By Cherie Calbom, M.S. and Brian Shilhavy
Many Americans suffer from symptoms such as cold hands and feet, low body temperature, sensitivity to cold, a feeling of always being chilled, headaches, insomnia, dry skin, puffy eyes, hair loss, brittle nails, joint aches, constipation, mental dullness, fatigue, frequent infections, hoarse voice, ringing in the ears, dizziness, loss of libido, and weight gain, which is sometimes uncontrollable.
Approximately 65 percent of the U.S. population is overweight; 27 percent is clinically obese. Research is pointing to the fact that an underactive thyroid might be the number one cause of weight problems, especially among women.
The Truth About Fats and Oils
Many dietary oils can negatively affect thyroid health. We cook with them almost every day and they are plentiful in commercially prepared foods. Expeller-pressed or solvent-extracted oils only became a major part of the American diet in the last century. It is possible they are among the worst offenders when it comes to the thyroid. They are known as vegetable oils or polyunsaturated oils. The most common source of these oils used in commercially prepared foods is the soybean.
Large-scale cultivation of soybeans in the United States began after World War II and quickly increased to 140 billion pounds per year. Most of the crops are produced for animal feed and soy oil for hydrogenated fats, such as margarine and shortening. Today, it is nearly impossible to eat at restaurants or buy packaged foods that don’t have soy oil in the ingredients. Often labels simply state “vegetable oil.”
Ray Peat Ph.D., a physiologist who has worked with progesterone and related hormones since 1968, says that the sudden surge of polyunsaturated oils into the food chain post World War II has caused many changes in hormones. He writes:
“Their [polyunsaturated oils] best understood effect is their interference with the function of the thyroid gland. Unsaturated oils block thyroid hormone secretion, its movement in the circulatory system, and the response of tissues to the hormone. When the thyroid hormone is deficient, the body is generally exposed to increased levels of estrogen. The thyroid hormone is essential for making the ‘protective hormones’ progesterone and pregnenolone, so these hormones are lowered when anything interferes with the function of the thyroid. The thyroid hormone is required for using and eliminating cholesterol, so cholesterol is likely to be raised by anything that blocks the thyroid function.”
There is a growing body of research concerning soy’s detrimental effect on the thyroid gland. Much of this research centers on the phytoestrogens (“phyto” means plant) that are found in soy. In the 1960s when soy was introduced into infant formulas, it was shown that soy was goitrogenic and caused goiters in babies. When iodine was supplemented, the incidence of goiter reduced dramatically.
However, a retrospective epidemiological study by Fort, et al. showed that teenage children with a diagnosis of autoimmune thyroid disease were significantly more likely to have received soy formula as infants (18 out of 59 children; 31 percent) when compared to healthy siblings (nine out of 76, 12 percent) or control group children (seven out of 54; 13 percent).
When healthy individuals without any previous thyroid disease were fed 30 grams of pickled soybeans per day for one month, Ishizuki, et al. reported goiter and elevated individual thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels (although still within the normal range) in thirty-seven healthy, iodine-sufficient adults.
One month after stopping soybean consumption, individual TSH values decreased to the original levels and goiters were reduced in size.
For more information about the effects of soy in the modern diet, see the Weston A. Price foundation Web site.1
Coconut Oil: A Healthy Choice
Traditionally, polyunsaturated oils such as soybean oil have been used for livestock feed because they cause the animals to gain weight. These oils are made up of what is known as long-chain fatty acids—the kind of fatty acids that promote weight gain.
Coconut oil, on the other hand, is a saturated fat made up primarily of medium-chain fatty acids. Also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), medium-chain fatty acids are known to increase metabolism and promote weight loss. Coconut oil can also raise basal body temperatures while increasing metabolism. This is good news for people who suffer with low thyroid function. There have been scores of testimonies to this effect.
One happy individual writes:
“I am just now jumping on the coconut oil bandwagon (about three weeks now) and I’m really starting to feel GREAT! I have suffered from severe migraines for the past 25 years, the last 15 becoming increasingly severe, coinciding with the addition of soy and the ‘low-fat mentality’ to my diet. Nothing helped! I should be experiencing my pre-menstrual migraine by now and instead I feel like I could climb Mt. Everest! Also I wondered if it decreased the waist to hip ratio because mine has gone from 7.2 all my life to 7 (or something like that). I think I had the sluggish thyroid too, with a low body temperature of between 96 and 96.8. Now it’s starting to climb for the first time in years.
