When it comes to weight loss, it can be super frustrating to not get the results you are after even when you are doing "everything right".
Often times when this arises it means we have to dig deeper. Women tend to have a more challenging time with this due to hormonal imbalances, one of the most common ones being with the thyroid.
Before we get into the details of thyroid health and weight loss, it's important to assess how your thyroid is doing with the proper testing.
A full thyroid panel is essential in order to properly assess thyroid function and health. This means ordering the following markers:
- Total T4
- Free T4
- Free T3
- Reverse T3
- Anti-TPO Antibodies
- Anti-Thyroglobulin Antibodies
As most doctors only test for the one marker, TSH, you will likely need to ask for the additional markers to make sure you get them all. It's also important to be verifying thyroid markers by optimal ranges as many of the ranges are outdated and inefficient at assessing healthy optimal function. To easiest way to do this is by working with a functional doctor or naturopath.
What does the thyroid gland do?
The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland at the base of the neck which oversees many bodily processes and systems, affecting virtually all cells of the body. It is involved in regulating your metabolism, sleep patterns, energy, growth and reproductive function, breathing, heart rate, nervous system, blood pressure, cognitive function, body temperature, oxygen consumption, muscle strength, and digestion and assimilation.
Your thyroid health can thus determine and influence many factors such as your ability to burn fat and lose weight, energy levels, skin and hair health, regularity of bowel movements, menstrual cycles, muscle strength and growth, PMS symptoms, fertility, mood, brain function, and more.
Thyroid health and weight loss
Thyroid dysfunction affects up to 10% of Canadians aged 45 years or older, and primarily females. The most common form of thyroid dysfunction is low thyroid, also known as hypothyroidism.
Another form of hypothyroidism is autoimmune hashimoto's, an autoimmune condition that results in the damage of the thyroid gland and lowered hormone output. Autoimmune activity against the thyroid gland is actually very common, in fact it accounts for 90% of hypothyroid cases (1).
As mentioned previously, the thyroid gland influences our metabolism.
When the thyroid is underperforming this can slow body processes such as metabolism and thermogenesis as well as hormones, all of which can create resistance to weight loss (2).
Symptoms associated with low thyroid function may include:
- Fatigue despite sleeping enough
- Difficulty losing weight
- Mood swings
- Cold hands and feet
- Hair loss
- Swelling of the neck
- Dry skin
- Changes in voice tone
- Brain fog and poor concentration
- Memory problems
Supporting your thyroid
There are many ways to support the thyroid, including the food we eat.
Obtaining the right nutrition is essential for optimal thyroid function as nutrient deficiencies and inflammation can impact the thyroid's ability to make the proper hormones.
Though each person's diet will inevitably differ there are certain foods that can be particularly triggering such as gluten, dairy, soy, corn, large amounts of raw cruciferous vegetables, and of course the obvious offenders such as processed foods and alcohol.
An emphasis should be placed on gut healing and anti-inflammatory foods which may include bone broth, leafy greens, berries, turmeric, ginger, fermented foods, coconut oil, olive oil, sprouted seeds, quality animal products, and plenty of fruits and vegetables for optimal fiber intake.
Medications and supplements
In certain cases medications may be necessary to treat thyroid disease, however there are also many natural supplements that may be used alongside medications or as a substitute. As always verify with your doctor to decide on the best course of action for you and before starting any new supplements.
Certain nutrients that are particularly important for low thyroid function include iodine, selenium, and zinc.
Iodine: iodine deficiency increases the risk for thyroid disease and studies show that even small amounts of this mineral can influence thyroid health and thyroid hormone production (3). As iodine is not produced by the body it must be obtained through the diet. Iodine deficiency used to be much more common until iodized salt was introduced in the 1920's among many countries around the world, and as a result it is much less of an issue nowadays.
There are many food sources of iodine such as sea vegetables, sea food, dairy, and eggs.
In some cases however, supplementation may be needed. It's important though to take the appropriate dose and not exceed it as both deficiency and excess iodine intake can cause problems, especially among hashimoto's patients (4).
Selenium: this mineral is found in the highest concentration in the thyroid gland and is necessary for the production of active thyroid hormones.
In addition, it has been shown to be effective at lowering thyroid antibodies. Obtaining sufficient levels of selenium either through the diet or from supplementation is essential to prevent thyroid complications and support overall health. One of the highest food sources of selenium are brazil nuts but there are other significant sources as well such as wild salmon, tuna, cottage cheese, and chicken.
Deficiency of this mineral can result in hypothyroidism. Zinc is found in foods such as oysters, red meat, chicken, crab, lobster, pork, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, almonds and cashews or it can be supplemented.
Herbs may also be used to treat thyroid conditions and support optimal thyroid function.
Ashwagandha is known as an Ayurvedic adaptogenic herb that has been shown to help improve thyroid function as well, by lowering cortisol levels and improving thyroid hormone production in cases of low thyroid function (7).
What does stress have to do with the thyroid? A lot. Stress really does impact all systems and organs of the body, and particularly the HPA axis.
The HPA axis (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) includes the adrenal glands, hypothalamus and pituitary. These organs act as the body’s central stress response system and will impact the thyroid gland, influencing its hormone production and output. During times of chronic stress proper functioning of the HPA axis can be inhibited and thyroid hormone production lowered. Not to mention the impact it has on the immune system and development of autoimmune conditions, including autoimmune hashimoto's disease, due to elevated inflammatory molecules (8)(9)(10)(11).
One of the most important organs affected by HPA axis dysfunction is the thyroid gland - Chris Kresser
In order to have a healthy functioning thyroid gland you need a healthy HPA axis. These glands and organs influence each other therefore we always need to address them together when trying to improve thyroid conditions.
How can we support our stress response and HPA axis? Some of the foundations to address first are balancing your blood sugar, avoiding inflammatory foods, getting enough rest, minimizing stimulants, and establishing daily stress management practices.
Heal the gut
As the majority of hypothyroid cases are actually autoimmune driven it's essential to address the root cause otherwise you'll only be sticking band-aids on a bullet wound.
Our gut microbiome plays a significant role in immunity and the body's ability to fend off pathogens and establish a regulated immune response (12).
Though there will likely be deeper foundational imbalances to address such as gut infections, starting with a gut healing and nutrient dense diet is typically a good place to get started. Some foods particularly nourishing and healing for the gut include fermented foods, bone broth, turmeric, ginger, and dark leafy greens.
In hashimoto's patients, avoiding gluten in particular has been shown to make quite a big difference in reducing thyroid antibody levels (16)(17). What's more, celiac disease is reported to be more common in those diagnosed with autoimmune thyroid disease (18)(19).
Remember, though there may be common denominators to address among hypothyroid and autoimmune conditions it will always need to be individualized to you, therefore we always recommend working with a practitioner for a more personalized approach.