We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty — Maya Angelou
One of the scariest things about thyroid disease is that the very world we live in can be damaging this amazing butterfly-shaped gland in our neck, – and without us having a clue until we’re having symptoms or receive a diagnosis.
Now I don't want to be scary, but I also don't want you to be caught by surprise by thyroid disease and not have had a chance to prevent it. One in eight women will develop thyroid disease, the most common form of which is Hashimoto’s. And whether we have a thyroid issue or not, we all live in this increasingly toxic world so we need to know the risk factors that could lead to thyroid problems – and other serious health conditions – down the line. Thyroid disease in women is the modern canary in a coal mine, alerting us that the world around us is compromising our health and well-being – and that of our children! And it can be prevented and the damage halted. But you have to know what is causing it.
Our Planet, Our Health
If you’re thinking, “well, my thyroid is fine,” there's a good chance it it, But keep in mind that thyroid disease rarely happens overnight (it can in the case of certain acute viral infections). It happens as a result of years of accumulated exposure to the triggers that are lurking in our environment – our homes, clothes, body and household products, to name a few places. Even subclinical thyroid function is considered is a health risk that shouldn’t be ignored and may be silently affecting 15 millions or more women. Your thyroid is your body’s metabolic manager, brain (cognitive function, dementia prevention) and heart health champion, and hormone regulator, and in our daughter's, determines their growth, healthy weight, bone , brain, and hormonal development – so it's imperative to keep the healthy at all ages and stages of our lives as women.
In the late 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring warned us that the increasing and wanton presence of industrial and agricultural chemicals in our food, water, air, and homes was going to eventually threaten the health of our ecosystems – and thus human health. Sadly, we now know, she was correct. “In nature nothing exists alone,” Carson wrote – and the same goes for your body. No health condition exists alone, and no one system, organ, or tissue functions alone either. Only today are we recognizing what she prophetically warned us about – and women’s health is paying the ultimate price.
Some of the most common toxins we're exposed to daily are the biggest threats to thyroid health. @avivaromm
In 2016, the Seattle Times reported on the magnitude of our exposure to environmental toxins: “Puget Sound salmon are on drugs – Prozac, Advil, Benadryl, Lipitor, even cocaine.” Researchers found over 80 pharmaceuticals in salmon that may have been destined for our dinner tables, plus residues of personal care products, anticoagulants, fungicides, other antibiotics, and antiseptics. The same contaminants are found widely in drinking water. Yet decontamination methods fail to remove most of them, and decontamination facilities have consistently managed to avert regulations to raise their standards.
Home is Where the Toxins Are
The volume of toxins in home building materials, furnishings, electronics, and the hundreds of individual chemicals in our household cleaners, fuel sources, insecticides, body products, perfumes, and cosmetics mean that the air inside is even more polluted than the air outside. Of the tens of thousands of chemicals in circulation, 90% have never been tested for safety in human health, and fewer than 200 known to be toxic to the nervous system have been tested for safety in vulnerable populations like children, older adults – or newborns.
What you can do now: Drink only filtered water (you can use an under-the-sink reverse osmosis, carbon block water filter in your kitchen), pay now for organic meats and dairy, and purchase only low-heavy metal fish. Learn more about organic choices that are cost-effective at the Environmental Working Group here, and about the safest fish to eat at Seafood Watch here. Paying now may feel like a stretch, paying later with thyroid disease is much more expensive. Also, learn the natural alternatives to common conventional medications so you're avoiding personal exposure, but also not contributing to further environmental contamination.
Exposure Begins Before Birth
How bad is it? The Environmental Working Group analyzed the umbilical cord blood of newborns just a few hours old, and researchers found that 287 environmental chemicals were detectable in the babies’ blood, all “downloaded” though mom’s blood during pregnancy.
What about adults? In its 2009 study on human exposure to environmental chemicals in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that of the 212 chemicals they were looking for, virtually all 2,400 survey participants had measurable levels of those chemicals in their blood or urine. In this survey they added 75 more chemicals than in a previous study – and all were present. It turns out that 100% of us have biologically active levels of BPA in our blood and 95% of us have measurable levels of dioxins, to name a few. The chemical load each of us is carrying is called our “body burden.”
Even minuscule amounts of known toxins can have a profound effect on our health, far greater than many scientists – and governments – had predicted. And the story gets even more complicated. Individual chemicals are combining in our bodies to form new compounds that have never been studied. We have become living labs while agricultural, industrial, and pharmaceutical companies whose lobbyists consistently interfere with federal safety standards to prioritize profit.
