All too often, we underestimate the power of the thyroid. This tiny, butterfly-shaped organ, which sits at the base of our neck, plays a major role in a myriad of basic functions in our body, including making and regulating hormones that control our energy, metabolism, body temperature, mood, and heart rate, among other things.
Since the thyroid has a hand in so many body processes, it’s no surprise that when it’s off-kilter a host of unpleasant symptoms and health concerns can follow suit, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N.
In the case of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), in which the thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormones, you might experience fatigue, weight gain, joint and muscle pain, lower heart rate, increased cholesterol levels, dry skin and hair, sensitivity to cold, and heavy periods in women, explains Blakely. Meanwhile, if your thyroid is overactive (hyperthyroidism) and producing too much thyroid hormone, you may experience rapid heart rate, weight loss, loose stools, anxiety, irritability, shaking, hair loss, sensitivity to heat, and/or missed or light periods in women.
An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, and as many as 60 percent have not received a diagnosis, per the American Thyroid Association (ATA). Thankfully, a healthy diet that’s rich in the right nutrients goes a long way. Here, nutrition experts break down some of the key nutrients that support thyroid health.
This mineral certainly doesn’t get as much attention as, say, magnesium, but it’s crucial for a healthy thyroid. Unfortunately, approximately 30 percent of the world population is low on it, per the ATA.
Our body cannot make iodine on its own, so it’s important that we consume it from foods like iodized salt, seaweed, dairy, and eggs, notes Toronto-based naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose, N.D. “If you don’t get enough iodine in your diet, your thyroid function can become slowed, leading to hypothyroidism,” she says.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that adults consume 150 micrograms of iodine per day—and that amount increases to 220 and 290 micrograms for pregnant and nursing people, respectively.
In addition to eating iodine-containing foods regularly, you might also consider either switching from regular salt to iodized table salt or taking a multivitamin that contains iodine, Rose suggests.
One of the most well-known of the nutrients that support thyroid health is selenium. This trace mineral helps protect the thyroid gland from inflammation and works with iodine to form thyroid hormones, explains Pittsburgh-based dietitian Laura M. Ali, R.D. “Because it is a powerful antioxidant, it is also important for supporting our immune system and protecting the thyroid from free radicals lurking in the environment that can cause oxidative stress,” she explains.
The NIH recommends that adults get 60 to 75 micrograms of selenium a day. Luckily, most Americans do get enough from food sources, which include seafood, nuts (particularly Brazil nuts), beans, eggs, and mushrooms.
Your thyroid releases two key hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), both of which can be better balanced with adequate levels of zinc, according to functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. “Zinc is important for converting T4 to T3—and low T3 levels can lead to hypothyroidism,” she explains.
The daily value for zinc is 11 milligrams for men and eight for women, per the NIH. This jumps up to 11 and 12 milligrams for pregnant and nursing women, respectively. She recommends getting your fill of zinc from red meat, shellfish, legumes, and pumpkin seeds.
Maintaining balanced zinc levels is important, as too much zinc can actually deplete your body of copper, which it competes for absorption with, warns Rodgers. She recommends getting your levels checked, and if you decide to supplement, 20 milligrams of zinc with two milligrams of copper is a good place to start.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids
In addition to fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and trout, you can also find some omega-3s in plant-based foods like walnuts and chia seeds, notes Ali. Bonus: “All these foods also contain iodine, selenium, and zinc so you are getting more bang for your buck when it comes to thyroid health by adding them to your diet,” she says. “It is recommended that adults aim for 250 milligrams of the omega-3s DHA and EPA (found in seafood) or 1.1 to 1.6 grams of ALA, the plant form of omega-3s, each day.”
You may already know that iron is an important mineral that helps carry oxygen from your lungs throughout the rest of your body, but you may not realize the important role it plays in thyroid health. “Studies have confirmed that thyroid peroxidase (TPO), a protein found in thyroid cells, diminishes in individuals who have an iron deficiency,” explains functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T.
The daily recommended amount for iron is eight milligrams for men and women over age 51. Women between the ages of 19 to 50 (the reproductive years), meanwhile, should get 18 milligrams when not pregnant, 27 milligrams when pregnant, and nine during lactation, per the NIH. You can get your share of iron from shellfish, spinach, red meat, and legumes.
Volpe recommends having your iron levels checked at your yearly physical and discussing a plan with your healthcare provider for how to supplement, if needed.
6. Vitamin D
Research, including one study published in the International Journal of Health Sciences, has shown a strong link between vitamin D deficiency and thyroid disease. And, seeing that an estimated 40 percent of Americans are low on vitamin D, there’s no time like the present to double-check your levels and do what you need to in order to boost your status and support your thyroid.
Read More: 7 Signs You Have A Vitamin D Deficiency
The daily recommendation for vitamin D for adults is currently 600 to 800 IU (or 15 to 20 micrograms). The issue there? “We primarily make vitamin D from sunlight exposure and get very little from food,” Blakely says. “And, many people spend a lot of their time indoors, or wear sunscreen, which blocks vitamin D production.” That’s why she recommends getting at least 15 to 30 minutes of sun exposure daily and supplementing with 1,000 to 2,000 IU (25 to 50 micrograms) to help keep levels in a healthy range. “If your levels are already low, you may even need additional supplementation to get them up,” she adds.
Of course, eating vitamin D-rich foods such as egg yolks, fatty fish, and UV-exposed mushrooms can help move the needle, too.
Magnesium plays several roles in the body, one of which is assisting with iodine uptake by thyroid cells, explains Blakely. While true magnesium deficiency is uncommon, falling short can contribute to decreased iodine uptake, and consequently, thyroid issues, per research published in the journal Cureus.
The daily recommendation for magnesium is 320 milligrams for adult women and 420 milligrams for adult men, per the NIH. Food sources include whole grains, dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds, milk, and yogurt.
“Unfortunately, some people do not meet magnesium recommendations through diet, and magnesium can be depleted through stress and exercise,” Blakely says. “I recommend supplementing 200 to 400 milligrams daily, taken at least two hours apart from other minerals (including a multivitamin).” Her go-to options: magnesium glycinate and powdered magnesium citrate.
“Tyrosine is an amino acid (building block of protein) with a critical role in thyroid hormone manufacturing,” says Rose. In fact, to make thyroid hormone, the thyroid gland actually combines tyrosine with iodine. And though tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid, which means you don’t have to get it from food, Rose often recommends tyrosine supplementation to patients with slowed thyroid function.
Before taking tyrosine, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your healthcare provider, who can guide you towards a daily amount that is ideal for you. (Many often start you around 500 milligrams per day, Rose says.)