Our thyroid gland is critical to many functions in our bodies – it produces hormones that regulate our metabolism, balance other hormones (e.g. sex hormones), and maintain a balanced calcium level, which is critical for bone health.
Low thyroid hormone level – known as hypothyroidism – can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, dry skin, hoarse voice, elevated blood cholesterol level, unexplained weight gain, muscle aches and weakness, stiffness, heavy menstrual period, brittle hair and nail, as well as depression. Low thyroid level in pregnant women is linked to developmental delay in their children after birth.
Hyperthyroidism – too much thyroid hormone – can result in appetite change, insomnia, frequent bowel movement, increased sweating, irritability, light or missed menstrual period, nervousness, dizziness, tremor, shortness of breath, thinning of hair, even itching and hives.
To maintain healthy thyroid function, make sure you get enough of these nutrients: iodine, selenium, zinc and the amino acid tyrosine. Iodine deficiency is one of the main causes of hypothyroidism.
Foods that support healthy thyroid function:
- Sea vegetables, such as kelp.
- Chlorella and algae
- Good fats such as avocado and coconut oil (especially helpful for hypothyroidism)
- Omega-3 fats, such as salmon and sardine.
- Foods rich in antioxidants (fresh fruits and vegetables) to help neutralize oxidative stress.
Foods and other substances to avoid:
- Foods with goitrogenic properties in moderation if you are diagnosed with thyroid issues. Some examples are cruciferous vegetables, soy products, peaches, strawberries, radishes, spinach and peanuts.
- Non-fermented soy foods (especially processed soy food) are high in isoflavones, which can interfere with function of the thyroid gland. Choose fermented soy products, such as miso, natto, tempeh and traditionally brewed soy sauce because the fermentation process reduces the goitrogenic activity of the isoflavones.
Soy exists in many forms in processed foods. If you eat a lot of processed and packaged foods, you may be consuming a lot of soy without knowing it.
- Gluten can trigger autoimmune responses (including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) in people who are sensitive.
- Foods high in refined, added sugar.
- Isothiocyanates found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are goitrogens as well. While it’s true that large amounts could interfere with thyroid function, especially if eaten raw, these veggies offer a myriad of other health benefits that make the benefits outweigh the risks for most people. If you know you have thyroid disease and want to be particularly cautious, steaming these vegetables will negate the goitrogenic effect.
- High fat animal and dairy products, which often contain higher levels of hormones and hormone disrupting chemicals.
- BPA and other hormone disrupting chemicals (e.g. in plastic packaging) – avoid using plastic wraps, particularly on hot, high fat foods, or using plastic containers as much as possible, especially for hot and acidic foods.
- Artificial sweetener aspartame (brand name Equal) is suspected to trigger immune reaction that causes thyroid inflammation and thyroid autoantibody production.
- Fluoride, which is found in tap water, toothpaste and mouthwash (look for fluoride-free toothpaste) and bromide (found in brominated flour), which complete with iodine for absorption.
Green tea has an effect on metabolism and negative impact on patients with hyperthyroidism. Its effect on patients with hypothyroidism is inconclusive. If you have thyroid issues, it’s best to use green tea in moderation.
The adrenal glands produce hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and DHEA, which help our body adapt to stress, triggering the “fight or flight” response.
The increase of adrenaline level in our bloodstream causes our body to slow down our digestion, repair and maintenance of other normal functions to channel energy into handling stress. Prolonged stress – which means a prolonged increase in adrenaline level – can lead to premature aging, digestive issues, and hormonal imbalance. Increased levels in stress hormones can also upset thyroid balance, calcium balance, and sex hormone balance.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include: chronic fatigue, insomnia, sleep disturbance, feeling overwhelmed, craving for salty and/or sweet foods, sensitivity to light, low stamina, slow recovery from illness or injuries, brain fog, poor digestion, poor concentration, low immune function, low blood pressure, menopause symptoms, sensitivity to cold, allergies, anxiety and irritability, depression, poor memory, low libido, panic attack and short temper.
The adrenal works much harder during times of stress, and prolonged stress can cause the symptoms described above. During stressful times – physical, mental or emotional, increase the intake of vitamins B3, B5, B12, and C to support adrenal health.
To support adrenal health, avoid foods that contain caffeine, theobromine, theophylline or nicotine, including tea, coffee, chocolate and cigarettes. They stimulate the release of adrenaline, which create more “work” for the adrenal gland. Also avoid sugar and any stimulant, which cause blood sugar fluctuations and trigger the release of adrenal hormones.
To maintain adrenal health, develop tools and routines to help you reduce and manage stress on a day-to-day basis. Getting enough rest and physical activities, as well as having a support system that you can turn to, can help the body deal with stressful situations.
Balancing Sex Hormones
The balance between the two female sex hormones – estrogen and progesterone – is critical to maintaining optimal health.
A relative excess in estrogen, known as estrogen dominance, can cause and increased risk of breast cancer, fibroids, ovarian cysts and endometriosis. These are some early warning signs of estrogen dominance: PMS, loss of sex drive, cravings for sweet taste, heavy period, weight gain, breast swelling and fluid retention.
A low progesterone level can create a condition called luteal phase defect – typically defined as having less than the normal 12 to 14 days between the time of ovulation and menstruation. Luteal phase defect can cause fertility problems, making it challenging for a women to conceive.
