A healthy gut is usually the first (and only) benefit that some people think of 'prebiotic foods.' However, take a closer look. You'll see that these foods are also delicious and are valuable allies in supporting thyroid health.
Prebiotics are a food source for the gut's microbiota, which we can supplement by taking probiotics. As research shows, when the microbiota is healthy, it supports the immune system and thyroid function--fantastic news for people who are conscious of thyroid health.
It is almost as good news that you can enjoy mouth-watering prebiotic foods as part of your meal or as tasty and nutritious snacks. As these easy hacks for raw, scrumptious treats show, you don't even need to cook many of those foods to increase your intake.
Ahead, how to support thyroid health with good and simple food choices.
What's the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?
Probiotics are the good bacteria that live in your digestive system. Prebiotics are specialized plant fiber that acts as food for the good bacteria, stimulating growth among the preexisting good bacteria.
Gut microbiome expert Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, explains that two main species of good bacteria live in the human intestines: Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
According to Cresci, the probiotics that we consume as food or supplements contain live microorganisms isolated from humans before culturing in a laboratory. Instead of passing through our digestive tract, they remain in the gut, where they supplement the friendly bacteria already there—the microbiota. Like those bacteria, they are also beneficial to our health.
Prebiotic foods provide these good bacteria with the nutrition they need not just to survive but to thrive.
So, where does the thyroid fit into all of this?
Your microbiota and your thyroid
The health of your microbiota links to your thyroid function. That link is what Jovana Knezevic explored, alongside other researchers in the Department of Internal Medicine's Division of Endocrinology and Diabetology at the Medical University of Graz, Austria. Their findings are in the research paper entitled Thyroid-Gut-Axis: How Does the Microbiota Influence Thyroid Function.
According to Knezevic, common autoimmune thyroid diseases such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease often coexist with Celiac disease and Non-celiac wheat sensitivity. One reason for this connection is that antigens can cross-react with tissues outside the intestines. Antigens can also trigger the immune system more easily because of intestinal barrier damage, making the intestine more permeable.
Also, microbiota composition influences the availability of micronutrients essential for the proper functioning of the thyroid. Knezevic writes that vitamin D helps with immune response regulation. At the same time, selenium and zinc play an essential role in converting T4 to T3. Iodine, iron, and copper are all needed for the synthesis of thyroid hormones.
Patients with autoimmune thyroid disease often have deficiencies in those micronutrients, affecting their thyroid function. Bariatric surgery can further complicate matters, preventing your body from absorbing enough of those nutrients.
Knezevic's team found enough evidence of the interplay between gut microbiota and thyroid disorders to conclude that physicians should take the microbiota into account when treating thyroid patients. According to the paper, patients with thyroid disorders showed improved thyroid hormone levels and thyroid function after taking probiotic supplements.
As we've seen, you need to consume prebiotic foods in addition to probiotics if you want to support your microbiota.
Easy prebiotic food hacks
As mentioned above, upping your intake of prebiotic foods doesn't need to be a chore; certainly not when you use these raw but delicious easy hacks. Our suggestions aren't exhaustive. There are plenty of other prebiotic foods, many of which also make good snacks. Don't be afraid to do some exploring and experimenting with plant-based recipes.
The pectin fiber in apples makes them great prebiotic food. They contain fructooligosaccharides (a microbiota-feeding sugar) and inulin, another prebiotic fiber. Additionally, apples provide antioxidants and protection against high cholesterol.
Snack on a raw apple after giving it a good wash, or slice it up with other fruits to make a sweet salad. Alternatively, slice it up with—or instead of—a banana before mixing it with yogurt, honey, fruit, or sweetener, if desired.
Sometimes thought of as a bit of a fancy dish, asparagus doesn't always need blanching, boiling, or grilling for you to enjoy it. Simply snap the fibrous base off the bottom of the spear at its natural weak point, wash the asparagus, and snack on it raw or give it a little squirt of lemon juice. Aside from having a hefty protein content of 0.141 oz per 8 stalks, asparagus is full of folate, other B vitamins, and fiber.
Bananas are an excellent prebiotic food for a couple of reasons. They contain natural fibers that provide food for your microbiota and contain B vitamins, vitamin C, and potassium. They also soothe the gut.
If you're worried about digestibility, choose bright yellow bananas rather than those that still have some green in the skin. Peel a banana and eat it raw for a nutritious snack, or slice it up and mix it with some probiotics-rich yogurt, honey, and fruit. Alternatively, you can also freeze the banana and then use it in a smoothie.
It's high time cabbages' associations with stinky, over-cooked slop get left in the past. The vegetable is inexpensive, lends itself to various uses, and is rich in vitamin C, B, alkalizing minerals, and natural prebiotics. The real benefit of cabbage as a prebiotic is in its high content of microbiota-feeding fiber. Use washed large raw leaves as wraps with a filling of thinly sliced green and red cabbage, grated carrot, and microgreens. Another option is to salt and ferment cabbage to make sauerkraut or kimchi.
A note about cabbage
There is a myth that cruciferous veggies are bad for your thyroid. Cruciferous vegetables are a diverse group that includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, arugula, Brussels sprouts, collards, watercress, and radishes. These vegetables are high in goitrogens, which many believe block iodine intake in the thyroid gland. Iodine is essential for healthy thyroid function. However, those whose diets contain adequate iodine (which is most of us in iodine-sufficient countries like the United States) can safely consume these vegetables in reasonable amounts.
With a bit of creativity, you can take our simple suggestions for tasty prebiotic foods and turn them into something that suits your unique tastes.