4 Things You Should Do to Keep Your Thyroid Healthy

Your thyroid helps regulate metabolism, temperature, and heartbeat. Here are some things you can do to keep your thyroid healthy.

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If you don't have a thyroid problem, you probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about that butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, which helps regulate metabolism and body temperature (among other things). But thyroid disorders are pretty common. One woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.

An autoimmune disorder can throw your gland out of whack, but it's thought that lifestyle factors (like stress or diet) also can play a role. Hyperthyroidism (aka an overactive thyroid) can cause rapid weight loss, an unusually fast heartbeat, and anxiety; while hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) can trigger constipation, weight gain, and extreme fatigue.

If you suspect you have a thyroid problem, consult your doctor about potential treatment options. But in addition to medical treatment, there are a few lifestyle changes that can help keep your thyroid on track. We spoke to Ashita Gupta, MD, an integrative endocrinologist at Mount Sinai West in New York City, about how to maintain a healthy thyroid. Here are Dr. Gupta's four big recommendations.

Go Mediterranean

One of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy thyroid is eating a well-balanced diet. "Seventy percent of our autoimmune system is found in our intestines, known as GALT, or gut-associated lymphoid tissue," said Dr. Gupta. "When the intestinal lining becomes inflamed, it can trigger an immune response. Studies show that this plays a role in the development of thyroid disease."

To help keep inflammation in check, Dr. Gupta recommended following a Mediterranean diet. Dr. Gupta suggested aiming for four to five servings of vegetables and three to four servings of fruit each day, along with plenty of lean proteins and fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, anchovies, and mackerel. For other healthy fats, Dr. Gupta recommended extra-virgin olive oil, expeller-pressed organic canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, coconut oil, nuts, nut butters, and avocados.

Be Wary of Certain Foods

No surprise here: steer clear of processed foods packed with sugar and preservatives, dyes, or fat- and sugar-free substitutes. "Processed foods including trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and refined sugar can cause intestinal inflammation and in turn, trigger autoimmune flare-ups," said Dr. Gupta. "This is not specific to the thyroid, but the autoimmune system can affect various parts of the body."

A less obvious culprit? Cruciferous veggies such as cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, watercress, Bok choy, and Brussels sprouts. They may be packed with good-for-you nutrients like vitamin C and folate, but eating them raw in high doses could mess with your thyroid. "Uncooked cruciferous vegetables contain natural chemicals called goitrogens (goiter producers) that can interfere with thyroid hormone synthesis," said Dr. Gupta. But don't panic just yet, kale lovers: "The goitrogens in these foods are inactivated by cooking, or even by light steaming, so you can still consume them for their valuable antioxidant and cancer-protective effects." (Phew!)

Consider Supplements... But Talk to Your HealthCare Provider First

You've probably heard that there's a connection between thyroid health and iodine, which is essential for the synthesis of thyroid hormones. "Worldwide, iodine deficiency is one of the causes of an enlarged thyroid gland and hypothyroidism," said Dr. Gupta. "However, iodine deficiency is rare in developed countries due to supplementation in table salt and certain foods such as dairy and bread." In other words, you're probably already getting enough iodine in your diet as is. In fact, too much iodine can trigger hyperthyroidism in susceptible individuals, so Dr. Gupta didn't recommend taking iodine pills without consulting your doctor.

On the other hand, if you suspect your thyroid may need a boost, speak to your doctor about taking selenium or vitamin D, both of which have been linked to improved thyroid health. "Clinical research shows that taking 200 mcg daily of the mineral selenium can reduce anti-thyroid antibodies," said Dr. Gupta. "Alternatively, you can get the mineral by eating one to two Brazil nuts each day." (Yup, it's that simple!)

As for vitamin D, some research suggests it could be important in regulating the immune system: "Severe deficiency of vitamin D may be associated with autoimmune disease, so have your physician check your vitamin D levels and advise you about supplementation if the level is below normal," said Dr. Gupta.

Dr. Gupta also recommends taking probiotics, which offer a whole host of health benefits. "Probiotics can help modulate the immune system, enhance gut motility, and improve intestinal permeability," Dr. Gupta said. Dr. Gupta suggested looking for over-the-counter blends that contain the active cultures Saccahromyces boulardii and Lactobacillus acidophilus or eating natural sources like yogurt and kefir.

Try Your Best To Avoid These Environmental Toxins

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, long-term exposure to endocrine disruptorschemicals that interfere with your body's endocrine systemmay trigger endocrine problems in humans. A few to be aware of are perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that can be found in some carpets, flame-resistant and waterproof clothing, and non-stick cookware. PFCs have been linked to thyroid disease in previous studies. Researchers have also found that exposure to phthalates (found in fragranced products and soft plastics) and bisphenol-A (found in some hard plastics and canned food linings, although many manufacturers are removing them) could cause disruptions in thyroid hormone levels.

Dr. Gupta also recommended avoiding antibacterial soaps that contain triclosan, an ingredient that has altered hormone regulation in studies of animals (human studies are still ongoing), according to the FDA.

Although it would be impossible to avoid these completely, the key is to reduce your exposure as much as you can, especially if you're pregnant or have little ones in the housedeveloping fetuses, infants, and children are more vulnerable to any effects of environmental chemicals.

Following some general guidelines can go a long way. "Just use soap and water to wash your hands instead," Dr. Gupta said. "Use essential oils when fragrance is needed."

Other things you can do include, choosing more fresh or frozen foods over canned, storing food in porcelain or glass rather than plastics, and keeping your home well-ventilated.

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