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Thyroid gland and nutrition

Something odd that has been observed quite often in recent years is the tendency to blame our thyroid gland whenever we gain weight. And while the thyroid does affect our metabolism, to a large extent it is unjustly blamed. What we need to understand is that not only the way our thyroid gland works, but also the way it interacts with diet, is what ultimately affects our weight.

When we refer to the thyroid, we are talking about a gland, which is located in the front of the trachea, in our throat. As a gland, its function is to produce hormones, which, in this case, play a very important role in regulating our metabolism. Thyroid gland examination is mostly achieved through two screening tests: ultrasound of the gland, to detect deformities that may affect its function, and blood tests of certain properties, such as the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which shows how well the gland functions, and specific types of antibodies (Anti-TPO and Anti-TG), which indicate the existence of an autoimmune disease. When the thyroid gland works properly, it bears no responsibility for our weight fluctuations. But what happens when it doesn’t? The most common causes of thyroid dysfunction are autoimmune thyroiditis Hashimoto and Graves, with the former usually resulting in hypothyroidism (↑TSH) and the latter in hyperthyroidism (↓TSH). During hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones and so the metabolic processes do not take place as they should and in this case, we either have difficulty losing weight or we even end up gaining weight. The exact opposite happens with hyperthyroidism, i.e., an overproduction of thyroid hormones occurs and so the body metabolizes at a very high rate and eventually the patient loses weight, to the extent that it may exceed the limits of good health. Clearly, the symptoms of these two conditions are not just weight-related, but it is the change in our weight that usually puts us in the process of considering the existence of thyroid dysfunction.

As mentioned above, the most common thyroid diseases are autoimmune. Simply put, the body itself "sees" the thyroid as a foreign body and attacks it, thus leading to the issues we mentioned. It would be very reasonable to say that since the aetiology is in the body itself, nutrition does not play any role. And yet not! To begin with, a recent study showed significant differences between the foods consumed by people with Hashimoto and people without thyroid problems, with the former consuming more animal fat and processed meat and less olive oil or other vegetable oils, whole grains, fatty fish and alcohol. It seemed then that there is a correlation between eating habits and the likelihood of the disease being present. It should be emphasized here that while one may have the genetic background to develop autoimmune thyroiditis, we have no way of predicting the age of the disease’s onset, and so, if we have a way of delaying it. It is assumed from the aforementioned that we might have a way to protect ourselves for more years through diet.

What if someone has already developed autoimmune thyroiditis? Once again, diet can play a very important role in regulating thyroid function. Initially, thyroiditis is a form of inflammation, so we can treat it by consuming foods rich in anti-inflammatory agents, which are none other than the antioxidants found mainly in fruits, vegetables and olive oil. In addition, patients have been shown to benefit greatly from the consumption of selenium, a food element found mainly in nuts, fish and whole grains, as this reduces the "attack" that the thyroid gland receives. It is also common for patients to have vitamin D deficiency, which can also be obtained from food, however its main source for humans is the sun, so a walk outside can boost vitamin D intake. It is now safe to say that a Mediterranean approach to the way we eat is probably our ally against thyroid disease.

We therefore conclude that a diet rich in plant-based products, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, cereals and olive oil, combined with small amounts of fish and seafood, and a walk in the sun, will improve the course of the disease and therefore its effect on metabolism and weight. And one might ask, can we really have a significant result with such simple solutions? The people of Ikaria did it for years and came to have the best results in terms of weight, health and life expectancy, without necessarily knowing whether they had any thyroid-related issues, why not us too?

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