Is your thyroid making you gain weight?


If you’re gaining weight without eating any more, feeling tired, get constipated a lot, suffer from dry skin and feel cold most of the time even when it’s a warm day, you could have an under active thyroid (hypothyroidism). Around 1 in 50 women develop an under active thyroid and it tends to be most common in women aged over 40.

The thyroid gland situated in your neck, helps control your metabolism which in turn controls your weight. Your thyroid produces a number of hormones, the most important being thyroxine (also called T4).   Thyroxine, an inactive hormone, becomes activated when converted to triidothyronine (called T3).  Your thyroid gland is like a thermostat that regulates your body temperature and tells your body to burn calories and use energy. It is the T3 hormone that makes the metabolism work faster and burn fat.  An underactive thyroid may be caused by one of two things: either your pituitary gland is not producing enough thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) or your thyroid is not working properly. 


How can you tell if your thyroid isn’t working properly?


If you answer ‘yes’ to four or more of the following questions, your thyroid gland could be underactive. Ask your doctor for a blood test, which can establish how well your thyroid is functioning.


  • Has your weight gone up gradually over months for no apparent reason?
  • Do you often feel cold?
  • Are you constipated?
  • Are you depressed, forgetful or confused?
  • Are you losing hair or is it drier than it used to be?
  • Are you having menstrual problems?
  • Are you having difficulty getting pregnant?
  • Have you noticed a lack of energy?
  • Are you getting headaches?


If a blood test does not show that you have an under active thyroid, you may only have a mild problem, which could go undetected in a blood test. In most cases healthy diet and lifestyle changes (see below) will get your thyroid back on track.


The other way to test whether you have low thyroid function is to measure your temperature. If your temperature is too low, it may indicate that you have a sluggish metabolism caused by an underactive thyroid. Aim to take your temperature once a day for three days. If you have periods you should take your temperature on the second, third and fourth days of your cycle. A woman’s body temperature rises after ovulation so it would not give a clear picture if done later in the cycle. If you are not menstruating, take your temperature on any three consecutive days.


Put a thermometer by your bed before you go to sleep (a mercury thermometer is fine but there are some good electronic ones on the market). When you wake, lie still in bed and take your temperature before drinking or visiting the bathroom. Put the thermometer in your armpit and leave it until it bleeps. If you are using a mercury thermometer, leave it for 10 minutes. If your average temperature over the three days falls below 36.4ºC (97.6ºF), your thyroid may be under functioning and you should consult your doctor or health professional immediately.


The thyroid diet


As with so many conditions concerning hormonal imbalance the first line of treatment is dietary. While no diet works for everyone, the same is true with a thyroid-supportive diet. In general, however, the better the quality of your diet, the healthier your thyroid gland will be, as well as every other gland, organ and cell within your body. More specific dietary recommendations are outlined below.


Unhelpful Foods

You don’t need to cut them out of your diet completely but foods to eat LESS of as they may interfere with thyroid function are: cabbage, kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, mustard, lima beans, sweet potato, peanuts, and soya products, so keep these to a minimum. These foods are called goitrogens which means they can block the uptake of iodine (see below) and make thyroid problems worse. These foods only seem to be a problem when they are raw and eaten excessively, so make sure they are cooked well and eat in moderation.


Avoid Stimulants

A diet that is heavy on the consumption of alcohol, caffeine and sugar will over-stimulate the thyroid, and this overwork leads to the thyroid eventually being unable to fulfil its function. Cutting back on sugary foods and drinks, limiting or eliminating alcohol and caffeine and eating a healthier balanced diet will give your thyroid the break it needs to rejuvenate and start working properly.



Since it takes more energy to break down protein than carbohydrate and fat, it is easy to see that your metabolic rate increases in relation to protein intake. Hence, a healthy thyroid diet entails eating good sources of such as fish, legumes, egg, nuts and seeds.  An adequate intake of protein will also deter the hair loss that often accompanies an underactive thyroid condition.



