're well beyond the days of intentionally using artificial sweeteners in your diet. But just in case they're still slipping in there now and then, or you haven't heard that they can be even more dangerous for you than sugar—here's the latest: They're hazardous to your thyroid, too. A recent study found that regular use of artificial sweeteners, aspartame (i.e., Equal, NutraSweet) or sucralose (Splenda), is correlated with Hashimoto's.
Solution: If you have to have something sweet, keep it real—use raw sugar, maple syrup, date or coconut sugar, or honey. Skip the artificial stuff.
8. Hanging on to personal food triggers.
If you know you're sensitive to specific foods, especially ones that cause you to have symptoms (e.g., bloating, hives, rashes, heartburn, constipation, lethargy, etc.) after you eat them, there's a good chance they could be causing inflammation in your immune system as well as autoimmune reactions that could be triggering a red alert in your thyroid. In addition to gluten, common food triggers for those with thyroid problems can include dairy, grains, beans (especially red beans), and nuts.
Solution: Eliminate your food triggers and heal the underlying causes that don't work for you. The best way to find out which foods might be a trigger for you is to do a 30-day elimination diet, or a reboot, as I call it in my book. Some of us have inherent sensitivities to certain foods, but more often than not, the trouble lies in gut imbalances that, once healed, often allow you to enjoy those foods again.
Aviva Romm, M.D. is both a midwife and an Internal Medicine and Board Certified Family Physician with specialties in Integrative Gynecology, Obstetric and Pediatrics, with a focus on women’s endocrinology. She’s also a world renown herbalist, and author of the textbook, Botanical Medicines for Women’s Health, as well as 7 other books, including The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. A practitioner, teacher, activist and advocate of both environmental health and women’s reproductive rights and health, she has been bridging the best of traditional medicine, total health ecology, and good science for over three decades. She practices medicine in both NY and MA, and lives in the Berkshires of Western MA.