For people who have an underactive thyroid, also called hypothyroidism, losing weight can be a long and difficult – but not impossible – process. You may have to work a little harder than someone with a normal thyroid, but there are some steps you can take to get on track and kick off your weight loss journey, even with hypothyroidism.
Your thyroid and you
The thyroid, part of the endocrine system, is a butterfly-shaped gland located near the lower front of the neck. The endocrine system is made up of glands and organs that are responsible for releasing hormones into the bloodstream and signaling for them to travel to different parts of the body. The endocrine system is similar to the nervous system in the way it controls and regulates some bodily functions, but the endocrine system uses hormones as chemical transmitters, unlike the nervous system, which uses nerves and neurotransmitters.
The endocrine system helps regulate several bodily functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, growth and development, sexual function, and metabolism. The thyroid is the gland that controls your metabolism, working to produce hormones like thyroxine and triiodothyronine, known commonly as T4 and T3, respectively. Together, they’re referred to as the thyroid hormones (TH).
When the thyroid is operating normally, it produces the right amount of hormones, and your metabolism acts normally. But when your thyroid is underactive or overactive, your body won’t receive the amount of hormones you need to keep your metabolism running as it should. In the case of hypothyroidism, your thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormones, which usually leads to weight gain and difficulty losing weight.
In some instances, diet and exercise regimens can help get your thyroid back to peak performance, but medications are sometimes needed to regulate hormone production. Only a physician can clinically diagnose thyroid dysfunction, and any medication or supplements to manage thyroid hormones should be managed by your doctor or healthcare team.
Signs of hypothyroidism
When your thyroid gland is underactive, your metabolism slows down; a slow metabolism often translates to weight gain. But there are more signs that you may have hypothyroidism than unexplained weight gain, including:
- Swollen or tender neck – Be aware of any tenderness or swelling on your neck, specifically around the larynx (the small knot in your throat that moves up and down when swallowing). Unusual ear or jaw pain, difficulty swallowing, and a hoarse, raspy voice are also concerns you should bring to your physician.
- Fatigue – Sleep issues and general fatigue are common complaints of people with thyroid issues. With hypothyroidism, you may wake up exhausted even after a “good” night’s sleep, begin to take (or take longer) naps, or constantly feel like you’re fighting to stay awake.
- Stiff joints and muscle cramps – With hypothyroidism, you may have an achiness in your muscles or joints, specifically in your extremities. There’s also research that links rheumatoid arthritis (RA) with thyroid disorders, and RA can cause painful swelling in your joints.
- Depression and anxiety – Mood disorders are not uncommon in people who have undiagnosed and/or untreated hypothyroidism. Depression, anxiety, and diminished concentration may occur in those with hypothyroidism because the thyroid contributes to brain function. An underactive thyroid doesn’t produce enough TH for the brain to function properly, leading to brain fog and irritability.
- Dry skin – Low TH affects rapidly growing cells like hair follicles and skin cells. Low TH interrupts the reception of the growth signals that your skin cells receive from your thyroid, resulting in longer skin cell turnover, which can lead to dry, flaky skin.
- Sensitivity to cold – Hypothyroidism lowers your metabolism, which can lead to a drop in your core body temperature. This can lead to the feeling of being cold all the time, especially in the hands or feet, even in summer months or warmer temperatures.
If you think you may be suffering from hypothyroidism or any thyroid disease, consult your doctor immediately.
Losing weight with hypothyroidism
While it can be more difficult for people with hypothyroidism to lose weight and maintain that weight loss, it’s not impossible. Controlled portion sizes and regular exercise are good advice for the general population, but those dealing with an underactive thyroid can also try these six tips to assist their weight loss efforts:
1. Get enough sleep.
Good sleep health should be a priority for everyone, but especially for people with hypothyroidism. The National Sleep Foundation suggests an average of 7–9 hours of uninterrupted sleep for adults each night. For people with severe thyroid disease, the fatigue they experience can become debilitating and impair their everyday lives.
If you’re currently on medication to treat hypothyroidism and still suffer from a debilitating level of fatigue, you may want to consult your doctor about adjusting your medication.
2. Stay hydrated.
When you feel the need to chug water, the reason is usually that you simply haven’t been drinking enough of it. Spending time in the sun or exercising can also dehydrate you, but this level of dehydration is usually satiated by a glass or two of water. The dehydration that accompanies hypothyroidism can be severe and can exacerbate other symptoms you may be experiencing, like dry skin.
The human body is approximately 60% water, and maintaining and even increasing your daily fluid intake (a recommended 11.5 cups for women and 15.5 cups for men per day) is a good way to keep yourself hydrated. Yes – this is a lot more than the eight cups of water that are usually recommended! If you’re struggling to drink more water, check out these easy ways to make hydrating more flavorful and enjoyable.
3. Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
Hypothyroidism often slows digestive function, causing your body to hang on to fat instead of burning it for energy. Changing the standard three meals a day into smaller, more frequent meals can support your metabolism and balance blood sugar levels. Eating later in the day, when your metabolism is naturally slower, can impede your weight loss efforts, too.
Keeping a food diary or journal can help you remember exactly what you ate and when. Journaling allows you to go back to see what foods you ate on days you felt unwell. Working with a nutritionist can help you best figure out how to make each of your smaller meals as impactful as possible.
4. Stick to whole foods.
While there are several specific diets offered to those dealing with thyroid disease, the more tried-and-true advice is to simply eat whole foods. “While many times doctors will recommend anyone with autoimmune conditions (including autoimmune thyroid diseases) to ditch gluten, it’s best to talk to your specific doctor before you do. For those, like me, who avoid gluten, this bread is just the thing to conquer those bread desires. In addition, it’s full of tyrosine (an important amino acid) thanks to the pumpkin, sunflower seeds, and eggs,” says IIN graduate and Health Coach Kiran Dodeja Smith.
Focusing on lean proteins, vegetables, fermented foods, and anti-inflammatory ingredients is also a safe bet. Some of these foods include:
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Green tea
- Seafood (especially with healthy fats like omega-3s)
5. Keep active.
Exercising regularly is important and complements a healthy diet in order to burn calories, but for someone with hypothyroidism, it can be difficult to maintain a workout regimen. Finding ways to stay active besides going to the gym may be a good alternative. Swimming, hiking, yoga, and biking can all be easier on joints and still get your heart rate up.
6. Explore supplements.
There are several supplements that can help either boost thyroid function or at least mitigate some of the side effects of having an underactive thyroid. As always, consult your personal healthcare provider before starting any new or adjusted supplement regimen:
- Selenium – Found in meat proteins, fish, and rice, selenium has been shown to improve inflammation markers related to hypothyroidism.
- Iodine – Iodine is essential to healthy
- Glutathione – A 2018 study showed the antioxidant glutathione helps fight the oxidative stress that leads to inflammation and can lead to weight loss when combined with dietary changes. Glutathione-rich foods include avocados, spinach, asparagus, and okra.
- Tyrosine – Tyrosine is an important amino acid to include if your thyroid levels are low. Good sources of tyrosine include wheat, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, beef, fish, bananas, cheese, and avocados.
- Curcumin – As the primary component of turmeric, curcumin fights inflammation, promotes a healthy heart, and relieves joint pain associated with chronic diseases, like hypothyroidism.
The bottom line
Losing weight with hypothyroidism is hard; there’s no doubt about it. Work with your doctor to determine the best way to keep your body healthy. Embracing IIN’s core concept of bio-individuality speaks to this idea, too; knowing your body best is the first step in your health journey. Learn more about how an IIN education can help you kick-start this journey by downloading our Curriculum Guide today.