Whether you want to believe it or not, a gluten free hypothyroidism diet might be just what you need to start feeling better.
“Gluten depresses thyroid activity.” What?!?! Yep.
When I first heard this statement years ago, I was floored. I didn’t realize at the time how food could directly impact the hormonal system.
Your Thyroid Health & a Gluten Free Diet: What you Need to Know
Though gluten’s impact on thyroid function still isn’t widely accepted as “fact” yet, an increasing number of medical professionals (both Western and Eastern) are sharing their expertise and success using a gluten-free diet to alleviate at least some of the symptoms of thyroid imbalances.
Meanwhile, many people in the gluten-free community acknowledge experiencing problems with their thyroid. They go to their doctors seeking answers for not feeling well, but the rate of improvement from what I’ve been able to gauge in talking to folks is not one of true success. The bottom line seems to be that despite seeking help, folks are met with a lack of tangible answers for what’s causing their thyroid to go off kilter and medication options that don’t really resolve the root problem.
Ultimately, you feel out of control. Your hormones don’t cooperate, the medications have unpleasant side effects and you don’t feel like you get any straight answers.
Before you start thinking that all is lost, keep on reading because it is my belief that you can take back control and start to feel better.
Why’s Your Thyroid So Important?
If you happen to be one of the many people out there who doesn’t really know what your thyroid is, where it’s located in your body, nor what it does, then here a quick crash course.
You are born with one thyroid which is a gland situated at the base of your neck. It’s an integral part of your hormonal or endocrine system which can affect nearly every cell in your body. According to Bastyr University, “Thyroid hormone (Triiodothyronine or T3) regulates our metabolic rate and is associated with modest changes in body weight and energy levels. Major targets of thyroid hormone are the skeleton, the heart and the metabolic machinery of every cell.” 
Here’s why you (and all your friends and family) should care about this — the statistics around the incidence of thyroid issues are alarming. Though it might not be ‘sexy’ enough to make it on to the nightly news, “an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. Up to 60 percent of these people are unaware of their condition. One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime,” according to acupuncturist Chris Kresser. 
What’s more disturbing is that “Levothyroxine, a synthetic form of thyroid hormone, is the 4th highest selling drug in the U.S.,” Kresser shares.  If that’s the case, what’s the real motivation to help people overcome (and dare I potentially suggest … heal) thyroid imbalance because we all know that money talks in the world of drugs.
Thyroid Disorders – What’s the Difference?
You may hear the terms hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid function) thrown around, but there’s different conditions that produce these two scenarios. Here is a brief explanation of the more common issues:
Hashimoto’s Disease (a condition that can cause hypothyroidism or low thyroid) is much more common of the thyroid issues and is also called “chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis”. In this instance, your body creates antibodies that attack your thyroid tissue which is why this is considered to be an autoimmune condition. Hashimoto’s primarily affects middle-aged women, though some men and children can also end up with it. 
Graves’ Disease (the most common form of hyperthyroidism) primarily affects women under the age of 40. Basically, your thyroid overproduces thyroid hormones and the prescribed treatment according to standard care is to depress or inhibit thyroid hormone production. 
Subclinical Hypothyroidism is not necessarily considered to be an autoimmune condition, but “is characterized by serum levels of TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) above the statistically defined upper limit of reference range, with normal concentrations of thyroid hormones and without severe clinical features of hypothyroidism. The prevalence has been reported to be between 4 and 20% of the adult population” and can be due to a genetic mutation according to the authors of an Italian study titled “Non-autoimmune subclinical hypothyroidism due to a mutation in TSH receptor: report on two brothers” published in January 2013 in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics. 
The Connection of Celiac Disease and Thyroid Disease
It’s been well-documented that there is a prevalence of celiac diagnosis in patients who present with Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases, particularly Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. In one study, patients who switched to a gluten-free diet showed an “excellent clinical and histological response [which] was recorded with an improvement of hypothyroidism and reduction of the thyroxine dosage.” 
Another study found that “thyroid disease was 3-fold higher” in those with a celiac diagnosis and the authors suggested that “the greater frequency of thyroid disease among celiac disease patients justifies a thyroid functional assessment.”  That’s a hard statement to ignore, yes?