It’s a cruel, vicious irony that some of the same companies that make toxins that cause disease also manufacture the drugs used to treat those diseases. Angry? You have every right to be.
Beyond the thyroid, our increasing exposure to toxins has paralleled the rise in cognitive problems from brain fog to Alzheimer’s, hormonal problems including early puberty, endometriosis, PCOS, infertility, premature ovarian failure, and breast cancer, autoimmune diseases, and diabetes. Our personal exposure actually began just after World War II, when many of our grandmothers were pregnant. How? It has been shown that toxin exposure going back one and two generations impacts our genes and our epigenetics. Take DDT as an example. If your grandmother (like so many others) got exposed to it when she was a kid, chasing the trucks that were spraying the chemical to eradicate mosquitoes, it can partly explain why you’re struggling with symptoms now, even though you’re doing your best to be healthy.
Agricultural chemicals (herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics), industrial waste, heavy metals, hormone disrupting plastics, solvents, and flame retardants permeate our air, water, food, soil, clothing, furniture, body products, cleaning products, and electronic devices, and we absorb them. They bind to cells in our immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, and specifically to delicate tissue like our thyroid, damaging their function. We’re now paying the price for all those “technological advances” of the post WWII era. There’s a reason they seemed too good to be true.
These chemicals persist in the environment for decades, and they don’t stay in one place. These toxins have been found thousands of miles from where they were originally used, transported by air, water, birds, large migrating animals, and in the foods we’re transporting around the world. No matter where we live, we’re not immune to exposure. These chemicals are so persistent that even pesticides that were banned in the 1970s still make their way into our foods through soil and animals, and can routinely be found in blood samples of adults and children alike. Persistent organic pollutants concentrate in living organisms through bioaccumulation. They like hanging out in fat, where concentrations can become magnified by up to 70,000 times the environmental levels.
Since women naturally have more fatty tissue than men, we accumulate these toxins at even higher levels. (Women’s predilection to thyroid disease is linked to our natural tendency to carry more fat, which you should know is a metabolically active part of the endocrine system, not simply a passive way to store extra energy.) Perchlorate levels, just as one example, have been found to be higher in women, and were associated with changes in thyroid hormone levels in women but not in men. We pass these chemicals through our breastmilk, to our babies.
In her book Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, acclaimed biologist and author Sandra Steingraber elegantly reveals the alarming extent to which environmental hazards – from industrial poisons found in amniotic fluid to the toxic contamination of breast milk – now threaten each crucial stage of infant development. Ultimately, based on extensive research, she determines that the benefits outweigh the risks. Such are the burdens we all carry. Of importance to note is that it has been overwhelmingly established that the benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby outweigh the risks of exposure, and that whenever possible breastfeeding is optimal.
What you can do now: Eat organic during pregnancy. Period. See the resources above for doing it in the most cost-effective way. Eat only low mercury fish in pregnancy and not more than twice weekly. Use only organic or natural cosmetics and body products during pregnancy and while you're breastfeeding. Use green household cleaning products – it's amazing what white vinegar and baking soda can do. Make sure to get proper thyroid testing during pregnancy (or ideally, before) as well as MTHFR testing if you're planning to conceive.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Your Thyroid
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are readily absorbable and mimic our hormones – but they are not our hormones and are found in human tissue at much higher concentrations than “endogenous” (made by your own body) hormones. These EDCs are tricky – they can overstimulate, block, or disrupt the hormone’s natural actions by sending mixed messages throughout your endocrine system. Xenoestrogens (“foreign” estrogens) mimic estrogen, and thyroid-disrupting chemicals (TDCs) do just that. EDCs cause inflammation, weight gain, insulin resistance, and stimulate cells to grow when they shouldn’t be – causing problems like early puberty in girls, and breast cancer in women. TDCs can compete with iodine, preventing it from getting into the thyroid cells where it is needed for the formation of thyroid hormone, change the shape and function of the thyroid gland, block the production of thyroid hormone, inhibit the ability to turn inactive T4 into active T3, prevent the transport of thyroid hormone in the body, and prevent binding of active thyroid hormone to thyroid receptors, all of which have been shown to have the same predictable harmful downstream effects of hypothyroidism.
I Thought Fluoride Was Good for Me!
