The ways in which hormones function in our bodies is a complex and fascinating topic! They work like an orchestra where the skill of all the musicians, or the optimal functioning of the hormones in this case, is vital for an excellent performance or sound health! Hormones are secreted by a network of glands in the endocrine system to regulate many bodily functions. The endocrine gland that I will focus on in this article is the thyroid gland and it’s hormones as it has a unique cause-effect relationship with the health of the gut. I will also touch upon how other hormones affect gut health and in turn thyroid health! What do you say about this most intriguing lattice of relationships! As always I will give you a list of foods that help in maintaining a happy balance between all these complex relationships.
Let’s begin by understanding the importance of having a healthy functioning thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is butterfly-shaped and it is situated low in the neck in the front of the windpipe and below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid is a part of the endocrine system and it is made up of glands that produce, release and store thyroid hormones T3 and T4 which primarily regulate :
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Body temperature
However, they also play a vital role in optimum:
- Weight control
- Energy levels
- Skin tone
The receptor sites for the thyroid hormone are everywhere in the body and they influence numerous cells and tissues telling them how much energy to use. You will be surprised to find out that the commonly occurring TSH on your blood reports isn’t produced in the Thyroid gland but, in the Pituitary gland in the skull below the brain. This is the thyroid stimulating hormone which informs the body to produce more T3 and T4. In fact when you see that the TSH levels in your blood are too high it indicates that the thyroid hormone in the body is low. This condition is called Hypothyroidism. On the other hand if the TSH levels are too low then there is probably too much thyroid hormone in the body leading to a disease called Hyperthyroidism.
Now, at this point I thought about going into the symptoms of these two diseases and then decided against it, as the aim of these articles isn’t one of making you nervous about your health. Instead the goal is to help you understand the synergy between your life habits and the food you eat and how they work together to enhance better health like hormonal balance.
Research has shown how gut health and thyroid health are closely linked. As I had mentioned in my previous article, around 70 percent of our immune system is found in the gut. When there are perforations in your intestinal lining or a ‘Leaky gut’, large protein molecules escape from the gut into the bloodstream where they are attacked by the immune system. And it is these attacks that can play a critical role in the development of some autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s a Hypothyroid condition.
You will be intrigued to know that the good gut bacteria or microbiome is responsible for converting T4 to T3, the active form of the thyroid hormone. In fact 20 percent of this conversion is assisted by the gut microbiome. The imbalance between pathogenic and beneficial bacteria in the gut can significantly reduce the conversion of T4 to T3. So, keeping our good gut bacteria happy and well nourished will facilitate the conversion of T4 to T3 and will enable the thyroid hormone to function effectively in the body.
Another most interesting thyroid – gut relationship is seen in the case of chronic constipation, which impairs the clearing of hormones from our body causing an elevation of the hormone ‘Estrogen’ in our blood. This in turn raises the levels of the thyroid binding globulin or TBG in the bloodstream. The TBG decreases the amount of free thyroid hormones readily available to the body. On the other hand low thyroid levels can slow down the transit time for our food to travel in the intestine leading to constipation. This is a prime example of how the gut and thyroid have a reversible cause and effect relationship. So, the bottom line is that you can’t have a healthy gut without a healthy thyroid and vice versa.
A reversible relationship is seen between the hormone ‘Insulin’ and thyroid function. Insulin metabolizes sugar and helps to store it away in our cells for energy. However, if our sugar intake is high, overtime the insulin stops functioning optimally taking our bodies into ‘Insulin resistance’. This results in thyroid malfunction. There is a strong indication that by managing our sugar levels we can improve thyroid health. And reversely managing thyroid disease can help regulate blood sugar levels in our bloodstream.
‘Cortisol’, the stress hormone, when in high levels can cause inflammation in the gut adversely effecting the functioning of thyroid hormones. We all experience some level of stress in our lives. Whether the cause of stress is due to a big event or small our body physiologically responds the same way. It goes into the fright-or-flight response mode producing high levels of cortisol. If we don’t instil beneficial life habits or Primary Foods like ‘Mindful practice’ or other spiritual practices that help us cope better when faced with stressful events in our lives, our bodies begin to secrete excessive amounts of cortisol. High levels of cortisol cause inflammation in the gut which reduces active T3 and increases inactive T4 causing the thyroid gland to dysfunction.
Secondary foods or nutrition plays a significant role in maintaining a healthy thyroid. Let’s begin with these Gut nourishing foods:
- Bone broth – gelatin present in broth will help heal the intestinal lining
- Fermented Probiotic foods – such as sauerkruat, kimchi, kefir, organic greek yogurt are rich in good bacteria
- Prebiotic foods – resistant starches like potatoes cooled in a salad, artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, green bananas, legumes are essential to feed good gut bacteria
- Reduce sugar intake as sugar feeds pathogens causing an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in our guts
Then there are the Thyroid boosting foods such as:
- Iodine – vital in converting the inactive thyroid hormone T4 to the active hormone T3. Best sources of dietary iodine are: eggs, ocean fish, raw dairy, sea vegetables like kombu, wakame and kelp, organic strawberries
- Iron – an iron deficiency in the body can signal the thyroid that there is need to conserve energy and the thyroid in turn lowers it’s hormone production. So it is important to maintain optimum levels of iron in the body. It should be had in it’s heme form to be most effective and this is best available from animal sources like lamb, grassfed beef and liver
- Magnesium – magnesium deficiency can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland. Best sources of magnesium are dark leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains
- Selenium – is required to convert T4 to T3. Organic Brazil Nuts are a great source for this. Eating one or two a day is sufficient
- Vitamin D – helps protect the body from autoimmune diseases. It is found in fatty fish like mackeral, tuna and salmon
- Zinc – aids in thyroid hormone production. Foods rich in zinc are grass fed beef, shrimp, kidney beans, spinach, flax seeds
- Avoid environmental toxins – eat organic fruit and vegetables, grass fed beef, sustainable caught wild fish
- Crowd out soy and estrogen mimicking products like BPA
- Limit alcohol consumption as it inhibits the liver to deal with estrogen effectively
So to summarise….
If we nourish our guts with healthy food we can ensure the optimal functioning of the thyroid gland. However, often we forget to focus on the health of the gut and if neglected for too long we develop conditions like a leaky gut, which can cause an autoimmune response and a hypothyroid condition. The imbalance of pathogenic bacteria and healthy gut bacteria can diminish the availability of the active thyroid hormone. Gut issues like constipation have also known to effect the thyroid hormones. Excessive levels of sugar intake can lead to insulin resistance which can trigger thyroid dysfunction. The health of our gut, as seen in this article, can have a huge impact on the healthy working of thyroid hormones so it is imperative that we feed our bodies well with all the gut healing and thyroid boosting foods mentioned above, increasing fibre intake and reducing the consumption of sugar. One of the primary foods we can work on is ‘Spirituality’ as it enables us to deal with stressful situations, preventing our bodies from a chronic fright-or-flight response to stress, as that can lead to destabilizing our thyroid health. We are complexed beings that function well when all aspects of our lives are in sync. Like the orchestra and it’s musicians!