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What Lifestyle Changes Should You Make with An Underactive Thyroid?
March 2, 2020
An underactive thyroid, also known as hypothyroidism, doesn’t produce enough hormones and so causes symptoms like depression, fatigue, and weight gain.
In this blog, we explore the diet and lifestyle changes you can make after an underactive thyroid diagnosis.
Could I Have Prevented It?
The simple answer is no. Often an underactive thyroid is caused by your own immune system attacking your thyroid gland, resulting in damage or it becomes damaged during some treatment regimens for an overactive thyroid or cancer. Lyn Mynott, CEO of Thyroid UK says, “The most common form of an underactive thyroid is Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition”.
The good news is, it can be treated. You will be prescribed a daily hormone, levothyroxine, in the form of tablets to replace the thyroxine your thyroid isn’t making enough of.
Lifestyle Changes You Can Make to Live Well with Hypothyroidism
Your treatment will help with the lack of hormones in your body, but making simple lifestyle changes will help you to live well with the condition, too.
There is no specific diet to follow or any specific foods which will help treat thyroid disorders. Instead, you should eat a balanced and varied diet.
Add plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein into your daily diet. Foods such as these will keep your body functioning well and are healthier than processed alternatives.
If you struggle with your energy levels during the day, consider eating smaller meals throughout the day rather than 2 or 3 large ones.
Eating a good diet is important if you have hypothyroidism as it can help to relieve some of the symptoms such as fatigue. Weight gain is also a common side effect of the condition as it causes cellular metabolism to slow down, so your resting energy expenditure is decreased. Therefore, eating well will help you to maintain a suitably healthy weight.
There are some foods, however, which can affect the absorption of levothyroxine and these should be avoided. The following foods should be consumed with caution:
- If you want to consume soya try to leave a long interval between eating soya and taking levothyroxine.
- You should leave it for 4 hours between consuming calcium and thyroxine.
- If you’re conscious about your weight, opt for lower-fat versions of dairy products, but remember these are still high in calcium.
- Kelp is naturally high in iodine and is often marketed as a thyroid booster.
- If you have a thyroid condition it will be of no benefit for you.
- You should avoid iodine if you have hypothyroidism as it can make the condition worse
Some studies have shown an association between coeliac disease and autoimmune disorders including thyroid disorders. Therefore, opting for a gluten-free diet may help to manage the symptoms. Lyn Mynott adds, “there is a link between Hashimoto’s and gluten, so many patients find that going gluten-free really helps their symptoms”.
An untreated underactive thyroid can reduce your exercise capacity because one of the key symptoms is fatigue. Exercise is also an important treatment option for an underactive thyroid and can help to improve its function as well as your wellbeing.
Exercise has many benefits. Hypothyroidism is associated with weight gain, so exercise helps to increase the metabolism of cells which, in turn, increases the number of calories being burned, helping to keep your weight down.
Plus, exercise has been shown to be effective at alleviating the symptoms of depression, another consequence of hypothyroidism and “reducing stress is a good idea, too”, says Lyn. Exercise can be a great way to relieve stress!
Individuals with an underactive thyroid often don’t get enough sleep or when they do, it’s not of good quality. Therefore, it is important to take steps to try to improve your sleep pattern.
- Aim for eight hours of sleep by going to bed at the same time every evening and setting an alarm to wake you at the same time every morning.
- Avoid mobile phones and screens at least half an hour before bed, opt for something more relaxing like reading instead.
- Improve your sleep hygiene by ensuring your room is quiet, dark, and cool.
Sleep deprivation can have a profound impact on the immune system. Chronic partial sleep loss may have more of an adverse effect on our immune function than short-term sleep loss. This is an important consideration in terms of an underactive thyroid because it often caused by your own immune system attacking the thyroid gland.
Having an underactive thyroid doesn’t have to be the end of the world, with effective pharmacological treatment and changes to your lifestyle it is a condition that can be successfully managed. Lyn Mynott, adds, “Not everyone resolves all of their symptoms on the standard medication for an underactive thyroid, levothyroxine. If you still feel unwell on levothyroxine, discuss the possibility of a referral to an endocrinologist so that you can discuss the addition of liothyronine, another thyroid hormone”.
- Bansal, A., Kaushik, A., Singh, C, M., Sharma, V and Singh, H. (2015). The Effect of Regular Physical Exercise on the Thyroid Function of Treated Hypothyroid Patients: An Interventional Study at a Tertiary Care Center in Bastar Region of India. Archives of Medicine and Health Science: 3(2), pp 244-246.
- British Thyroid Foundation. (2018). Thyroid and Diet Factsheet. Available at: http://www.btf-thyroid.org/information/108-thyroid-and-diet-factsheet
- Bryant, P, A., Trinder, J and Curtis, N. (2004). Sick and Tired: Does Sleep Have a Vital Role in the Immune System? Nature Reviews Immunology: 4, pp 457-467.
- Ch’ng, C, L., Jones, K and Kingham, J, G, C. (2007). Celiac Disease and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease. Clinical Medicine and Research: 5(3), pp 184-192.
- Cooney, G, M., Dwan, K., Greig, C, A., Lawlor D, A., Rimer, J., Waugh, F, R., McMurdo, M and Mead, G, E. (2013). Exercise for Depression (Review). The Cochrane Library: 9.
- NHS Inform. (2018). Underactive Thyroid. Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/glands/underactive-thyroid.
- Sabini, E., Biagini, A and Molinaro, E. (2015). Thyroid Dysfunction and Physical Activity: Clinical and Therapeutic Implications. JSA: 1, pp 20-24.
This information has been medically reviewed by Dr Thom Phillips
Thom works in NHS general practice and has a decade of experience working in both male and female elite sport. He has a background in exercise physiology and has published research into fatigue biomarkers.
Dr Thom Phillips
Head of clinical services
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