The medical term for an underactive thyroid gland is hypothyroidism. It describes a situation where the thyroid gland is not producing enough hormones. Both men and women can suffer from this condition although it is certainly more common in women. In the UK, it affects 15 in every 1,000 women and 1 in 1,000 men. It is even possible for children to develop an underactive thyroid and for babies to be born with an underactive thyroid (congenital hypothyroidism).
Symptoms of hypothyroidism
The most common symptoms of an underactive thyroid are tiredness, weight gain and depression. There’s no way of preventing an underactive thyroid. Most cases are caused either by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland and damaging it, or by damage to the thyroid that occurs during some medical treatments.
It can be hard to spot the signs of hypothyroidism because they tend to develop slowly and it can take years for them to cause problems.
However, if you are suffering from the following symptoms you should see your doctor and ask to be tested for an underactive thyroid:
- Weight gain
- Being sensitive to the cold
- Dry skin and hair
- Muscle aches
Your doctor will probably carry out a thyroid function test, by testing the hormone levels in a sample of your blood. If they discover that you do, indeed, have an underactive thyroid it can usually be very successfully treated by taking daily hormone tablets to replace the hormones your thyroid isn’t making. The medication is called levothyroxine and it raises your thyroxine levels. You’ll usually need treatment for the rest of your life. However, with proper treatment, people with hypothyroidism can usually lead a normal, healthy life.
If an underactive thyroid isn’t treated, it can lead to complications. This can include things like heart disease, goitre (swollen neck), pregnancy problems and a life-threatening condition called myxoedema coma.
Helping hypothyroidism with diet
If you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism it is important that you adopt a healthy lifestyle which includes a balanced diet and regular physical activity. You should also investigate stress-management techniques. You can do this at the same time as taking your thyroid hormone medications prescribed by a your doctor but you should always discuss any proposed changes in your diet and lifestyle with your doctor.
We need to be clear that there is no food or plan that can cure or prevent hypothyroidism. However, you can do a lot to help the weight gain effects. You can stick to a low calorie, nutrient-dense diet that is rich in both vitamins and minerals. This will also help with your mood and with your energy levels.
A healthy diet is ideal for hypothyroidism. Make sure that you eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates. Make whole grains, pasta, potatoes, corn and legumes a major part of your diet together with proteins and healthy fats in moderation.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important for the brain and for maintaining a healthy thyroid. They can help to control that inflammation that may cause an underactive thyroid but they cannot cure it. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include flax, salmon and oil fish oils, such as tuna, cod and mackerel and nuts.
If you are already taking anticoagulant medications it is very important that you talk to your doctor before increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids because they may cause excessive bleeding.
B complex vitamins help the thyroid gland to produce energy, particularly B12, which is useful for the lack of energy in hypothyroidism. Foods high in Vitamin B12 include mussels, organic meats, eggs, milk, fortified cereals, seaweed and brewer’s yeast. Vitamin B9 is another important B vitamin for thyroid function and it can be found in legumes, avocado, oranges, cabbage, asparagus, spinach, cauliflower and wheat germ.
Foods to avoid
Some foods are thought to interfere with thyroid function because they are similar to human hormones like oestrogen. It is best to avoid these foods if you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Foods that you should avoid include cabbage, brocolli, Brussels sprouts and soya and its derivatives.