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New Ideas about Diet and Supplementation for Thyroid Health

An interview with Dr. Jason Wexler about his approach to supplementation and thyroid health.

Thyroid disease, in its many forms, seems to be more common today than ever before. In my holistic health coaching practice, whether people come to me for skin issues, weight loss, or other health issues, more than half of them either have an existing thyroid condition or have it in their immediate family health history.

Even I have a family history of thyroid disease

I didn’t learn this until I developed my own subclinical hypothyroid condition during the years I was overweight. Once I told my parents about it, they responded with “oh yeah, so and so in the family had that.” I was really fortunate that my thyroid levels were still considered “normal” in the eyes of most Western medical doctors, meaning they were too low to require medication or operation. After my initial freak out, I took a deep breath and realized this was an opportunity to really see if my condition could be managed—or reversed—naturally. I did a lot of research with many different health practitioners—naturopathic doctors, nurse practitioners, endocrinologists, herbalists, and health coaches who specialize in healing the thyroid naturally. I had already lost a significant amount of weight and felt that I was already doing what I needed to do. I was comforted by the understanding that natural healing takes time—the body knows how to heal itself and will do so if you give it what it needs in terms of proper nutrients, rest, physical activity, and self care. Even though my own condition is now under control, I still continue to pay attention to thyroid articles and studies when I see them pop up, whether they are from Western medicine or the more alternative realm of healthcare. I was offered an opportunity to interview endocrinologist Dr. Jason Wexler, who works closely with The Endocrine Society and I got some great information. I always enjoy asking traditional allopathic doctors questions about natural ways to manage or prevent diseases, because even though it’s not part of their medical education, it’s always good to hear if the latest research supports any of these more natural or preventative measures.

In this conversation, I had two specific areas of focus

Dr. Wexler and I discussed the benefits of a whole foods-based diet in general, in conjunction with healthy lifestyle changes in general—of course we agreed that any changes should complement medical care (I’m sure he was referring to Western medical care but I would expand that to include any properly licensed and qualified healthcare provider). I had two specific topics that I wanted to ask Dr. Wexler:

  1. Are there any supplements or foods that are known to improve thyroid levels or that can worsen them?
  2. Is there any evidence that consuming a large amount of poultry contributes to thyroid disease?

Iodine supplementation might not necessarily be a good thing

I asked the first question because one of the most common remedies for regulating the thyroid is iodine supplementation. In Western medicine this comes in the form of potassium iodine supplements, and in holistic health it comes in the form of kelp supplements or adding sea vegetables to the diet. Dr. Wexler did confirm that the treatment protocol for severe hyperthyroidism does include pharmaceutical strength iodine. However, on the subclinical level, any type of iodine supplementation concerns him. “Iodine-containing substances can exacerbate a subclinical thyroid condition either way—hypo or hyper.”

I then asked him if a diet rich in iodine-containing food or regular iodine supplementation could have a protective or preventative effect regarding thyroid disease. Dr. Wexler responded: “ If thyroid function is normal, it is not clear that these supplements or substances would cause a problem or inhibit disease progression…however many people have an existing subclinical condition and are unaware of it, in which case increased iodine intake would likely make their condition worse.”

Dr. Wexler went on to explain that “we need iodine—it produces thyroid hormone—and there are multiple reasons that a subclinical condition might exist, some of them we know, some we do not yet know.” My thinking cap was on during this interview and at this point in the discussion something clicked from my own holistic perspective.

The thought process went like this: If the body is already getting enough iodine from dietary sources (although the Standard American Diet has many issues, it is still thought to be an adequate source of iodine), and is not able to properly absorb and utilize it to produce the proper amount of thyroid hormone, then how would pouring more iodine into an already malfunctioning system possibly help regulate it? Shouldn’t we go deeper and find the reason WHY the body is not properly utilizing the iodine it already takes in before we flood it with more iodine? I posed this question to Dr. Wexler and he confirmed that it was a legitimate question.

What about other supplements?

