Although thyroid issues are more prevalent in older women, this little butterfly-shaped body part is still a mystery to most of us. Here are a few basics we should all be aware of.
You probably know that your thyroid gland sits at the base of your neck, but you mightn’t appreciate that it’s part of a complex web of hormones, and that it affects every system and cell of your body.
It’s in charge of metabolism and energy production, so its effects can show up everywhere from your heart, brain and gut to your muscles, bones and skin.
According to the Australian Thyroid Foundation about 14% of older Australians have a thyroid disorder. That figure mainly represents women. In American it’s estimated that one in five women aged 60 and over has some form of thyroid disease.
The thyroid produces T3, the active form of thyroid hormone, and T4, the storage form. It can become overactive (that’s called hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease) or underactive (hypothyroidism). As we get older our thyroid is more likely to be underactive.
The trouble with a gland that has such widespread impact is that doctors can have a hard time diagnosing what’s wrong.
For example, sometimes hyperthyroid symptoms such as hot flushes, sweating, irritability, insomnia, tiredness and mood changes are mistaken as menopausal symptoms.
Similarly, hypothyroid symptoms, which can include weight gain, dry or thinning hair, dry skin, constipation, sore muscles and joints, tiredness, depression, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating can look like signs of stress or ageing.
If you’re not making progress with your doctor, get another opinion.
A useful resource could be the ACNEM website (ACNEM stands for the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine). You can search their database for practitioners in your area with a particular interest in thyroid.
For those of us who haven’t got a thyroid condition and just want to stay healthy, perhaps the first thing to recognise is that anything that causes hormonal imbalance will affect your thyroid.
So be careful with the chemicals you use on your body and clean your house with, and minimise your exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Chronic stress also disrupts hormonal function. That includes rushing, worrying and negative thinking. Unfortunately, a lot of us have carried those habits for decades and it feels normal.
If that’s the case, practices such as yoga, meditation, tai chi or slow deep breathing can help to calm your nervous system.
Diet and gut health play important roles too, so eat real food, including healthy fats, and skip the processed stuff.
The thyroid needs a broad range of nutrients, but the two most often mentioned are iodine and selenium.
Seafood, seaweed and salt are good sources of iodine.
If you’re eating oily fish such as sardines and salmon (e.g. to support your heart, brain and skin), you’re ticking the iodine box at the same time.
When it comes to seaweed, nori might be the most recognisable because it’s the dark coloured wrapping on sushi. If you like Japanese food you might also have eaten wakame in a seaweed salad or kombu in miso soup.
While iodised table salt contains added iodine, a lot of table salt is highly refined. Although the iodine levels of Celtic sea salt and Himalayan salt aren’t as high, they’re a healthier choice.
Bread baked in Australia is made with iodised salt, but if bread irritates your gut and makes you bloated, avoid it.
Eggs are also a reasonable source of iodine and dairy foods have a small amount too.
Brazil nuts are the best source of selenium, but seafood, meat, chicken and eggs also contain some.
Finally, keep your vitamin D levels healthy because low vitamin D makes us more prone to autoimmune disease, which can trigger thyroid disorders.
In summary, the best way to support your thyroid function is to have a healthy lifestyle all-round.