Diet, Nutrition and Exercise for the Thyroid Patient
Article by Robyn Koumourou, author of "Running on Empty"
A well balanced diet, adequate nutrition and regular exercise is a must for all human beings. The food we eat, the water we drink and the oxygen we breathe are the key ingredients to sustain life and keep our bodies and minds healthy.
These elements become even more important for those who suffer with any chronic health condition, as they can also be the key in helping the body heal itself and restore normal function, and should be a part of any treatment protocol.
Many thyroid patients are particularly concerned with diet, nutrition, weight and exercise. Dealing with a medical condition that upsets the hormonal balance and produces myriad symptoms can be overwhelming. Thyroid disorders can affect any or every part of the body. The type of symptoms a person experiences depends on human individuality, which is influenced by genetics, upbringing, environment, diet and lifestyle. Therefore, when it comes to any treatment protocol, a multifaceted approach needs to be taken and a treatment program developed that is tailored for the individual. There is not just one diet and exercise regime that will work for all thyroid patients, and thyroid disease can contribute to poor health and weight problems in many patients.
Challenges Facing Thyroid Patients
To function normally, the cells of our body use thyroid hormones to convert oxygen and food into energy, heat and living tissue. When the thyroid gland becomes underactive or overactive and the metabolism either slows down or speeds up respectively, thyroid patients often have to deal with a multitude of symptoms that affect them emotionally, mentally and physically. Many experience overwhelming tiredness, exhaustion and generalised weakness, and it is not unusual for them to suffer with varying forms of depression, memory loss and poor concentration. As their body struggles to metabolise food properly, they often lose their appetite, develop poor eating habits, and have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. Regular exercise can become almost impossible due to profound fatigue, poor muscle strength, and overall aches and pains. Digestive disturbances can also become more pronounced, with upset stomachs, bloating, indigestion and nausea. Stubborn constipation or diarrhoea can develop as food moves through the system at an irregular pace. These abnormalities in digestion can contribute to the poor absorption of nutrients and irritable bowel problems.
Other symptoms that thyroid patients can experience include headaches, fluid retention and shortness of breath, numbness and tingling, chest pain and heart palpitations, skin conditions and hair loss, frequent infections and sometimes imbalances with other hormones within the body. As a thyroid condition progresses more serious problems can also arise, such as changes in cardiac function, elevation of blood pressure and blood cholesterol, poorer glucose controls, and generalised congestion and inflammation throughout the body. Quality of life is often compromised when a thyroid condition is overlooked or poorly treated. It is fairly easy to understand why many thyroid patients become increasingly inactive, have poor exercise tolerance and eventually suffer from nutritional deficiencies. The earlier they are diagnosed and treated appropriately, the less likely they will develop other complications or more serious conditions.
People often associate thyroid conditions with difficulty with weight control. Generally hypothyroidism causes weight gain and hyperthyroidism causes weight loss. The changes in metabolism depend on the severity or duration of the condition with a resulting greater change in weight. The majority of thyroid patients would probably fit into one of these two categories, with a small number of individuals having little, if any, effects on their weight.
People with hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease tend to lose weight more easily due to their body’s metabolic rate being faster than normal. Often their appetite increases and more foods are consumed to meet the body’s demand for fuel and energy. If the amount consumed is not large enough to keep up with the increased metabolism, weight loss will occur. I’ve often heard a Graves’ patient comment “I can eat whatever I like and never put on weight”, beware - you may have to eat your words. Unfortunately, around 50% of patients treated for their hyperthyroidism, with medication, RAI or surgery, tend to eventually gain weight. Therapies for hyperthyroidism are aimed at reducing the activity of the thyroid gland and restoring hormone levels to normal. When the metabolism decreases, so too does the body’s need for fuel (food) and adjustments to dietary intake may be required. A person’s weight may only increase slightly and then stabilize at a point that Mother Nature always intended. For others, the weight gain may be more significant and a healthy diet and a regular exercise regime may need to be instigated. A further complication for people with active hyperthyroidism is that higher levels of thyroid hormones, contribute to loss of bone and muscle mass, often leading to osteoporosis earlier in the adult years.
People with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis tend to gain weight more easily due to their body’s metabolic rate being slower than normal. This is often associated with a reduced appetite, they eat less, yet gain weight and/or have extreme difficulty losing it. This factor alone can cause considerable concern and frustration. In hypothyroidism the body’s demand for fuel (food) is decreased and what is consumed is poorly metabolised. Hypothyroidism is often associated with insulin resistance with fat being stored around the abdomen area. I often hear “I eat like a sparrow and exercise everyday, but my weight won’t budge”. Approximately 75% of hypothyroid patients gain weight as their thyroid condition develops. Thyroid hormone replacement therapy is aimed at restoring hormone levels to normal to increase metabolism and assist with weight control. However, the excess weight gained during low thyroid activity may not drop away easily and may still require a disciplined diet.
THYROID WA would like to thank Robyn Kouroumou for her permission for the article.