Todays wellness industry is a million dollar market. People get rich off offering solutions to heal autoimmune conditions, support weight loss, and general well-being. This makes it very difficult to understand what can actually help or harm us in the journey towards overall health. It takes a lot of effort to research the science and “Why” behind what works for us and our bio-individuality. In particular, there is a lot of noise about what can help support thyroid help. I have had a lot of women ask me lately about the best ways to support overall thyroid health. There are several things we can do to support our thyroid – I rally up all the goodness below.
1) Reducing Inflammation
We talk about this quite often here on PfW. But it is a key element in maintaining overall health and well-being. You have to reduce inflammation levels in your body to allow your body to heal and function as it needs to. No matter how hard you try to support your thyroid, you might not be able to if you suffer from an underlying health condition.
Figure out your underlying issues by taking stock of your body. What symptoms do you experience? When? For how long? How long have you had them? Take your answers to google and to the doctor. Get some tests done. Paleo is fantastic for healing, but a more targeted approach can help heal you all the faster.
When you heal your underlying problems, you are naturally supporting thyroid health.
Reducing inflammation may be easier said than done. Nevertheless some of the things you can do are:
- Avoid potentially inflammatory foods including ALL processed foods, omega 6 seed oils (Vegetable oils like corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and the like), and perhaps grains and dairy,
- Consume a nutrient-rich diet full of varied, organic vegetables and fruits,
- Include organ meats once or twice a month (here’s a supplement in case you do not like to eat liver)
- Eat more eggs
- Eat fermented foods daily (here are my favorites)
- Get some sunlight everyday on your skin without SPF or consider taking a vitamin D supplement
- Eat wild-caught, fatty fish like salmon or sardines once a week and
- Consider taking the rockstar superfood cod liver oil which is rich in fat-soluble vitamins A and D as well as the crucial anti-inflammatory molecules EPA and DHA.
2) Limit Using Products That Mess with our Endocrine Receptors
Unfortunately a lot of the topical products we use contain chemicals that can severely mess with our endocrine system. We think a lot about what we digest internally, but not what we are putting on our skin. This is a huge mistake and something I absolutely recommend to take into account when supporting thyroid health as these chemicals can disrupte our endocrine system and in turn our thyroid health. Avoid anything that states it has a “fragrance” in it. This can be overwhelming because so many unexpected things contain fragrances including makeup, dryer sheets, cleaning products and more.
- Heavy metals
Read her full article on these chemicals, here.
In 1960, a survey of over 1 million people found a modal sleep duration of 8-9 hours. In 2002, polls conducted by the National Sleep Foundation indicated that the average duration of sleep for Americans had fallen to 6.9-7 hours. Recent data indicate that a higher percentage of adult Americans report sleeping 6 hours or less. In 2005, in the US, more than 30% of adult men and women between the ages of 30 and 64 years reported sleeping on average less than 6 hours each night. This decrease in sleep duration has occurred over the same time as the increase in the prevalence of obesity, diabetes and other inflammatory based illnesses.
Putting away electronic devices or wearing blue blocking glasses before bed can help melatonin production which will help you fall asleep easier as well.
I recommend eliminating any nightcaps that you may be consuming before bed. Sometimes I will eat a little fat in the form of peanut butter and jelly (no, this isn’t technically paleo but it works for me) because it helps me maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
Exercising throughout the day can improve sleep quality as well.
To start from the source, take a couple smart moves to improve your bedroom environment
- Use white or brown noise
- Make sure your space is as dark as possible, use blackout curtains like these ones, or a sleeping mask
- Keep your bedroom cool
- Put those devices away! Seriously! They have an impact on our sleep quality
I have a pretty extensive blog post on other things you can do to destress and sleep like a pro, here.
4) Eat More Carbohydrate
I know – everyone wants to stay away from carbohydrates. I urge you to reconsider.
Carbohydrates + glucose production. Glucose is necessary for the conversion of T4 to T3 in the liver. Without adequate glucose, the liver struggles to make enough T3, which is the form of thyroid hormone critical for healthy thyroid function.
(Now, low carb dieters might be quick to point out that the liver can manufacture its own glucose. Certainly, the liver is capable of producing its own glucose with gluconeogenesis, but that process can become taxed over time, particularly if the liver is already taxed from poor eating habits in the past, mineral deficiencies, stress, or calorie restriction.)
Without sufficient T3, hypothyroidism results. Hypothyroidism is implicated in mood disorders, reproductive irregularities such as PCOS and amenorrhea, in skin conditions, and in weight gain, among other things. (For more on how to figure out your particular type of PCOS and how hypothyroidism may be at play, see my program PCOS Unlocked or read my post on the causes of PCOS)
Many women, contrary to popular paleo belief, in fact lose weight once they add carbohydrates back into their diets. This is because the carbs help the body produce more T3.
Perhaps the most common and most harmful damage a low carbohydrate diet can cause for women is hypothyroidism.The body needs glucose (carbohydrate) in the blood in order to create T3, the active form of thyroid hormone. Without T3, you cannot burn fat mass, skin quality suffers, and hormone production slows down, resulting in infertility and low libido, among other things.
How many carbs you should consume may seem complicated. It varies from person to person.
Pregnant women should definitely err on the side of eating more. So should athletes.
For that reason, I recommend starting with 100 grams of dense carbs (so starches and fruits) every day. if that seems like too much for you, especially if you are coming from a very low carbohydrate diet, then simply add them slowly. Once you get started it is very easy to find your own person range or sweet spot.