Since I know my clients, and many health conscious consumers are always interested in supplements, I asked Dr. Wexler if there is any evidence of benefit from other supplements. He reported that the one micronutrient with positive data is selenium. Specifically, “selenium supplementation may be helpful for women who are either pregnant or postpartum who have tested positive for thyroid antibodies. It has been shown to decrease thyroiditis both during pregnancy and postpartum.

“It has also shown benefit for patients with mild Grave’s Disease (on the hyper side of the spectrum) with the symptom of orbitopathy. Selenium supplementation has been shown to decrease the amount of eye involvement in this condition.” I asked Dr. Wexler about the safety of selenium supplementation and he said that “the daily dosage should NOT exceed 200 mcg. A daily dose above 200 mcg has been linked to development of diabetes.”

The chicken question

You might be thinking “why on earth did she ask him if eating chicken contributes to thyroid disease?” I know. It seems totally random and farfetched. When I was going through my holistic nutrition education, I remembered hearing some study that people in cultures/countries that don’t consume poultry as part of their traditional diets are virtually free of thyroid disease. I even heard the joke that there is no such thing as thyroid disease…it really should be called “chicken eating disease”. I’ve gone back over my course materials and I’ve Googled the heck out of this question but can’t find any specific studies that confirm this. I tried eliminating poultry from my own diet for one month and I have to tell you that I experienced a significant reduction in my own thyroid symptoms. This is a more holistic/Eastern idea, which means that the only “evidence” in existence is probably anecdotal, like my own experience—but I figured I’d ask anyway.

Dr. Wexler had never heard of a thyroid-poultry connection, but he did say that there is a considerable link between soy consumption and thyroid disease. In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism revealed that “excessive soy protein intake demonstrated a 3-fold increase of developing overt hypothyroidism.” Furthermore, soy has been linked to increased estrogenic effects on the body. Dr. Wexler pointed out that the links between high estrogen and thyroid disease have not yet been established in research, but it’s reasonable since thyroid disease is more prevalent in women than men. He also mentioned that certain toxins we take in from foods and personal care products are known endocrine disruptors, which have been shown to increase estrogen over time.

My light bulb went on again here—maybe the link between poultry and thyroid disease only includes conventional and commercially raised poultry. Chickens and turkeys raised in factory farms—even the “nice” factory farms that supply organic and “all natural” chickens and eggs are fed “vegetarian” pellets made primarily from corn and soy. When a person consumes “vegetarian fed” or conventional chicken, he or she is also consuming soy. Soy is also present in nearly all processed foods, many personal care products (soy lecithin is a very common emulsifier in foods and products). If you consider how much soy people actually consume in processed and packaged foods (even “healthy” options) in addition to how much they are taking in by eating eggs, chicken, and turkey, the rising prevalence of thyroid disease makes total sense.

While some of the information provided by Dr. Wexler surprised me, and some of it did not, the overall interview gave me a solid foundation to draw conclusions about a common thyroid remedy, as well as the not-so-common notion that eating poultry causes thyroid disease. Based on Dr. Wexler’s comments, and my own postulation, I will definitely be more cautious with iodine in my own diet. I also now only consume and recommend to my clients traditionally pasture raised poultry products. These can be hard to find even in specialty health food stores, but it’s a great opportunity to form a relationship with a local farmer.

Thank you to Dr. Jason Wexler and The Endocrine Society for the informative and very productive interview.

By Rachael Pontillo, AADP CHC, BS, LE

Rachael is AADP board certified holistic health coach, licensed aesthetician, and wellness entrepreneur. She is the founder of the health and wellness company, Holistically Haute™, LLC and is the publisher of the popular skincare and wellness blog, Holistically Haute™. Additionally, Rachael has had articles published in leading aesthetics trade publications and several leading online magazines. She currently works with individual clients and groups in the Philadelphia area, nationwide and in Canada and teaches classes in the Philadelphia metro area on the topics of natural skincare, health, nutrition, and wellness. Rachael also enjoys public speaking, and has lectured at national holistic health and skincare conferences.

Reference: 

  • The Endocrine Society, 2013
    endo-society.org
  • Massachusetts Medical Society, 2013
    nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1012985

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