Thank you … Sincerely, V. Potter”
For more stories and information, see the coconut-info discussion group.2
How MCTs Promote Weight Loss
Several studies have shown that MCTs promote weight loss. One study showed that rats fed long-chain fatty acids (LCTs) stored body fat, while rats fed MCTs reduced body fat and improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance… In March 2003, this same journal published findings that medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. The study was conducted with twenty-four healthy, overweight men with body mass indexes between 25 and 31 kg/m. They consumed diets rich in MCT or LCT for 28 days, each in a crossover randomized controlled trial. Those consuming MCTs lost more weight and had more energy than those consuming LCTs (in this case olive oil).
An earlier study in 2002, The Journal of Nutrition came to the same conclusion. They reported that MCTs are more readily oxidized in the liver than LCTs, which leads to more energy and less weight gain. The study concluded that MCTs increase energy expenditure, may result in faster satiety, and facilitate weight control when included in the diet as a replacement for fats containing LCTs.
Scores of people have discovered the benefits of MCTs firsthand. Sharon writes the following to the coconut discussion group:
“I have had the same problem with sluggish metabolism and weight gain since having children. Even a no-calorie diet (fast) for 5 days did not work. As soon as I started taking Virgin Coconut Oil, the fat began to melt and I have lost 20 pounds. Over the same period of time, my 13-year-old daughter who was very chubby and very worried about it, but could not bring up the self-control to renounce some of her favorite fatty foods, lost about 10 pounds. She now has the perfect figure, to her great joy! Pants she was bulging out of a year ago hang loose on her!”
Coconut Oil and Oxidative Stress
One of the reasons the long-chain fatty acids in vegetable oils are so damaging to the thyroid is that they oxidize quickly and become rancid. Food manufacturers know about this propensity towards rancidity and, therefore, highly refine their vegetable oils. Considerable research has shown that trans fatty acids, present when vegetable oils are highly refined (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated), are especially damaging to cell tissue and can have a negative effect on the thyroid as well as health in general.
Because the longer chain fatty acids are deposited in cells more often as rancid and oxidizing fat, impairment of the conversion of thyroid hormone T4 to T3 occurs, which is symptomatic of hypothyroidism. To create the enzymes needed to convert fats to energy, T4 must be converted to T3.
Dr. Ray Peat says:
“When the oils are stored in our tissues, they are much warmer, and more directly exposed to oxygen than they would be in the seeds, and so their tendency to oxidize is very great. These oxidative processes can damage enzymes and other parts of cells, and especially their ability to produce energy. The enzymes which break down proteins are inhibited by unsaturated fats; these enzymes are needed not only for digestion, but also for production of thyroid hormones, clot removal, immunity, and the general adaptability of cells.
The risks of abnormal blood clotting, inflammation, immune deficiency, shock, aging, obesity, and cancer are increased. Thyroid [hormones] and progesterone are decreased.
Since the unsaturated oils block protein digestion in the stomach, we can be malnourished even while ‘eating well.’ There are many changes in hormones caused by unsaturated fats. Their best understood effect is their interference with the function of the thyroid gland. Unsaturated oils block thyroid hormone secretion, its movement in the circulatory system, and the response of tissues to the hormone.
Coconut oil is unique in its ability to prevent weight-gain or cure obesity, by stimulating metabolism. It is quickly metabolized, and functions in some ways as an antioxidant.”
Because coconut oil is saturated and very stable (unrefined coconut oil has a shelf life of about three to five years at room temperature), the body is not burdened with oxidative stress as it is with the vegetable oils. Coconut oil does not require the enzyme stress that vegetable oils do, preventing T4 to T3 hormone conversion, not only because it is a stable oil, but also because it is processed differently in the body and does not need to be broken down by enzyme dependent processes as do long-chain fatty acids.
