Underactive Thyroid Problems Best Left to Medical Treatment

Q. I?ve been diagnosed with an underactive thyroid gland. Are there natural or diet remedies to boost it?

A. Don’t count on any, unless you?re malnourished or iodine deficient, says Alan Gaby, M.D., professor of therapeutic nutrition at Bastyr University in Washington State. You might do more harm than good. What’s most important is that your condition be treated and monitored by a physician to prevent long-term consequences, which include high cholesterol and heart disease.

Hypothyroidism?low thyroid hormone levels?is surprisingly common, especially among middle-aged and older women. If you?ve been tired, have dry skin and hair, have irregular periods and have put on weight unexplainably, low thyroid function may be to blame.

The condition is often due to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, in which the body produces antibodies that attack its own thyroid gland, reducing hormone production. Other people become hypothyroid when the organ fails for unknown reasons or, for example, if they?ve been treated with radioactive iodine for an overactive thyroid.

Since the body’s production of thyroid hormones is dependent on several nutrients, it’s possible’though not proved? that nutrient deficiencies may contribute to low thyroid function. Zinc, copper, selenium and the amino acid tyrosine are all essential, but unless you?re truly deficient in these nutrients, supplementation probably wouldn’t be beneficial.

Iodine Angle. Iodine is the nutrient most associated with thyroid hormone production. As a natural source of iodine, seaweed (e.g. kelp, dulse) is sometimes promoted as a way to bolster thyroid function. However, unlike in other parts of the world, iodine deficiency is not usually a cause of hypothyroidism in the U.S. (because of widespread use of iodized salt and multivitamins containing iodine). Paradoxically, too much iodine can suppress thyroid function and worsen untreated Hashimoto’s disease. The body’s iodine requirement is small (150 micrograms daily); more than 600 a day for long periods is not recommended.

Problem Foods? What about so-called goitrogenic foods, such as cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts, kale, mustard greens, cassava, peanuts, pine nuts and millet? Though they contain substances that suppress thyroid function, unless you?re borderline iodine deficient or you eat uncommonly large amounts, they probably won’t affect your thyroid status.

One exception: Soy. For people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis who eat soy daily, Gaby suggests cutting back to a few servings a week to see if this improves thyroid function. Not only might soy interfere with thyroid function, it also blocks absorption of thyroid medication.

EN‘s Bottom Line. A simple multivitamin/mineral formula provides nutrients needed for ordinary thyroid hormone production. To correct hypothyroidism, hormone replacement is usually necessary. See your doctor. Steer clear of kelp tablets and so-called thyroid support supplements, which may contain potentially harmful amounts of iodine and glandular products that vary in potency and may contain trace amounts of unregulated thyroid hormones. And exercise daily; it’s thought to increase both thyroid activity and sensitivity of the body’s tissues to thyroid hormone.

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