Contributor: Carrie Decker, ND
Thyroid problems are extremely common population wide, and are an issue for some in recovery from eating disorders as well. However the type of dysfunction that occurs in the general population and those with a history of an eating disorder are not usually the same.
Thyroid is a hormone associated with metabolism in the body. When the body encounters starvation or an increase of calories as with binging or an increase in feeding, the thyroid adapts to adjust metabolism. The body has these and many other processes in place to adapt to challenges, and support normalization, promoting a balanced weight among other things.
However after a long period of being forced into adaptation with dysregulated eating patterns the thyroid stops being as adaptable, and settles into a new normal state. And then when an individual is in recovery, it continues to take some time for the thyroid (as well as many other hormones in the body) to return to normal.
How Thyroid Problems Occur from Eating Disorders
In recovery from an eating disorder, abnormal thyroid labs can occur due to a lack of nutrients necessary for production and conversion of thyroid hormone, abnormal signaling due to the processes previously mentioned, and abnormal levels of a stress hormone called cortisol in the body.
These same issues can occur in all the population but people with a history of eating disorders are more susceptible to them.
Symptoms of a Thyroid Problem
When individuals are in recovery, thyroid often becomes hypoactive. This may lead to associated symptoms of:
- Feeling cold
There are many other things that may lead to these symptoms as well, but lower functioning thyroid definitely plays a part. Thyroid labs may be near to normal but that may not be sufficient for a person to feel optimal.
Thyroid Problem Treatment
However medication with thyroid hormone is not usually appropriate, as the body is in a state of adaptation. By medicating with thyroid hormone it will not go through the process of re-adapting to normal.
Supporting the body with stress reducing techniques, nutrition, and other interventions such as botanical medicine and homeopathy are all a part of holistic interventions. The first two are things which can be incorporated into self-directed aspects of recovery, and actually are something that most people would benefit from as well!
Cortisol levels are commonly higher in individuals with a history of anorexia nervosa, but can be maladapted in individuals with other eating disorders as well. It is a hormone that increases with stress, and can be stuck in an abnormally high (or low state) with prolonged stress.
High levels of cortisol also affect the activity of active thyroid hormone in the body by inhibiting its function. By engaging in activities to reduce stress, cortisol levels gradually adjust back towards normal.
Activities which support the lowering of cortisol are:
- Gentle restorative or yin yoga
- Tai chi or qigong
- Deep belly breathing (with a prolonged exhale)
Decreasing Mealtime Stress
For people in recovery from eating disorders where mealtimes can easily provoke stress, activities to decrease mealtime stress are also important:
- Sitting to eat meals
- Taking sufficient time for meals
- Smelling food being prepared
- Abstaining from the use of electronic devices during meals
Herbs such as chamomile or digestive bitters are safe herbs to use before meals to promote healthy digestion thereby reducing stress.
The Importance of Adequate Nutrition
Adequate nutrition is important for promoting healthy thyroid function in the body. For some people, including a whole foods multivitamin or iron supplement may be appropriate, as challenges of iron deficiency also worsen aspects of thyroid function.
If you chose to utilize a multivitamin, finding one that is whole food based will be best, as there are many phytonutrients (plant derived nutrients) that are included in these vitamins and not present in other generic multivitamins.
Eating a whole foods based diet (ie minimal processed foods) will go far to help the body meet nutritional needs for all aspects of recovery. Digestive bitters, previously mentioned, taken before meals also help the body to absorb the nutrients in foods.
Nutrients that Help the Thyroid Function
Other specific nutrients which support healthy thyroid function are:
Dietary sources that are high in selenium include Brazil nuts – eating five a day will support adequate intake. The best dietary sources of iodine include seaweed and fish, having a serving of these things daily will support meeting your nutritional needs.
If supplemental selenium and iodine are utilized, 200 mcg of each are appropriate. Zinc is found at higher levels in shellfish and other meats. If zinc is supplemented, it may be done so at a dosage of up to 50mg a day, but should be done so in conjunction with 2 – 3 mg of copper a day.
Additional supplements which support thyroid function by supporting healthy cortisol levels include B vitamins and magnesium. A B complex vitamin with active forms of folate and B12 (methyltetrahydrofolate and methylcobalamin respectively) will support energy levels in the body as well as mood.
Magnesium, found at high levels in leafy green as well as other foods, supports stress and cortisol reduction (as well as healthy bones) and can be obtained by increased dietary consumption or supplementation.
As you can see, there are many parts of lifestyle and nutrition which can be incorporated into recovery from eating disorders. Thinking about diet and nutrition in a positive way as it will support your whole body to heal is important, and will go far to promote long-lasting recovery.
About the Author:
Carrie A. Decker, Naturopathic physician
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Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 5th, 2014
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com