Also, since the liver is the main place where damage occurs from oxidized and rancid oils that cause cell membrane damage, and since the liver is where much of the conversion of T4 to T3 takes place, eliminating long-chain fatty acids from the diet and replacing them with medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil can, in time, help in rebuilding cell membranes and increasing enzyme production that will assist in promoting the conversion of T4 to T3 hormones.
More research in this area is necessary. In the meantime, those switching from polyunsaturated oils to coconut oil are reporting many positive results. For example, Donna has experienced encouraging improvements in her thyroid health. She writes:
“I’ve been on coconut oil since September 2002 and, although, that doesn’t seem like long, it has changed my life and the lives of my family and friends. My weight actually went UP when I started on coconut oil but I felt so GREAT! Being hypothyroid, I was on Synthroid and Cytomel and had been for years, but with inconsistent results and feeling worse. Other changes besides the addition of coconut oil were the complete removal of soy (and that is a major challenge in itself!), all trans fatty acids, no refined sugar, and organ cleanses seasonally.
My thyroid meds were discontinued with my doctor’s knowledge as I was getting too energetic and having trouble sleeping! [Imagine], from being a ‘sleepaholic’ couch potato that was cold! My weight stayed steady until the last three weeks and it has now started the downward move. My goal was health and just believed the weight would come off when I found the right diet and exercise routine that my life was comfortable with. I’ve tried removing the coconut oil but my energy drops and I don’t feel as good. Donna”
“I have been taking VCO [virgin coconut oil] for about two to three months. Before the VCO, my thyroid results were borderline low. After two months of one tablespoon a day[of coconut oil], they are now mid-normal range. They have never been this high. I do NOT take any thyroid. ALSO my cholesterol is still the same as well as my LDL. BUT my HDL [the good cholesterol] rose 10 whole points from 43 to 53! This is a miracle for me. Lori”
Coconut oil has helped scores of women who are menopausal. Several women who were post-menopausal suddenly began having their menstrual cycles start again, which is evidence that coconut oil does indeed increase hormone production.
Another happy lady writes:
“I have experienced the same problems as you. Body temperature not going above 97 degrees, cold hands and feet, can’t lose weight, fatigued, slow heart rate, can’t sleep some nights, dry skin, etc…. My doctor did the same test and it came back normal. I am also 46 and perimenopausal. My Naturopath symptomatically diagnosed me with hypothyroidism.
She explained the blood tests currently used by allopathic medicine are not sensitive enough. I started on the [coconut] oil 5 weeks ago.
In the first week, I noticed my body temperature had risen and my resting heart rate had gone from 49 to 88 beats per minute. This has since settled to 66. My energy is now really high and I am slowly losing the weight–three pounds in the past five weeks. I also had been taking flaxseed oil and gamma linoleic acid oil but have stopped eating every other oil but what Raymond Peat recommends, which is coconut oil, olive oil and butter (obviously using the last two very sparingly). I take 3 tablespoons of coconut oil daily. I have discussed this with my Naturopath and have given her all the written material on it. She’s very open to knowing more about it. Cindy”
These testimonies are from the coconut-info discussion group.3
Hypothyroidism Reaching Epidemic Proportions
In 1995, researchers studied 25,862 participants at the Colorado statewide health fair. They discovered that among patients not taking thyroid medication, 8.9 percent were hypothyroid (underactive thyroid) and 1.1 percent were hyperthyroid (overactive thyroid). This indicates 9.9 percent of the population had a thyroid problem that had most likely gone unrecognized. These figures suggest that nationally, there may be as many as 13 million Americans with an undiagnosed thyroid problem.
In her book Living Well With Hypothyroidism: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Tell You… That You Need to Know, Mary Shomon quotes endocrinologist Kenneth Blanchard, M.D., of Lower Newton Falls, Massachusetts as saying:
“The key thing is … doctors are always told that TSH is the test that gives us a yes or no answer. And, in fact, I think that’s fundamentally wrong. The pituitary TSH is controlled not just by how much T4 and T3 is in circulation, but T4 is getting converted to T3 at the pituitary level. Excess T3 generated at the pituitary level can falsely suppress TSH.”
Hence, many people who are simply tested for TSH levels and are found to be within “normal” range are, in fact, suffering from thyroid problems that are going undetected.
