If you’re struggling with hypothyroidism – or Hashimoto's disease – then your weight may be at the top of the list of things you’d change if you had a magic wand.
Low thyroid function and weight challenges go hand-in-hand. Your thyroid is the master gland behind your metabolism – and the master-blaster of calories – which it tells your body to use for fuel. When your thyroid isn’t revving up enough, it’s just plain harder to lose weight. But being overweight is not something you are stuck with just because your thyroid function is in need of help.
Here are the top 7 things I do in my practice that help my patients turn their weight struggle around in just a few short weeks. These do not involve restricting, starving, eating cardboard-tasting food, or exercising for 2 hours a day. These tips are about dialing into what’s going on at the cellular level – from getting enough thyroid hormone to getting rid of the inflammation that can cause you to gain and retain weight. It’s about getting to the root causes that keep weight on – so that you can take, and keep, it off.
Top 7 Functional Medicine Tips for Weight Loss with Hypothyroidism
Most Americans suffer from the damaging effects of the Standard American Diet (SAD in so many ways), chronic inflammation, and adrenal stress, so chances are, following some or all of the following recommendations will be relevant to you if you're having trouble losing weight. However, sometimes it really is just that your thyroid meds aren't right for you – either the type or the dose – so Tips #1 and #2 are a great place to start.
If you're not sure whether you have a thyroid problem, head on over here for the information that can help you find out.
Tip #1: Check Your Thyroid Labs
Double-check your thyroid labs: If your thyroid isn’t doing its job of firing up your metabolism, it’s going to be nearly impossible to lose weight. The labs you especially want to check are your TSH, Free T3 and your Free T4. Head over to my blog on thyroid labs right here to see the result ranges you want to be in.
Tip #2: Adjust Your Thyroid Medication
If you’re not on thyroid medication and have abnormal or borderline labs with classic hypothyroid symptoms, consider starting on one that’s right for you. If you’re on thyroid medication, make sure it's the right one and at the right dose!
How do you know? If you’re on the right med at the right dose your thyroid labs should be in the right range and you should be feeling pretty good – that means you have energy, your appetite is normal, you’re not losing hair, and showing other signs of hypothyroidism. Thyroid medication often needs adjustment, commonly needs to be increased, and not everyone responds to the same meds – some women need T3 and T4, some need one or the other in various combinations and doses, and some of you might be getting enough thyroid hormone, but might be unable to use it due to thyroid hormone resistance in the cells. Find a physician who will work with you to get on the right medication at the right dose, without “overdosing” you to the point of hyperthyroidism!
Tip #3: Eat Only Real, Healthy Food (& Go Organic)
What we choose to eat is dictated by a lot of factors – emotions, memories, cultural patterns, and habit. What we eat is also dictated by a multibillion dollar food industry that profits by getting us to consume sugar-laden, processed fast foods, snack foods, packaged foods, too much meat, too much dairy, and way too many carbs in the form of rice, pasta, bread, crackers, chips, cakes, cookies, and more. Honestly, I don’t even really like calling some of that stuff food.
When I talk about food, I am referring to real food, the stuff that grows naturally on farms and in gardens, that comes from healthy animals if you eat animal products, and that comes in as little packaging as possible with no artificial ingredients. I mean not a one. This means healthy proteins like organic meats, poultry, and eggs in moderation, beans and legumes, lots of vegetables, small amounts of whole, unprocessed grains like brown rice and millet, nuts and seeds, and good quality fats. Healthy foods give our cells the information that they need to perform their jobs in top shape. When we give them that “other stuff,” and too much of any food, even good food, we can end up with insulin resistance.
Insulin is a hormone produced in your pancreas lets your body take the sugar you are consuming – both the kinds that are found in whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables, and in the form of sweeteners and junk food – into your cells so that they can turn it into energy. When you consume too many unhealthy foods, and too many starches and sugars in general – even the healthy kinds – you can become insulin resistant, meaning that your cells can no longer effectively use insulin. They just don't respond to its signals. This leads to a build-up of sugar in your blood that itself can cause damage, and which your body turns into and stores as fat. That fat tends to go to two main places – around your organs, especially your liver where it causes fatty liver disease (a major problem in our country), and to your waist where it causes inflammation-producing belly fat.
To overcome insulin resistance, you've got to kick the sugar and junk completely out of your diet. Learn to eat a plant-based, nutrition-rich whole foods diet. Don’t let the food industry dictate your choices. Learn to make the healthiest possible choices – so you can live your life with the energy you deserve and the body you want.
So how should you eat? I recommend reading Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Walter Willett to learn about the Mediterranean Diet, The Blood Sugar Solution by Dr. Mark Hyman to undo insulin resistance, The Virgin Diet and Sugar Impact, both by JJ Virgin, and stay tuned for more blogs by me on the subject!
Supplements can also be helpful in reversing insulin resistance. Your doctor can check for insulin resistance with a fasting, 1 hour and 2 hour insulin test, along with glucose testing. I recommend the following be taken daily if you have insulin resistance, 1-2 TBS flax seeds, 2000 mg fish oil, 2000 units vitamin D, 600 mg magnesium glycinate, a B-complex supplement, 300 mg alpha-lipoic acid, and 500 mg of chromium daily. I also recommend including cinnamon and green tea as part of the daily diet; these can also be taken in supplement form to help reduce insulin resistance.