What you can do now: Use only glass storage containers for food, never heat food up in plastic; discard all non-stick pots and pans and use only glass, cast-iron, stainless steel, or enamel. Drink out of glass, not plastic, water bottles. Avoid foods wrapped in plastic (i.e, cheeses) whenever possible. And yup, saying it again, eat organic – particularly all meats and dairy products because they hold onto the largest volume of hormone-disrutping chemicals used in agriculture, animal hubandry, and the environment. Avoid body products – even ones that are natural – with a lot of fragrance. Avoid treating your yard and garden with herbicides – lawns and foods can grow organically and still be beautiful! And whenever possible avoid all products that contain flame-retardants.
Chlorine, fluoride, and bromine are members of a chemical group called halogens, along with iodine, and they share a similar structure that allows them to interfere with thyroid function. Chlorine and fluoride are found in drinking water and bathwater, where we ingest and breathe them in; chlorine is also found in pools, spa water, bleach and cleaning products, while fluoride is found in toothpaste, a number of pharmaceuticals, Teflon and non-stick cookware. Bromine is in brominated flour products used in baked goods and bread; it is also found in flame retardants, and as an additive in sugary beverages that contain brominated oil. Interestingly fluoride was used in the medical treatment of hyperthyroidism in the 1950s because of its known inhibitory effect on thyroid function, so it’s no surprise that some studies have found a correlation between fluoride in drinking water and hypothyroidism.
What you can do now: Filter your water, use only non-fluoridated toothpaste and oral-care products, don't let your dentist convince you that you need fluoride treatment, when you purchase bottled or canned soups, juices, or other products, make sure they are made with filtered water.The Hidden Price of Plastic
The Hidden Price of Plastics
Similar to BPA, a group of chemicals called phthalates have been linked to decreased thyroid hormone levels – even in girls as young as three years old! (That same study of preschool-age girls did not find the same decrease in thyroid hormones in young boys.) Phthalates are found in soft plastics, such as vinyl flooring, shower curtains, children’s lunchboxes, and food packaging – as well as fragrances and body care products.
We’re primarily exposed to phthalates through our diet – from food and beverage packaging. They are the price we pay for all those so-called convenience foods and beverages we know we should avoid for our health! In 2011, University of Michigan researchers conducted the largest national study to date of both BPA’s and phthalates’ impact on thyroid function. They found that when exposed to DEHP, a common phthalate used as a plasticizer, thyroid hormones – free T4, total T3, thyroglobulin, and especially total T4 – all decreased. Those with the highest 20 percent of exposure had up to as 10 percent decline in select thyroid hormones!
These can be difficult to avoid, as they don’t legally have to be labeled on packaging – you’ll only see them labeled as “fragrance,” sometimes. The Heavy Metal Burden
Heavy Metals and Your Thyroid
Heavy metals take a heavy toll on our health, and their harmful effects on the endocrine system, immunity, and brain function have long been known because of problems with infertility, Hashimoto’s, and neurological diseases in factory workers who have been exposed. As early as the 1990s, medical journals were reporting on the effects of heavy metals on health. They appear to have a particular impact on women’s reproductive function. They have an affinity for the pituitary, and when deposited there, which is the relay station for messages to the adrenals, thyroid, and ovaries, communication to all three is interrupted, leading to fertility and other gynecologic problems, thyroid problems and all of the downstream effects on your cholesterol, weight, heart, and brain.
The most studied thyroid-disrupting heavy metals that we’re commonly exposed to are mercury, lead, and cadmium, though there are many more, all of which are now abundant in our water, soil, food, and air largely due to industrial environmental contamination. PCBs and heavy metals were found to increase TSH and reduce T4 in children as early as the 1990s. All of these metals seem to affect the thyroid in one of several ways: they interfere with iodine transport into the thyroid, deiodination (in which T4 becomes its active form of thyroid hormone T3) in the liver and other tissue, and block the thyroid receptors from accepting thyroid hormone. Mercury exposure has been associated with cellular autoimmunity. It accumulates in women’s thyroids at particularly high levels, and this heavy metal has been shown to dramatically increase in anti-TgAb. The source of mercury is a fishy story: Most of our exposure likely comes via methyl-mercury exposure from fish consumption. Also, removal of a different form of mercury in dental amalgam fillings from teeth has been shown to decrease TgAb.
Cadmium exposure reduces T4, lead appears to reduce FT3, T3, and T4, and each carries with it its own substantial risks of harm to numerous other aspects of our health, particularly neurotoxicity which can increase our risk of developing degenerative diseases, notably Alzheimer’s, and whose low level impacts long before disease manifests may cause any number of nervous system conditions – including poor concentration and memory. Of note, heavy metals have estrogenic activity as well, so they are disrupting hormones at many levels.