Ridha Arem, M.D., associate professor of medicine in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Baylor College of Medicine, agrees. He says that hypothyroidism may exist despite “normal range” TSH levels. In his book The Thyroid Solution, he says:
“Many people may be suffering from minute imbalances that have not yet resulted in abnormal blood tests. If we included people with low-grade hypothyroidism whose blood tests are normal, the frequency of hypothyroidism would no doubt exceed 10 percent of the population. What is of special concern, though, is that many people whose test results are dismissed as normal could continue to have symptoms of an under active thyroid. Their moods, emotions, and overall well-being are affected by this imbalance, yet they are not receiving the care they need to get to the root of their problems. Even if the TSH level is in the lower segment of normal range, a person may still be suffering from low-grade hypothyroidism.”
Thus, if we were to include those who may be suffering from “low-grade hypothyroidism,” the number could well be double the 13 million estimate.
The statistics on thyroid cancer in the United States also tell a disturbing tale. Since 1990, cancer statistics (see http://seer.cancer.gov/) show that the overall thyroid cancer incidence across all ages and races in the United States has been subject to a statistically significant annual increase of 1.4 percent, per annum. That increase was highest amongst females (1.6 percent per annum). Also worth noting is the fact that between 1975 and 1996 the incidence of thyroid cancer has risen 42.1 percent in the United States.
This increase was particularly notable in women and most recent figures as of 1996 show that the incidence of thyroid cancer has climbed to 8.0 per 100,000. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes that “the preponderance of thyroid cancer in females suggest that hormonal factors may mediate disease occurrence.”
Especially alarming is the rate of thyroid cancer among children. The NCI publication Cancer Incidence and Survival among Children and Adolescents: United States SEER Program 1975-1995 has reported that the most prevalent carcinoma in American children and adolescents younger than 20 years was thyroid carcinoma at 35.5 percent—more prevalent than the highly publicized melanomas (30.9 percent). Approximately 75 percent of the thyroid carcinomas occurred in adolescents 15 to 19 years of age.
What Is Causing This Epidemic?
While more research needs to be done, it is generally accepted that diet plays a major role in thyroid health. For decades, we have known that low iodine intake leads to low thyroid function and eventually to goiter. Iodized salt was intended to solve this problem, but it has not been the answer. There are a number of foods known as goitrogens that block iodine. Two goitrogens are quite prevalent in the American diet—peanuts, peanut butter and soybeans used most often in prepared foods as textured vegetable protein (a refined soy food) and soybean oil.
The rise of industrialization, corporate farming, and mass production of food has drastically changed our food supply from what our ancestors ate. Many studies show the detrimental effects of refined sugars and grains on our health. These foods are very taxing on the thyroid gland, and we consume them in large quantities.
Environmental stress such as chemical pollutants, pesticides, mercury, and fluoride are also tough on the thyroid. A growing body of evidence suggests that fluoride, which is prevalent in toothpaste and water treatment, may inhibit the functioning of the thyroid gland. Additionally, mercury may diminish thyroid function because it displaces the trace mineral selenium, and selenium is involved in conversion of thyroid hormones T4 to T3.
Correcting Thyroid Problems
Rather than simply taking thyroid medication, it is very important to identify the underlying causes of low thyroid. You may need to take medication until you have corrected the underlying problem, but simply taking thyroid hormone replacement drugs for a lifetime does not feed the thyroid or correct the problem. David Frahm, N.D. says, “instead of feeding the thyroid and bringing it back into full function in the body, they’re [medications] simply by-passing it.”
He says that this does help increase energy to some degree when the body is supplied with some of the hormones it is supposed to make on its own, but none of these drugs actually restore thyroid function. Since the thyroid makes a hormone called calcitonin that allows for absorption of calcium, people who just take thyroid hormone replacement drugs won’t fix the underlying problem and calcium absorption will be impaired. Often, these people will experience bone loss, and this is the best explanation as to why many people with hypothyroidism also experience osteoporosis.
Before discontinuing thyroid hormone replacement medication, always check with your doctor. In the meantime, there are a number of things you can do to feed your thyroid and improve its health. You may not have been diagnosed with hypothyroid, but you may experience a number of the symptoms associated with this condition that result from an undernourished thyroid gland. As you incorporate thyroid supporting solutions into your daily routine, watch for signals that your thyroid is beginning to improve such as rapid heartbeat and a rise in body temperature. Dr. David Frahm addresses such symptoms as a “healing crisis.” At this point, if you are taking thyroid medication, it would be wise to consult your physician for retesting.
