As I’m sure you know, overweight people are often ridiculed for blaming their weight issues on an under-active thyroid gland – also known as hypothyroidism. When people give this “explanation” to account for extra pounds, they are frequently viewed as dishonest – it would seem statistically unlikely that the majority of obesity is due to hormonal causes rather than simple gluttony.
However, it turns out that what many people see as a convenient excuse may actually be true. As surprising as it may seem, hypothyroidism is often partially responsible for weight gain, but for different reasons than you might expect.
The problem is that many people who have an under-active thyroid gland believe that their condition has arisen through faulty genes or bad luck, and that there is nothing that can be done about it other than for a doctor to prescribe medication.
And it certainly does not help that many health professionals and nutrition experts actively perpetuate the myth that sufferers are helpless in their condition. Because, while it is true that a genetic component appears to exist in some cases of hypothyroidism, it is by no means true for the majority of sufferers.
So, it is not just a weak excuse that hypothyroidism may be responsible for weight gain, but the twist is that the function of the thyroid gland can be adversely affected by our habitual eating patterns – we do it to ourselves, in most cases. But is the damage permanent?
Can hypothyroidism be reversed?
In many cases, the cause of hypothyroidism can be traced to poor diet. This does not necessarily imply overeating, and it should be pointed out that there are a number of possible causes of hypothyroidism apart from diet, including stress, infection, pregnancy and anti-psychotic or mood stabilizing drugs, as well as the causes discussed below.
It is notable, though, that some people, having received a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, tend to adopt a fatalistic attitude to both their condition and their diet, feeling that it doesn’t matter what they eat since they are destined to be overweight no matter what they do.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is true that the body’s own immune system will sometimes attack the thyroid gland causing it to become damaged and its function to be impaired, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, constipation and inability to tolerate cold conditions. But, in an increasing number of cases, Autoimmune Thyroiditis can be attributed to diet.
Autoimmune thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease which has hypothyroidism (or hyperthyroidism) as one of its main symptoms. It is more common in societies that have higher levels of iodine in their diet, such as the United States and Japan.
In North America, high levels of iodine in the diet are mainly due to excessive salt intake. In Japan, they are due to the regular consumption of foods rich in iodine, such as seaweed or kombu kelp. In both cases, dietary adjustments can eliminate the symptoms.
So, rather than being an excuse to eat any old junk because it doesn’t matter anyway, a thyroid problem is often a signal from the body that it is not getting the nutrients it requires in the right quantities to function efficiently. It is a call to action to make important lifestyle changes. And, in cases where diet is the cause, it only requires a few simple and entirely painless changes in eating patterns to restore optimum thyroid function and to correct all of the related issues that the body is facing.
The necessary changes do not call for strict rationing or self-denial. In fact, self-denial would be counterproductive. Hypothyroidism can be caused by iodine levels that are either too low or too high. What is required is a properly balanced diet.
As salt is iodized in many western countries, the consumption of large quantities of any foods with a high salt content should of course be avoided. To add a further complication, even in countries where salt is iodized, it is possible to have too little iodine in one’s diet, and therefore develop hypothyroidism.
So, once our excessive salt intake has been reduced, we still need to seek out foods that contain iodine such as kelp, fish and other seafood, yogurt and bananas, in order to ensure that we are getting enough iodine. But there is no need to overdo it.
But what if the drugs don’t work?
Hypothyroidism is treated with thyroxine which can help to alleviate the symptoms of iodine deficiency. However, some people find that they experience no appreciable reduction in weight in spite of hormone replacement. Why does their metabolism not respond to treatment when other symptoms, such as hair loss and dry skin are improved?
One reason is that poor diet may be interfering with the fat burning process. Supplying adequate thyroid hormone doesn’t mean that the metabolism will automatically recover. After all, the consumption of processed foods could severely diminish the liver’s ability to burn fat. This could result in weight gain (or failure to lose excess weight) in spite of restoring thyroxine to normal levels.
And so, a more holistic approach might prove effective in restoring normal weight. If you find that levothyroxine, or whatever treatment you have been prescribed, is having no effect on your weight, removing junk food from the diet and replacing highly refined and processed foods with fresh, natural foods is a good place to start.
It can be difficult to limit take-away food and to eschew restaurants in favor of wholesome home-cooked food but, over time, your discipline will pay off and your weight will reduce to normal. It may surprise you to discover that, even when a serious thyroid condition causes a slowdown in metabolic function, it is still possible to keep weight under control.
You will have noticed that, up to this point, I have not even mentioned exercise, this is not an oversight, rather, it is because, although exercise does indeed provide a boost to metabolism, doing sufficient exercise to counterbalance the effects of an under-active thyroid would be extremely challenging and does, in fact, usually prove too much for many sufferers of the condition, who fail to lose weight by increasing physical activity, regardless of how vigorous it might be.
This article by Mary Shomon mentions weight loss expert, Dr. Lou Aronne who has a theory that he calls Metabolic Resistance. Aronne theorizes that people with long term weight issues have lower metabolic resistance to weight gain than people of normal weight. So, the heavier you are, the greater the tendency of excess calories to turn into body fat.
It’s an interesting theory but, regardless of how seriously you take it, it remains true that a diet high in fiber and complex carbohydrates slows digestion and prevents sharp swings in blood sugar levels that cause sugar to be stored as fat. And when we add a healthy form of protein into the mix, we delay hunger sufficiently for the fats and sugars, stored in the liver after eating, to be consumed for energy rather than being converted into body fat, in spite of a sluggish metabolism.
Speaking of storage in the liver, the liver of a person with hypothyroidism cannot store sugar properly. Under these circumstances, sugar from food can more readily rise to high levels in the blood triggering the release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin causes sugar to be stored as body fat.
To make matters worse, sugar is needed by the liver to convert thyroid hormone into its active form, thus speeding up the metabolism and burning fat at a higher rate. The consumption of refined foods – low in fiber, which turn rapidly to sugar in the body, causes the fat storage process to be set in motion. Conversely, eating foods high in fiber keeps blood sugar levels low and steady, preventing fat storage.
With the right approach, then, it is certainly possible for anyone to lose excess weight, even under the disadvantage of hypothyroidism.
Further Perspectives on Hypothyroidism
In this video, naturopathic doctor, Todd Ferguson shares some valuable information for the treatment of hypothyroidism.