Estrogen dominance can be caused by excessive exposure to estrogenic substances – which are found in conventionally raised meat (which is most likely hormone-fed), dairy products, many pesticides and soft plastics (BPA, PVC), as some of the chemicals can leach into food when used as containers or for wrapping.
A low progesterone level can also cause estrogen dominance. Stress can affect the production of progesterone by raising the level of cortisol, which competes with progesterone for DHEA (a precursor of progesterone).
To help balance your hormones, make sure to have sufficient intake of these nutrients:
- Essential fatty acids
- Vitamins B3, B6, C, and E, biotin
- The minerals magnesium and zinc
Try to avoid high-fat animal foods (where most toxins with estrogenic effects are stored) as well as plastic containers and wraps for food storage – never heat up foods in plastic containers. Eat soy foods in moderation – substances in soy have an estrogenic effect, and the impact of large quantity of soy on our hormonal balance is still inconclusive.
There are also herbs that can help us balance hormones, relieving PMS and menopausal symptoms:
- Agnus castus
- Dong quai (avoid during luteal phase if you are trying to get pregnant)
- Black cohosh (avoid during luteal phase if you are trying to get pregnant)
- John’s wort
Note: if you are taking any medications or supplements, it’s best to consult a qualified herbalist to ensure that there is no interaction
Holford, P. The New Optimum Nutrition Bible. Crossing Press, Berkley. 2004.
Environmental Toxins and Hormonal Imbalance
There are many hormone disruptors lurking in the products that we use on a daily basis. These chemicals imitate the structure and properties of our hormones, fooling our body by binding to the same hormonal receptors and thereby changing, magnifying or blocking the functions of our natural hormones.
Here are some of the sources of hormone disruptors and ways to avoid environmental toxins that can interfere with our hormonal balance:
- Shop organic as much as possible. If budget or availability is an issue, familiarize yourself with the Dirty Dozen list – you can drastically reduce your exposure even if you just choose organic when purchasing these 12 produce.
- Explore pesticide alternatives for your own gardening/lawn-use.
- Avoid PVC – such as that found in shower curtains.
- Avoid using plastic wrap, or at least minimize its contact with food.
- Reduce exposure to BPA by avoiding plastic containers marked with recycle #7.
- Reduce exposure to phthalates by avoiding soft plastics.
- Never heat food in microwave using plastic container. Use ceramic or glass containers instead.
- Reduce the use of plastic toys.
- Personal care products:
- The “fragrance” in some personal care products can contain phthalates. Read ingredients list carefully, and choose either fragrance-free products or once scented with essential oils. (Note: “fragrance-free” is different from “unscented” – chemicals can be added to products to neutralize the scent, rendering them “scent-less”)
- Heavy metal:
- Reduce lead exposure by checking for lead paint in your home, heating up cold tap water instead of using hot tap water when cooking, and getting the soil tested if you have a garden or a yard.
- Reduce mercury exposure by avoiding fish that has high mercury level, and requesting porcelain, gold, or composite fillings instead of mercury amalgam from your dentist.
Hormone-Balancing Herbs and Diet
A “clean” diet consisting of organic whole foods is your best bet to health. Here are some specific areas to pay attention to when it comes to using nutrition to aid hormonal balance:
- Minimize high-fat animal foods – most of the hormone-disrupting chemicals that the animals ingest are stored in fat cells.
- Purchase organic meat and produce as much as possible to reduce exposure to hormones and pesticides.
- Minimize the use of stimulants such as coffee, tea, chocolate, and cigarettes.
- Avoid foods with refined, added sugar as much as possible.
- Eat foods that are rich in essential fatty acids – seeds such as flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, seed oils and cold-water fish such as sardines and salmon.
- Consider supplementing with evening primrose oil or borage oil.
- Ensure adequate intake of vitamins B3, B6, biotin, magnesium and zinc – consider supplementing if you are not getting enough from your diet.
Many herbs have been used over the centuries to aid hormonal balance. They are generally very safe and effective. However, if you have any medical conditions, or are taking any medications, it’s best to consult a qualified herbalist before starting to use herbs – they are natural, but some can be very potent. Be extra cautious if you are trying to conceive – some of the herbs are not suitable for pregnancy, so you may want to stop their use during the second half of your cycle.
The following herbs help normalize the functions of the endocrine glands, and balance the action of estrogen and progesterone. They are rich in phytohormones and provide the hormonal precursors needed by the body:
- Block cohosh root
- Chaste tree berry (vitex)
- Licorice root
- Milk thistle seed
- Wild yam root
You can also explore the use of herbs that help ease your stress, since stress is one of the main cause of hormonal imbalance in our fast-paced society:
- “Nervine” herbs, which are soothing to the nervous system to encourage calm and relaxation. Examples are chamomile, valerian, lemon balm and oats.
- “Adaptogens”, which condition the nervous system to deal with a broad range of stressors and quickly return to a state of balance once the stressor goes away, without robbing the body of vital nutrients and energy. These include ashwagandha, tulsi (Holy Basil), shisandra Berry, eleuthero/Siberian Ginseng, rhodiola and passionflower.
Holford, P. The New Optimum Nutrition Bible. Crossing Press, Berkley. 2004.
Gladstar, R. Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health. Storey Publishing. 2008.