Another important aspect of food (and water) is environmental toxin contamination. Many of the chemicals on in and our foods can interfere with thyroid function, making it harder to lose weight, and also possibly interfering with your thyroid medication. Go organic to the extent that you can afford, and make it a health priority to spend money on good quality food instead of non-esssentials (for example, many adults are spending upwards of $1500/year on “to-go” coffee from Starbucks, or thousands of dollars on soft drinks). Additionally, chemicals in our water, notably fluoride, have been proven to interfere with thyroid function so drink and cook with only filtered water. A reverse osmosis or charcoal filter can easily be fitting onto your kitchen sink, and you can explore the costs of a filter for your whole house if you have your own home.
Tip #4: Learn to Hari-Hachi-Bu
How much we eat is also dictated by a multibillion-dollar food industry that profits by getting us to each twice as many calories as we need daily. Most of us were trained, by what we’ve been served at home and in restaurants, to eat twice as much as we need to. The food industry has specific campaigns that encourage us to overeat, and through lobbying and financial incentives, prevents the government from effectively blocking their advertising messages and strategies.
Hari-hachi-bu is the Japanese concept of eating until one is only 80% full – eating enough to feel comfortable satiety but stopping before you feel “full” – and way before you feel “stuffed.”
Not sure how to stop over-eating? Learn to keep your blood sugar steady to avoid sugar crashes or insatiable hunger, and practice mindful eating to learn to recognize, and stop eating, when you've had enough. Also read EatQ by Susan Albers or Women, Food, and God by Geneen Roth for a deeper dive on emotional eating.
Tip #5: Adios the Inflammation
My dear friend. Tieraona Low Dog, MD explains inflammation something like this: “Imagine a fire in your fireplace – it’s cozy, warm, and heats your living room up just right…now imagine that same fire getting out of the fireplace – that's a disaster.”
Inflammation is an important part of life – it helps us to fight infection, for example. But insulin resistance, chronic stress, chronic exposure to foods that cause inflammation if we’re intolerant like gluten and corn, and for most of us, sugar, as well as on-going exposure to environmental toxins in our food, air ,water, homes, body products and more – all create this same kind of havoc in our bodies, damaging our cells due to a process called oxidative stress, which is like little fires burning out of control throughout our bodies.
To break the pattern, we have to eliminate the triggers I just mentioned, eat only a healthy, whole foods diet rich in a rainbow of fruits and veggies, and sometimes we need supplements, especially antioxidants, to help restore the calm. Antioxidant rich foods include berries (fresh or frozen) and leafy green vegetables; supplements include resveratrol, NAC, and quercetin, as well as vitamin C.
Tip # 6: Nourish Your Adrenals
Your adrenals are two tiny glands that sit on top of your kidneys and control your stress response, partly by producing an anti-inflammatory chemical called cortisol. The problem is that cortisol, just like taking a steroid, wreaks havoc on your insulin, bumps up your blood sugar, makes you gain weight (yup, you guessed it, especially around your belly!), and makes you retain water.
Chronic daily stress, poor sleep, and chronic inflammation from foods in your diet or other causes can all keep your adrenals stuck in the on-position and this can make it really hard to lose weight. How can you nourish your adrenals? Reduce excess stress however you can – walk, do yoga, meditate, write in a journal several times a week, dance hard, have a date with your friend, get better sleep, and consider herbs called adaptogens. You can learn more about them here.
Tip # 7: Get a Move On It!
Ok, I didn’t say you could get away with no exercise – I just said you don’t have to do 2 hours a day! You actually don't even have to exercise, per se, ever. But you do have to move your body. Our bodies were not meant to be sedentary pretty much at all, but most of us sit – well – in reality – for most of the day. We sit in our cars, we sit at our desks, and we sit and watch TV. You know what I mean. All this sitting, or even standing without moving a whole lot, increases inflammation and insulin resistance.
What can you do? Shake it up each day with 15 minutes of dancing – you can close your office door, put on some headphones, and turn on your IPhone. I keep several dance stations at the ready – from a disco station to reggaeton, and I stretch, jump about, and dance. Get your office out for a lunchtime walk – or go by yourself if nobody else wants to walk (aka get healthy!). You can keep some squishy sneakers in your handbag, car, or in your desk. Go for a walk before you settle in at home after work, or go for an after dinner walk. The possibilities are endless, can be fun, and don’t require a gym or fancy equipment. But those can be helpful, too, if you have the time, commitment, and access.
I’ve had tremendous success in my practice helping women with hypothyroidism to lose weight. These women are dedicated to living their lives to the fullest, which means they are willing to do the work of changing their diet, getting enough rest, adding in a bit of movement or some regular exercise. I know how thrilled they are with the results – energy, stable mood, clear thinking – and losing the weight they thought – and sometimes were told – that they just couldn’t take off. You can do it, too!
Wishing you health and success!