The Importance of Thyroid Health
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
If your health goals concern fertility, performance, weight management, or anything else, you’ll want to pay attention to your thyroid health. Thyroid hormones play a primary role in setting your metabolic rate but are also involved in much more.
Interestingly, women are much more susceptible to thyroid hormone imbalances than men. Want to know why? Keep reading to find out more about:
- What is the thyroid gland, and what do thyroid hormones do?
- What are some common thyroid imbalances?
- What is the connection between the thyroid and women’s health?
- How to support thyroid health naturally with nutrition and lifestyle
Let’s dive in!
What is the Thyroid? Thyroid Hormones 101
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine (hormone-producing) gland at the front of the throat. Its central role is to respond to levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) from the brain and produce thyroid hormones.
The two thyroid hormones are thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). The thyroid gland makes T4 and T3 from the amino acid tyrosine and the mineral iodine. T4 contains four molecules of iodine, and T3 includes three.
The thyroid gland mostly pumps out T4, the inactive hormone, which converts to T3. T3 binds to every cell in the body and sets the metabolic rate at which cells turn fuel into energy.
Balanced thyroid hormone levels are essential for physical and mental health. The heart, muscles, bones, nervous system, immune system, digestive system, reproductive system, and all body systems rely on thyroid hormone for optimal function.
Thyroid hormones are vital for fertility and pregnancy. They play a crucial role in growth and development. In early pregnancy, the fetus relies on the mother’s thyroid hormones but then begins producing its own in the second trimester. Thyroid hormones promote growth in infancy and childhood.
The thyroid gland is vulnerable to environmental factors that alter thyroid hormone production. Nutrient deficiencies, infection, radiation, toxin exposures, immune dysregulation, and other factors impact thyroid hormone levels. Goiter, thyroid nodules, and thyroid tumors are physical changes you might see in the thyroid gland that may coincide with changes in thyroid hormone levels.
Here are some common thyroid imbalances to be aware of:
Hypothyroidism is an underactive thyroid gland and low thyroid hormones. With low levels of thyroid hormones, body systems slow down. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, fatigue, constipation, hair loss, cold hands and feet, dry skin, and more.
Hypothyroidism can be subclinical, meaning symptoms are present, but thyroid hormones may still be within the lab range. Hypothyroidism affects up to 5% of the population, with another 5% estimated to be undiagnosed.
Hyperthyroidism is an overactive thyroid gland and high levels of thyroid hormones. Body systems speed up, and symptoms include weight loss, increased hunger and appetite, racing heart, insomnia, and more. Hyperthyroidism may affect 0.3 to 3% of the population and may lead to changes in heart health.
Thyroiditis means inflammation of the thyroid gland. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland causing inflammation and hypothyroidism. It’s the most common cause of hypothyroidism and occurs because of genetic susceptibility, microbiome shifts, and environmental triggers. Hashimoto’s is also the most common autoimmune disease.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease that causes hyperthyroidism. It’s much less prevalent than Hashimoto’s but may have some of the same root causes.
Postpartum thyroiditis is thyroid inflammation with an onset within the first year after childbirth or miscarriage. It often presents as a period of hyperthyroidism followed by hypothyroidism and can have some of the same symptoms as perinatal mood disorders. Checking thyroid labs during the postpartum period is not always standard practice, but it should be.
Thyroid and Women’s Health
Women are more likely to have thyroid and autoimmune diseases compared to men. For example, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the most common autoimmune disorder globally, but it affects women 7 to 10 times more than men.
Women are affected in greater numbers because of the interplay between thyroid hormones, the immune system, and reproductive hormones. Thyroid imbalances tend to appear during times of hormonal transition, such as puberty, postpartum, and menopause. Despite the prevalence in women, thyroid diseases are underdiagnosed.
Thyroid health is vital for fertility. Thyroid dysfunction may be a factor in unexplained infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss. It’s also important to consider the male partner’s thyroid health for improved fertility.
Natural Thyroid Support
If you have a thyroid disorder or symptoms, please work with your healthcare provider for proper testing, diagnosis, and treatment.