The main part of the reason carbohydrates have such a bad name is that a lot of carbohydrates are genuinely bad for you: breads, cereals, pastas, pastries, and other processed foods can all cause weight gain and be pretty harmful. The most important part of being healthy and losing weight is the quality of the food you eat, however. So simply don’t eat the bad carbs, and focus on the good ones.
Good carbs are:
- Starchy tubers such as sweet potatoes, batata, jerusalem artichoke, cassava, tarot, and bamboo. Regular potatoes are fine, too, but they contain fewer vitamins than their sweet counterparts. Of the sweet potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes are the most delicious, in my opinion, followed by white sweet potatoes and then yams and regular orange sweet potatoes.These starches are composed primarily of glucose.
- Fruits. All fruits! Berries and cherries tend to have more glucose than fructose, other fruits tend to have more fructose than glucose. This is not a huge point of difference but I have noticed that some women tend to do better on glucose-heavy or fructose-heavy carbs. I personally have an easier time with weight maintenance with fruits than with starches. I talk about this idea more in depth in that Weight Loss program for women I use with my clients.
- Rice Both white and brown rice are fine, but are fairly nutrient-poor.
Brown rice contains anti-nutrients in it’s shell, so white rice is more innocuous in terms of nutrient absorption. Wild rice is another option that I like. Pink rice is something that my friend Noelle from Coconuts and Kettlebells really loves and is a unique way to incorporate rice into the diet! (By the way, if you haven’t listened to The Well-Fed Women Podcast featuring myself and Noelle, you need to! We are the BEST and we will explain to you ALL THE THINGS. Find us here!)
- Vegetables of course are great, but they do not count for carbohydrate consumption. I know that most of the carbs in vegetables are glucose, but much of it them are also tied up in fiber, which is broken down and turned into short-chain fatty acids by gut bacteria. For this reason, vegetables alone cannot make up a woman’s carbohydrate consumption. Instead, starchy tubers and fruits work the best.
Moderate carbohydrate intake is associated with better mood, stress-reduction, and sleep quality.
I see this in my work and in anecdotes, as well as in many controlled studies. Carbohydrate intake boosts tryptophan levels in the brain, and tryptophan is the protein precursor to serotonin. Getting at least some carbohydrate in the diet helps with the vast array of issues associated with serotonin deficiency which include moodiness, stress, and insomnia. People have been shown to sleep better if their dinner includes carbohydrates in it. Kill two birds with one stone by eating more carbohydrates.
This is especially true for women.
For a look at the details and complexities of the issue, see Emily Deans writing here and here. The primary takeaway of this point being that while the exact mechanism of carbohydrates boosting mood and sleep quality is unknown, carbohydrates still appear to be a healthy, and in many cases necessary, macronutrient.
5) Focus on Quality not Quantity:
Now, this is the exact opposite of advice I normally give people when they are trying to be healthy. One of my favorite things to say is that people need to focus on the quality of their food, and care less about the quantity.
In general, this is great advice. High quality food is super important for being healthy in the long run. So, yes, if you decide to eat all 2500 calories a day in the form of vegetables and fruits and other paleo delights, you are more than welcome to.
Instead of setting little strict boxes around various macronutrients quantities, paleo emphasizes overall food quality without restriction (at least these days it does. At one time, paleo was very restrictive but the community has grown to eliminate this dogmatic approach). Because you are able to experiment with higher carb, lower fat, or high fat and lower carb while using high quality foods you are able to understand which foods really work best for you without judgement. If you want to eat starchy carbs in the morning and higher fat at night, you CAN. And because paleo gently forces you to be in tune with your biochemistry it becomes a bit easier to understand which foods may not work for you.
For instance, I went a long time eating higher carbohydrate in the morning because it was what I had been taught on the standard american diet protocol. I also coincidentally struggled with extremely low energy levels in the morning for many years of my life. After understanding how my body processes carbohydrates in the morning, I was able to switch my macronutrient levels and discover I maintain much higher energy levels with a lower carbohydrate diet.
Instead of restricting your intake to just high fat and low carbohydrate, you are given the freedom with paleo to experiment with what actually works with your physiological needs.
When you exercise you are activating your thyroid hormones which in turn supports overall function.
Running, cycling, using the elliptical, and other cardio exercises are not the panacea most people make them out to be. They do not burn as many calories as the people who sell them would like us to believe. Nor do they build muscle all that well. They also elevate stress hormone levels if done on a regular basis.
All three of these factors make them inferior for weight loss. Instead of doing cardio, I like to recommend doing a mix of three things: weight lifting, short, intense sprint work-outs, and slow, “happy” movement.
For me, this looks like lifting weights once or twice a week, doing a couple sprint workouts a week, and going dancing at night.
The basic ideas are this:
1) muscles require more energy to maintain. If you build muscle, your body will burn more calories over the course of any given day, regardless of whether you work out.
2) strength training helps improve insulin sensitivity and hormonal health
3) high intensity sprint workouts (like pedaling as fast as you can for 6 periods of 45 seconds) improve insulin sensitivity and hormonal health
4) strength and sprint workouts promote something called “metabolic flexibility” which helps you burn both carbohydrates and fat efficiently
5) exercising too much, like many cardio exercisers do, is stressful to the body. With short weight lifting and sprint workouts you minimize the amount of stress hormone in your bloodstream.
So exercise smart. Lift heavy weights twice a week. Do two sprint workouts a week. Walk or do yoga and dance or any other fun activity as often as possible.