Determining Low Thyroid
If you’ve read this article and some of the symptoms ring true for you, but you are not sure if you have low thyroid, take your body temperature for four mornings in a row before you get out of bed. Shake down a glass thermometer to below 95 degrees and place it by your bed before you go to sleep. Upon waking, place the thermometer in your armpit for a full ten minutes. It is important to move as little as possible during this time. Remain still with your eyes closed. Don’t get up for any reason.
After ten minutes, record the temperature and date. This should be done for four consecutive mornings. Individuals with normal functioning thyroids have a basal body temperature between 97.6 and 98.2. Basal body temperatures below this range may reflect hypothyroidism.
What You Can Do to Nourish Your Thyroid
A number of nutrients and foods have been shown to contribute to healthy thyroid function. As you incorporate these into your diet, you should notice an improvement in your thyroid health.
Eat Only Healthy Fats and Oils
A number of health professionals now recommend that we eat only coconut oil, virgin olive oil, and butter. It is best to eat olive oil and butter sparingly. Coconut oil can be used in place of butter on toast, for example. Coconut oil is one of the most stable oils because of its medium-chain triglycerides. It will not easily turn to trans fatty acids when heated, making it one of the best oils for cooking. Avoid all other cooking oils. Never eat margarine. And read every label on packaged foods. If vegetable oil or soybean oil is listed, don’t buy it.
Be aware that most commercial salad dressings contain soybean oil or another polyunsaturated oil. You could benefit from preparing your own salad dressings and taking them with you when you travel or eat out. If that is not possible, ask for lemon slices and olive oil and prepare your own on the spot. Restaurant fried foods are particularly worrisome because the oils used are heated to very high temperatures and often used over and over for deep-frying. They are loaded with trans fatty acids. Whenever you can, prepare your own healthy foods at home and control the ingredients.
Many people have improved their thyroid health, have lost weight, and increased their energy by including two to three tablespoons of virgin coconut oil in their diet. There are a number of ways to do this. Cooking with the oil is the obvious method and it tastes great with every food from sautéed onions or vegetables to eggs to baked dishes.
You may also want to add one or two extra tablespoons of the oil to your diet daily. Smoothies are one way to accomplish this. You could try my Low-Carb Coconut Smoothie. I have also developed 101 smoothie recipes available in The Ultimate Smoothie Book. You may also wish to try my Coconut Treats recipe.4
Consume Plenty of Iodine-Rich Foods
Iodine is most abundant in sea vegetables, fish, seafood, and eggs. You can find a variety of dried sea vegetables at most health food stores, Asian markets, and some grocery stores. Add a strip of kombu to soups or bean dishes; sprinkle black seaweed on salads or add to soup. Season foods with dulse or kelp powder in place of salt. Eat more fish, especially the smaller coldwater fish, such as salmon (avoid farm-raised), mackerel, halibut, sole, and snapper. Avoid the larger fish such as tuna and swordfish; they tend to be higher in mercury. Choose cage-free, hormone and antibiotic-free eggs; they’re healthier.
Take Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
A number of nutrients have been shown to contribute to thyroid health; they include zinc, selenium, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin A. Margaret Ames, Ph.D. says in her paper “Thyroid Health: Do You Have Hypothyroidism?” that individuals with hypothyroidism have been shown to have an impaired ability to convert beta-carotene to vitamin A, so care should be taken to include supplementation of vitamin A in addition to beta carotene.” She also adds that selenium is involved in conversion of T4 to T3 and low selenium levels could lead to low T3 levels. Because mercury will displace selenium, I would suggest a heavy metal detoxification program especially if you have had mercury amalgam fillings, have eaten a lot of tuna, or have been exposed to mercury in any other manner.
