As one of the primary glands involved in adaptation through its role in metabolism, the thyroid is, alongside the adrenals, an important health aspect to consider when preparing for autumn.
The thyroid is one of the largest glands in the body and is located in the front of the neck, just below the “Adam’s Apple” along the windpipe. It is butterfly-shaped and along with the parathyroid glands (glands that regulate calcium) embedded within it, it is responsible for regulating and controlling a variety of bodily functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and the rate at which food is converted into and and the body uses energy, makes proteins, as well as how sensitive the body is to other hormones. Thyroid hormones help regulate growth and the rate of chemical reactions (metabolism) in the body. Furthermore, thyroid dysfunction is thought to affect psycho-emotional disorders from depression to mania.
It can take several weeks for the thyroid to get itself into running mode and boost metabolism sufficiently for the body to adapt to climate and daylight changes when temperatures begin to drop at the end of summer-beginning of autumn season. This explains why we may have body temperature variations during this time and be more prone to catching “colds”. In addition, any weaknesses in our terrain or pre-existing conditions could be aggravated during this time if thyroid activity isn’t working at the levels it should.
In my Preparing Autumn – the Basics! post, I mentioned a number of tips which can help maintain and support your thyroid but here are some which are more specific to thyroid function:
- Begin introducing warm oat porridge or oat muesli for breakfast. Best to use the organic steel-cut whole oats variety rather than the instant oat flakes and use gluten-free if you need to. Include seeds, nuts and berries to the mix and use non-dairy milk (oat, almond, rice, hazelnut milks for instance – please note I do not recommend soya milk, see below). Not only are oats a low GI food, but they have medicinal constituents which support thyroid and nervous system function as well as immunity. It is helpful to eat them for a few days in a row (at least 3 and not more than 10) at the start of the cooler weather and then alternating with other breakfast foods as part of your breakfast routine, especially when feeling chilled. Oats can be part of a regular diet but are best not consumed exclusively or in large quantities if you have hyperthyroid issues or diseases linked to oestrogen sensitivities/levels.
- The thyroid requires iodine for proper function and under-performing thyroid function can sometimes be impacted by low iodine levels. In addition to getting out to the sea for a walk to breathe in the iodine-rich air, and eating shellfish, try adding organic seaweed to your meals (best to stay way from Japanese seaweed for the time being due to potential radiation pollution – a great alternative is locally cultivated seaweed such as from Cornwall or Brittany). Seaweed can add flavour to soups, salads, steamed veggies or legumes.
- Black currant (cassis) leaf herbal tea helps support thyroid and immune function at this time. I make a lot of immune-supporting mixes for my patients to have around for colds and always include some black currant, especially since it is a great adaptogen so it also supports the adrenals (essential in autumn as well).
- Adequate vitamin D levels are important for immune and thyroid function so continue getting some sun when possible so your stores will last the winter. If vitamin D levels are too low, there are some good vitamin D supplements out there and I am happy to share my recommendations with you.
- Eat foods high in zinc, Omega-3s and selenium. These include:
- Selenium: tuna, mushrooms, beef, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, organ meats, halibut, soybeans (please use GMO-free and stick primarily to fermented soy products)
- Zinc: beef, turkey, lamb, fresh oysters, sardines, soybeans, walnuts, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, pecans, almonds, split peas, ginger root, whole grains, maple syrup
- Omega-3: oily fish, eggs (yolk), walnuts, edible seeds, flaxseed oil and hemp oil
- Since oxidative stress can impact negatively on thyroid function, ensure you include vitamin C and anti-oxidant foods in your diet as well.
- Foods high in the B vitamins, especially B2, B3, and B6, help with the manufacturing of T4 (an essential thyroid hormone). These foods include egg yolks, organ meats (liver), poultry (white meat), fish (tuna, trout, salmon), wild/brown rice and rice bran, wheat germ, mushrooms, almonds, peanuts (with skin), walnuts, bananas, sunflower seeds, beans (navy beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, lima beans). A good vitamin B complex can be helpful to take at this time of the year for a month or two.
- Other vitamins such as A and E and trace elements like copper and iron also support proper thyroid function. Many of the foods listed above as well as leafy green vegetables especially those in the Brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, kale etc.) contain these vitamins and minerals and should be included in one’s diet.
A word of care about soy, Brassica (i.e. cabbage family) vegetables, gluten and the thyroid:
- Soy: There are some studies showing that the isoflavones (also known as goitrogens) in soybeans can inhibit the enzyme (thyroid peroxidase) that adds iodine to the thyroid hormone. These studies indicate that soy isoflavone might bond with the iodine and diminish the reserve for thyroid production. Furthermore, unfermented soy contains protease inhibitors, which interfere with the digestion of protein as well as phytates which tie up minerals like calcium, zinc, and iron. So if you do add soy to your diet, it is best to go with GMO-free and fermented (miso, soy yogurt, natto, etc) since fermentation destroys the protease inhibitors and the phytates. In addition if you have hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), it is best avoided or eaten only in very small quantities.
- Brassica family of vegetables: This group of vegetables includes Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and cabbage, which studies show can reduce the thyroid hormone in a similar way to unfermented soy. Pairing them with iodine-rich foods or eating them in fermented versions (sauerkraut) will help counter their effect on iodine binding. Please note eating these vegetables is only an issue if you eat significant amounts and have a thyroid dysfunction – they are otherwise rich in many other nutrients and should be included as part of a healthy diet.
- Gluten: There seems to be strong evidence showing a connection between gluten intolerance, celiac disease, and autoimmune thyroid issues. Gluten is found in many grain-based foods, and can trigger a whole series of digestive issues, impact hormonal imbalances, and cause immune dysfunction, especially the gluten found in wheat products. Avoiding or decreasing gluten-based foods in your diet, especially wheat, can support thyroid function and immunity.
In terms of herbs used as foods or in small amounts, the following can be good autumn well-being herbs:
- ginger: for its warming and stimulating actions, it also boosts thyroid function, namely by increasing the conversion of T4 to T3.
- cinnamon: a great digestive anti-microbial and anti-fungal which supports a healthy digestive system and bowels.
- nettle leaf: because it is full of minerals it is a natural way to re-mineralise naturally and to strengthen tissues. In addition it is anti-allergic and anti-histaminic which is great for autumnal seasonal allergies (often the skin).
- lemon balm: helps relax and also has some thyroid regulating actions but if you suffer from a thyroid issue, see a herbalist before using it in large or regular quantities.
I see a lot of people with thyroid dysfunction and there is much that diet and herbs can do to support optimal thyroid function. However, given the importance of the thyroid, and the complexity of how it functions and interacts with other hormones and metabolism, if you have a thyroid condition, please consult a herbalist before trying any of these on your own. Be aware that over-the-counter herbal products or supplements that seem fine for everyone such as maca, ashwaghanda, ginger or ginseng may not be right for your individual terrain.
Enjoy the colours and flavours of autumn in health!