Meanwhile, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness dedicated an entire page on their site to this issue and state that “the prevalence of celiac disease in patients with autoimmune thyroid disease is 4 to 15 times greater than that in the general population.” The reason is that thyroid problems share a genetic predisposition with Celiac Disease which could go either way – Hashimoto’s or Graves’. 
Just Gluten Sensitive? You Aren’t Safe Either.
But you aren’t necessarily safe from thyroid disfunction if you’ve not been diagnosed with celiac disease.
A diagnosis of an autoimmune thyroid disease like Hashimoto’s may very well show signs of improvement assuming that you’re 100% gluten-free compliant (sorry, there’s no wiggle room here on this one). 
Dr. Datis Kharrazian covers this topic extensively in his book “Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? When My Lab Tests are Normal”. According to Dr. Kharrazian, “Because the molecular structure of gluten so closely resembles that of the thyroid gland, the problem may be one of mistaken identity. Every time undigested gluten mistakenly slips into the bloodstream, the immune system responds by destroying it for removal.”
Don’t think a lack of celiac diagnosis is your “Get out of jail FREE” card. It’s not. Gluten sensitivity can cause a ton of issues and may be something to consider if you don’t even know if you’re sensitive.
At the end of the day, many out there agree that part of a thyroid treatment include removing gluten.
Signs and Symptoms that Your Thyroid Function is Off
Hashimoto’s symptoms from the Mayo Clinic website:
- Fatigue and sluggishness
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Pale, dry skin
- A puffy face
- Hoarse voice
- An elevated blood cholesterol level
- Unexplained weight gain
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness, especially in your shoulders and hips
- Pain and stiffness in your joints and swelling in your knees or the small joints in your hands and feet
- Muscle weakness, especially in your lower extremities
- Excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia)
- Enlarged thyroid gland which forms a goiter
- Forgetfulness, slowed thought processes
Graves’ Disease symptoms from the Mayo Clinic website:
- Difficulty sleeping
- A rapid or irregular heartbeat
- A fine tremor of your hands or fingers
- An increase in perspiration or warm, moist skin
- Sensitivity to heat
- Weight loss, despite normal eating habits
- Enlargement of your thyroid gland (goiter)
- Change in menstrual cycles
- Erectile dysfunction or reduced libido
- Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
- Bulging eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy)
- Thick, red skin usually on the shins or tops of the feet (Graves’ dermopathy)
- Graves’ ophthalmopathy (more than 1/2 of people diagnosed with Graves’ show signs for this issue)
I checked in with my own nutritionist Samantha F. Grant, CN about her suggestions for folks looking for the right testing. Her suggestions include getting a blood test from your Doctor with the following data:
1) Thyroid levels: TSH, Free T3 and Free T4, Reverse T3, Thyroid antibodies (known as anti -TPO and TgAb).
2) Iron levels: Ferritin, % Saturation, Total Iron Binding Capacity and Serum Iron.
3) Vitamin levels: B12, Folate and Vitamin D3.
Then see if your doctor has the capacity to do saliva testing to check your Cortisol levels throughout the day. If not, Samantha has the capability to do that testing for you regardless of where you live along with the other levels as well. She’s tested my Cortisol levels twice in the past and the results were shocking.
You’ve got to be your own advocate here.
Samantha suggests that if you’re experiencing the symptoms mentioned above, go get checked. Ask for “a comprehensive thyroid panel – not just TSH. TSH doesn’t tell the whole story of how your thyroid is functioning. Most labs set the range for TSH 0.4 – 4. That is a HUGE range. The optimal range is between 1.0 – 2.0.”
She adds that “if your doctor says your labs are normal, make sure the tests reflect all of the markers. If your doctor doesn’t agree, find another practitioner to help. If you have hypothyroidism, there are treatment options such as the use of bio-identical thyroid hormones that are considered the gold standard in Functional Medicine. Addressing underlying nutrient deficiencies and other hormonal imbalances such as cortisol, can help your thyroid function more optimally.”
I’ll also add that many Functional Medicine practitioners I’ve heard lecture have said that also controlling blood sugar spikes helps as well. Avoid sugar-laden or starchy breakfasts and snacks. Focus on real food and consider avoiding soy because it’s got a number of problems that can worsen your issues.