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Every cell and organ in our body needs thyroid hormones - especially thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) - to function correctly. Without enough thyroid hormone, your body begins to slow down, causing symptoms of hypothyroidism. These symptoms include, among others:
- Cold intolerance
- Weight gain
- Slowed metabolism
- Muscle and joint aches and pains
- Mental health changes
Your body tightly controls how much T4 and T3 your thyroid gland produces through a complex feedback loop. Any disruption in this feedback loop can affect how much thyroid hormone is made. Disruptions include:
- Changes in levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), thyroid releasing hormone (TRH), or thyroid hormones themselves
- Inflammation caused by autoimmune disorders
- Nutritional deficiencies
Treatments, whether natural or prescription, need to address the underlying cause of the insufficient thyroid hormone level. We know that taking thyroid hormone replacement medications will increase our thyroid hormone levels. But, are there ways to increase them naturally, or even treat hypothyroidism naturally? Let's take a look at this common question.
When you think of natural treatments, most think of dietary and herbal supplements. Research shows that nutrients like iodine, selenium, and zinc play a key role in supporting healthy thyroid function. Other nutrients such as vitamins A, B12, and D, copper, tyrosine, and iron are also linked to thyroid function.
While there is evidence to support the use of these nutrients for hypothyroidism, let’s take a look at the two most promising supplements: iodine and selenium.
Iodine: Iodine is essential for thyroid hormone production. Without healthy levels of iodine, your body can’t make enough thyroid hormone leading to:
- Hypothyroidism -- an underactive thyroid
- Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
- Thyroid nodules
In the United States, overt iodine deficiency is not very common, but mild iodine deficiency is on the rise. We usually get enough iodine through the foods we eat. Iodized salt, fish, and dairy products are good sources of dietary iodine. Certain groups are at a higher risk for iodine deficiency:
- Those that are pregnant
- Live in iodine-deficient areas
- Taking medications or eating certain foods that interfere with iodine
- Those with a low intake of dairy, seafood, eggs, or milk products
But, taking too much iodine can harm your thyroid. You could develop a goiter, thyroid cancer, or stomach pain.
For more information, check out Paloma's Iodine Thyroid Guide.
Selenium: Your body needs selenium and zinc to convert T4 to T3, the active form of thyroid hormone. People with hypothyroidism, especially women, tend to have low selenium levels. But the evidence isn’t clear on whether taking selenium can help treat hypothyroidism.
Like iodine, most people get enough selenium from the foods they eat. Seafood, dairy products, and grains are great sources of selenium. Over time, too much selenium can be harmful causing:
- Brittle hair and nails
- Problems with your nervous system
Another category of supplement that often comes up in the context of "natural" treatment for hypothyroidism is glandular supplements. Thyroid glandular supplements are derived from the thyroid glands of animals -- usually cows or lambs -- and claim to provide thyroid hormone in a "natural," over-the-counter supplement form.
A 2013 study looked at 10 over-the-counter thyroid health glandular supplements. It found that 9 contained a type of thyroid hormone, several with an amount that could significantly increase your thyroid hormone levels. But, only 5 of those products listed that they contained thyroid hormone on the label.
This is a problem for two reasons:
- Too much thyroid hormone can lead to symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Symptoms include a fast heartbeat, trouble sleeping, and nervousness. Prolonged hyperthyroidism can also put you at risk of atrial fibrillation.
- Dietary supplements can interact with prescription medications. And if you don’t know what is in them, then you don’t know how it is going to affect you.
You should know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has little to no oversight of these claims or the ingredients in dietary supplements. This means that dietary companies don’t have to provide evidence to back up their claims. Prescription thyroid medications must follow a strict FDA process to show they are safe and effective, and meet specific potency targets, before being available to consumers.
The unknown potency of these glandular supplements makes them a potentially quite risky way to replace thyroid hormones for people with hypothyroidism.
While it's possible that supplementing can help nudge borderline or subclinical hypothyroidism towards normal thyroid function, fully resolving hypothyroidism requires diagnosis and treatment by a physician who can prescribe genuine thyroid hormone replacement medication.
Dietary supplements should not be taken in place of thyroid hormone replacement medication but can be used as an aid to help optimize thyroid function and correct nutrient deficiencies. Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before starting any supplements.
The only known and proven way to increase your thyroid hormone levels is by taking thyroid hormone replacement medications. But there are natural ways to improve your thyroid health.
Autoimmune protocol diet: The autoimmune protocol diet emphasizes nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. This helps heal your gut and limits foods that can trigger an inflammatory reaction.
In a 2019 study, 16 women with autoimmune Hashimoto’s thyroiditis followed the diet for 10 weeks. While there were no major changes in thyroid function levels, there was a decrease in inflammation. By the end of the study, about half the women were able to lower their dose of thyroid hormone replacement.
Eat foods rich in essential fatty acids: While following a diet plan is not for everyone, research shows that eating omega-3 fatty acids decreases inflammation in our bodies. Fish, walnuts, and certain types of oils are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Paloma's thyroid nutritionists can give you tips on adding more omega-3s into your diet and eating a thyroid-healthy diet
Manage stress: It is well known that stress can negatively impact your health, including contributing to obesity, heart problems, and digestive issues. Managing your stress through physical activity, meditation, or listening to music improves overall health and helps keep your hormones balanced.
Get enough sleep: Hormone levels change throughout the day, increasing or decreasing based on your body’s needs. TSH levels are usually highest overnight and impact how long you sleep and the quality of sleep you get. Without enough sleep, your TSH never reaches a high level which over time can impact your other thyroid levels.
The best way to increase your thyroid hormone levels and resolve hypothyroidism is by taking prescription thyroid hormone replacement medications. Paloma health providers consider all medication options including levothyroxine, liothyronine (T3/Cytomel), and natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) drugs like Armour Thyroid. Make an appointment today to work with a thyroid-savvy provider who will help find the best treatment option for you.