Juicing Can Help
Vegetable juicing can be particularly helpful in restoring health to the thyroid as well as the entire body. Radishes and radish juice can be quite beneficial. A sulphur compound found in the radish is a regulator of thyroixine and calcitonin (a peptide hormone). When enough of this sulphur compound is circulating in the bloodstream, the thyroid is less apt to over- or under-produce these hormones. A steady diet of radishes and radish juice can be quite beneficial. Try my Thyroid Tonic, which is the juice of carrots or cucumber, celery, radishes, and lemon. To that you can add a dash of powdered kelp or dulse for a boost of iodine.
Cranberry is another helpful juice. Because the bogs of Massachusetts where cranberries are grown are near the sea, cranberries contain iodine—35 parts per billion according to The Journal of Biochemistry (79:409-11; 1928). You can juice cranberries with a low-sugar apple such as pippin or Granny Smith and add a squeeze of lemon for an absolutely delicious cranberry juice cocktail and, unlike the store-bought cranberry juice (except for cranberry concentrate), it will not have added sugar. For other juice recipes, see my book The Juice Lady’s Guide to Juicing for Health (Avery, 1999).
As we nourish our thyroid, we also want to avoid the foods and substances that can tax this important gland or interfere with nutrient absorption. Following are a few suggestions that can make an important difference in thyroid health. Additionally, there are some lifestyle interventions that can be very beneficial for the thyroid.
Excessive ingestion of certain foods can block iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland; these include: turnips, cabbage, mustard, cassava root, pine nuts, millet, peanuts, and soybeans. Until your thyroid health is restored, you may want to avoid these foods completely. When your thyroid is healthy again and you no longer have symptoms, you could include them occasionally, but I recommend that you never eat them daily. The foods to watch out for most are soybean oil in salad dressing, textured vegetable protein used as a filler, and peanut butter. These products are included in many commercially packaged foods. It is interesting to note that in Asian cultures soy is only eaten in small quantities and in forms that have been fermented.
Omit All Refined Grains, Sugar, and Substances That Tax the Thyroid
Foods that are the most taxing on the thyroid are foods many Americans eat every day such as refined grains, sugar and sweets, caffeine (coffee, black tea, sodas, and chocolate), hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, and alcohol. Avoid all refined grains such as white and wheat bread, rolls, biscuits, pancakes, pizza dough, pasta, and buns. The peanut butter sandwich is a perfect example of a really bad choice for the thyroid—refined grain bread and peanut butter—a goitrogen.
Avoid sugar in all forms such as white granulated sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, molasses, fructose, and brown rice syrup. Use stevia, an herbal sweetener, instead that can be found at most health food stores. Avoid desserts. In addition, emotional stress (anger, grief, guilt, anxiety, and fear) can be very taxing on the thyroid. Other things that are taxing include: giving birth, environmental stress such as industrial pollutants, pesticides (a clear case for buying organic foods!), heavy metals, Candida albicans (yeast overgrowth), and medical stress (radiation, X-rays, and drugs).
Limit Exposure to Fluoride and Mercury
It is beneficial to avoid fluoride and mercury as much as possible. To that end, a water filtration system that removes fluoride and other chemicals is worth the purchase. Buy toothpaste from a health food store that is fluoride free. Get mercury amalgam fillings removed from your mouth. And choose smaller coldwater fish such as salmon and halibut that usually have less mercury.
Many people have benefited greatly from various cleansing programs such as colon cleansing, the liver cleanse, gallbladder cleanse, kidney cleanse, and the heavy metal detox. My 7-Day Liver Cleanse may be particularly helpful because a well-functioning liver can really benefit your thyroid since much of the T4 is converted to T3 in the liver. A congested liver will not perform functions such as this efficiently.
Exercise is particularly important in the healing of hypothyroidism. Exercise stimulates thyroid gland secretion and increases tissue sensitivity to thyroid hormones. Choose exercises that fit your energy level. You may start by walking and perhaps taking a stretch class. Weight-bearing exercise is particularly important to prevent osteoporosis. Work up to exercises such as step aerobics or fast walking that get your heart rate up—excellent for the cardiovascular system. Exercise has been shown to increase metabolic rate, an important aspect in weight loss. Jumping on a rebounder (mini trampoline) is very beneficial for the organs and lymphatic system. Whatever you do, get up and move. Your energy will improve as you do more exercising, even if it’s just for 15 minutes to begin.