Most people with an undiagnosed thyroid disorder may feel exhausted, put on weight, sweat more than usual, or experience “brain fog.” Because these symptoms are broad and can be attributed to any number of health conditions, it’s easy to see why a true thyroid condition can be mistaken for something else. For instance, hypothyroidism can mimic depression because both conditions have similar symptoms like a lack of interest in interacting with others, insomnia, and fatigue.

According to The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, approximately 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder and about 15 million others are living with a thyroid problem that hasn’t been diagnosed. In my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan, I focus on some of the most common and pressing medical conditions — heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer — that develop, in part, due to persistent, unhealthy inflammation.

Thyroid disease is also caused by conditions like chronic inflammation and autoimmune problems — both of which are linked to poor nutrition. Understanding how to prevent thyroid disorders is essential because having a healthy thyroid gland is integral to our overall health.

The Role of the Thyroid Gland

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck. Certain hormones in the brain called thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) are involved in the production of the thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). To produce T4 and T3, the gland uses iodine, which the body gets from eating salt-containing foods like seaweed, milk, and bread. The thyroid gland is responsible for many essential functions in the body:

  1. Maintains metabolism
  2. Regulates energy
  3. Controls body temperature
  4. Monitors weight
  5. Adjusts mood
  6. Balances calcium levels

With so many functions, it becomes apparent how an imbalance in the thyroid gland (either it’s producing too little or too much thyroid hormone) would result in problems with energy, metabolism, mood, weight, and bone strength. But what actually causes thyroid disease to begin with.

A Tale of Two: Autoimmunity and Inflammation

In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition and the most common cause of hypothyroidism, antibodies inappropriately recognize the thyroid gland as a foreign part of the body and attack it. This condition, eponymously named for Dr. Hakaru Hashimoto who first described the condition in 1912, also has an inflammatory component: T-cells, which are involved in inflammation, go into overdrive and attack the thyroid gland until there’s little to none of the organ left.

Graves’ disease is the most common type of hyperthyroidism. In this condition, antibodies that are called thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin (TSI) are produced by the immune system. TSI acts like TSH and causes the overproduction of T4.

Environmental factors like poor diet have been shown to influence gene expression in ways that can cause certain immune cells to act against the body. One example of this is a type of T-cell called Th17 that has been associated with the development of autoimmune disease. An enzyme called serum glucocorticoid kinase 1 (SGK1) plays a role in the regulation of sodium intake in cells and is critical for the development of Th17 cells. Researchers examined mice with a multiple sclerosis­–like condition and found that mice with the SGK1 gene and that were fed a high-salt diet were more likely to express higher amounts of Th17 than mice without the gene and that were on the same diet.

In another study, researchers also discovered that mice fed too much salt in their diet led to the development of a condition called experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis — demonstrating an association between diet and the development of autoimmune disease.

Although more work is needed to address similar research findings in people, the insights gained from these findings show the importance of regulating sodium intake not only to control blood pressure but also to prevent other diseases. Together, autoimmunity and prolonged inflammation cause tissue damage that impinges on the function of the thyroid gland. To support a healthy immune system, of which inflammation is a part of, eat a healthy diet.

Targeting Thyroid Disease with Nutrition

Consume foods that are abundant in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds as well as vitamins and minerals to promote wellness and protect the body’s organs like your thyroid gland from the harmful effects of chronic inflammation. In The Gene Therapy Plan, I recommend various healthful nutrients found in food that activates gene expression in ways that promote health and longevity — coconut oil is one.

Although it’s a saturated fat, coconut oil is a healthful type of fat. As a medium-chain fatty acid, it’s small enough to enter the mitochondria where it can be converted into energy. Because the mitochondrion is the powerhouse of cellular energy, cooking and preparing meals with this oil can help to bolster your metabolism and energy. Also, half of coconut oil’s content consists of lauric acid — a powerful anti-inflammatory compound.

Tea also packs a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. Interestingly, in a Greek study, researchers interviewed people about their lifestyle and dietary habits and found that those who reported drinking chamomile tea were less likely to develop thyroid-associated tumors than those who didn’t drink as much of the tea.

There are plenty of anti-inflammatory foods that protect our thyroid gland and other organs in the body. Eat foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, spices, herbs, nuts, and seeds, which contain nutrients that inhibit inflammation and promote wellness and longevity.

Photo Credit: 
Wu C, Yosef N, Thalhamer T, et al. Induction of pathogenic Th17 cells by inducible salt sensing kinase SGK1. Nature. 2013 03/06;496(7446):513-7.
Kleinewietfeld M, Manzel A, Titze J, et al. Sodium chloride drives autoimmune disease by the induction of pathogenic TH17 cells. Nature. 2013
Riza, Elena, Athena Linos, Athanassios Petralias, Luca de Martinis, Leonidas Duntas, and Dimitrios Linos. “The effect of Greek herbal tea consumption on thyroid cancer: a case-control study.” The European Journal of Public Health (2015): ckv063.