The thyroid responds to environmental factors; many environmental factors, like what you eat, how you react to stress, and sleep habits are within your control. Nutrition and lifestyle strategies may help support and protect thyroid health.
On a basic level, proper thyroid hormone production, activation, and utilization require a lot of nutrition. Critical thyroid nutrients include protein (tyrosine) and micronutrients, including iodine, zinc, selenium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin D. A diet composed primarily of whole, unprocessed foods will help you meet these needs. In addition, a quality multivitamin and protein powder can help ensure daily intake of these nutrients.
Please note that iodine-rich foods like seaweed, iodized salt, and iodine supplements may be contraindicated with specific thyroid imbalances; please work with your healthcare provider for guidance.
In addition to meeting nutrient needs, you can use food to reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, support gut health, and avoid food sensitivities. All these nutrition strategies support a healthy thyroid.
Thyroid Lifestyle – Reducing Toxin Exposure
Just as providing the thyroid system with the required nutrients to function, avoiding toxins that impair the system is another way to support thyroid health. Many chemicals are endocrine disruptors, disrupting hormones in the body, including the thyroid. Chemicals that may impair thyroid function include:
- PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are fluorine-containing chemicals found in non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, upholstery, water-resistant clothing, waterproof mascara, and more.
- Pesticides and herbicides are used in industrial agriculture across various crops. As possible, choose food from organic or local producers that don’t use these chemicals. Consult the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to learn more about where to prioritize your food dollars.
- Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and plastic-associated chemicals are found in cosmetics, food packaging, water bottles, toys, and other plastic products.
- Heavy metals including aluminum, mercury, and vanadium may disrupt thyroid function and trigger autoimmune processes.
While avoiding all toxins is impossible, simple swaps such as filtering drinking water, using glass or stainless steel food containers, shopping at a farmer’s market, and researching new purchases can significantly decrease your exposure.
Thyroid Lifestyle – Exercise & Stress Management
Exercise has many benefits for the body, such as improving metabolic, cardiovascular, mental health, and more. Over-exercise or extreme exercise may stress thyroid hormone balance, but moderate exercise is also favorable for thyroid health. Exercise is also a great stress management tool and helps you sweat, which promotes detoxification.
Stress is another factor affecting thyroid health. When the brain interprets stress, it sends signals to the thyroid gland to adjust thyroid hormone production. During high stress, the body may down-regulate thyroid hormones to conserve energy as a protective mechanism. This adaptive strategy is beneficial for acute stress, but chronic stress that many of us experience may contribute to imbalances in thyroid hormones.
Finding ways to reduce and manage stress is essential for long-term health and hormone balance. Strategies include setting boundaries, taking time off, meditation, mindfulness practices, movement, therapy, and many more tools.
Thyroid Lifestyle - Supplements
In addition to the diet and lifestyle strategies mentioned here, supplements are another tool to support thyroid health. Foundational supplements to consider include:
- A quality multivitamin – Provides essential vitamins and minerals to support various body functions and optimize micronutrient status. Be sure to choose a multivitamin tailored to your specific needs. Twenty2 Nutrition offers two uniquely formulated products: Prenatal Women’s Multivitamin and Men’s Multivitamin.
- Fish oil – Omega-3 fats help balance inflammation and support thyroid health. Twenty2 Nutrition Omega 3 Fish Oil provides concentrated omega-3 fats without the heavy metals and contaminants often found in fish. (More on omega-3s here.)
- Probiotics – Supporting a healthy gut is crucial for immune function and thyroid hormone balance. Eating fermented foods, consuming a variety of fiber-rich plant foods, and taking a probiotic supplement are some strategies for a healthy microbiome. Twenty2 Nutrition Probiotics contains 60 billion CFUs of multiple beneficial bacteria strains. (Learn more about gut health here.)
Thyroid imbalances are common and something to be aware of, yet many factors that contribute to thyroid dysfunction are within your control. Eating a nutritious diet, reducing toxin exposures, and choosing quality supplements are just some strategies for supporting thyroid health.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, take medication, or have a medical condition.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.