The recommended daily amount of fibre is 25 grams a day. Since fibre slows down the rate at which food, including simple carbohydrates, is digested, getting this quota is important for keeping insulin production in check when incorporating a thyroid-friendly diet into your lifestyle. High fibre foods include lentils, kidney beans, apples, pears, broccoli, cauliflower, green leafy vegetables, whole grains (which naturally contain bran rather than adding in refined bran), almonds, and flaxseed (linseed) to name a few.



In general, a multivitamin and mineral is essential in the thyroid diet (choose one that is appropriate for your age, if you are over 45 then MenoPlus is a good one, see the Resources page) but the following specific nutrients also help optimise healthy thyroid function.



This mineral is a necessary component of T3 and T4. Iodine combines with the amino acid tyrosine and gets converted into the two thyroid hormones. For this reason, getting sufficient amounts of iodine through fish, seaweed and shellfish is critical for the optimal function of the thyroid. It is well documented that a diet low in iodine is associated with hypothyroidism or under-active thyroid. The best supply of iodine is from sea salt and seaweed. In Japan, for instance, the daily intake of iodine from seaweeds is estimated to average 3mg per day and thyroid disorders are known to be extremely rare.


Herbalists have traditionally used bladderwrack which is a sea weed rich in iodine to help with under active thyroid. Some studies show that a combination of iodine and vitamin E is most effective in boosting thyroid function.  If you take too much iodine you can actually make an under-active thyroid condition worse.  I would recommend that you see a qualified practitioner to help with thyroid problems.



Increasing your intake of selenium has also been shown to boost thyroid function as selenium; along with zinc are both essential for the prevention of diminishing T3 hormone levels. T3, remember, is the active thyroid hormone which burns fat. If your T3 levels are low, your metabolism inevitably slows down. You can boost your intake of selenium by eating foods such as whole wheat bread, brazil nuts, tuna, onions, tomatoes and broccoli. Include some of these foods on a regular basis in your diet.



One study in Italy revealed that supplementing the diet with zinc improves thyroid function. Many patients with hypothyroidism have low levels of zinc, and the study demonstrated that over 50% of patients given zinc supplementation experienced improved thyroid function which reduced the incidence of clinical hypothyroidism.


Hypothyroidism and Toxic Materials

Preliminary studies have found an association between multiple chemical sensitivities and hypothyroidism. One study found a correlation between high blood levels of lead, a toxic heavy metal, and low thyroid hormone levels in people working in a brass foundry. Many of these people also complained of depression, fatigue, constipation, and poor memory (symptoms of hypothyroidism). Occupational exposure to other chemicals has also been associated with decreased thyroid function



Physical activity is especially important if you suffer from an under-active thyroid because it can help speed up your metabolism and boost weight loss. A daily 30 minutes of brisk walking, building up to 45 minutes is fine. If you currently take regular exercise, it will help to increase what you do by just 10 minutes extra per day.


Reduce Stress

Stress is thought to be a contributing factor to the development of hypothyroidism. This is because high cortisol levels released when you are stressed reduce levels of the thyroid hormone T3.  Added to this, high levels of cortisol will urge your body to break down muscle to provide glucose for your brain and the less muscle you have the slower your metabolism will be. Stress management techniques such as breathing, meditation and yoga are all recommended. Another great way to reduce stress is to take regular exercise. Taking regular time out is also crucial.


Master of your metabolism

Remember, the thyroid hormone is the master metabolism hormone. And even if your thyroid is functioning healthily eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help keep it healthy and functioning optimally.


If your thyroid is out of balance, your metabolism is out of balance too and this will make any attempt at weight loss tough. You may be prescribed medication by your doctor, and this can work alongside your new eating habits to help resolve your difficulties. However, in my experience, even while on medication, weight loss is slower than normal, so it is VERY important to stick closely to a healthy eating plan AND take regular exercise.


Whether or not you have a thyroid problem it is important to eat healthily, exercise regularly and ease up on stress to keep the thyroid working as well as possible to keep your weight under control, and help you feel better.

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