What does all this mean? Our bodies’ natural detox pathways and systems are simply overwhelmed. Your infrastructure, no matter how healthy it started, wasn’t designed to work this hard all the time. Our toxic world is too much for our bodies.
What you can do now: Avoid heavy metals in your fish- the highest source of exposure we're getting, don't build decks and play structures with arsenic-treated wood, keep rice products to no more than a couple of times/week and avoid all concentrated rice products (i.e. rice syrup, commonly found in many naturally sweetened products, including energy bars), and have well-water and garden soil tested for heavy metals before drinking/planting in. And support you body's detoxification processes, naturally, every day.
The Burden We Bear
The unprecedented environmental toxin exposure we're facing, along with the fact that most of us are not getting adequate daily doses of naturally detoxifying foods in our diets is a recipe for overload of our otherwise inherently resilient detoxification systems. Further, some of us carry genetic changes called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that make us more prone to detoxification challenges and thus potentially increase our vulnerability.
The symptoms of toxic overload may include:
- Chemical sensitvity: Sensitive to cleaning products, perfumes, and other chemical odors.
- Immune challenges: Multiple food intolerances and allergies, chronic fatigue, autoimmune disease.
- “Brain fog”
- Insulin resistance, unexplainable excess weight, difficulty losing weight
- Hormone imbalances, fertility challenges, PCOS, endometriosis
Detoxification overload happens when there’s a mismatch between what you’re being exposed to and what your body is able to clear through the natural detoxification pathways in your liver and gut.You know how far-reaching these toxins are, but you can’t barricade yourself at home or go off the grid, so what can you do to mitigate your risk of harm to your thyroid? How can you protect yourself – and your thyroid?
Once you’ve identified your most common exposures, the goal is to reduce your body burden by eliminating toxins and then reset your detox pathways. The four-week program in my book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution is designed to help you get to the Root Causes of your SOS – to reclaim the health of your thyroid and your whole body. The plan in my book focuses on detoxification during the repair stage, and you’ll learn that by lightening the load on your detox system by avoiding unnecessary chemical exposures, you’re going to get your detox back in the groove again!
Want to get started right now? These four quick tips can help lighten your load, every day.
How to Reduce Body Burden and Support Detoxification
Support your liver with leafy greens and herbs.
Leafy greens like kale, collards, and broccoli contain powerful antioxidants that naturally support detoxification of environmental toxins and hormones in your liver. They support a process called methylation, and they provide fiber to encourage a healthy microbiome and proper elimination. Read My Top Ten Foods and Herbs for Everyday Detox.
Speaking of proper elimination, having a bowel movement every day allows your body to eliminate toxins, so if you’re not going every day, the four-week program in my book may start to help with that. In addition to increasing fiber and water intake, you can also
- add 400 to 800 mg of magnesium citrate before bed.
- take a probiotic containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains each morning.
If your bowels are still sluggish or if you tend to get indigestion when you eat fats, this bitters support blend can help bring relief (or you can purchase a pre-made blend with similar ingredients. Mix ¼ teaspoon of each herb (in tincture or extract form) in ¼ cup water or ½ to 1 cup sparkling water before or after each meal:
- Burdock root
- Dandelion root
- Ginger root
Sweat it out.
Sweating is another way your body naturally detoxifies itself. Exercise gets your endorphins (aka “feel-good” hormones) pumping, too, so if you have the energy for it, regular workouts can help you sweat it out. Hot baths with optional Epsom salts do double-duty, too, offering self-care as well as a detox strategy. Finally, using a sauna and dry brushing can also help you shed some toxins.
Drink plenty of water.
Our bodies are mostly water, so to keep everything moving and flowing smoothly, we need to drink plenty of it. Be sure it’s filtered, but avoid plastic bottles. Use a stainless steel bottle, and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink – that’s a sign you’re already starting to get a bit dehydrated. You’ll need to drink more water in summer, if you’re sweating a lot, and as you increase your fiber intake.
While the chemicals in our world are a fact of life that aren’t going away anytime soon, awareness of where they hide and how they can impact your health is an important first step to rooting them out of your foods, body products, and household products. The good news is that studies do show that by reducing our exposure, we do reduce our body burden – and this can help us to prevent thyroid and other health problems in the next generation, while turning around our own health, energy and vitality.