Understanding the Misunderstood Thyroid

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in your lower neck. It has enormous responsibility for the body’s metabolic processes. Specifically, it releases two primary hormones — triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) — that control metabolism.

When working properly, the T3 and T4 hormones travel through our bloodstream and help cells get energy from the food we eat. Thyroid hormones are also responsible for helping to regulate our body temperature and blood calcium levels, helping with growth and development and, during infancy, brain development.

For an estimated 27 million Americans, however, the thyroid produces either too much or too little hormone, which causes an array of health symptoms, some severe. But because thyroid disease is often misdiagnosed or simply overlooked, it’s estimated that more than half of affected Americans don’t know they have a problem.

Women are much more likely to have thyroid problems than men, and may have up to a one in five chance of developing thyroid problems during their lifetime. The risk increases with age and family history, as well as having an autoimmune disease or a close relative with one; through radiation exposure; by going through menopause or perimenopause; or following childbirth.

Understanding common thyroid disease

Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) accounts for the majority of thyroid disease cases. This condition occurs when our body produces too little thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as

  • Fatigue and general sluggishness
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Dry skin
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Pain, stiffness or swelling in joints
  • Achy muscles and muscle weakness
  • Heavy menstrual periods
  • Depression
  • Elevated blood cholesterol level
  • Puffy face
  • Brittle hair and nails

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility, goiter (thyroid enlargement) and heart disease, but because the symptoms can mimic other diseases, or even be attributed to aging, many people do not realize the thyroid connection. Further, the symptoms may be mild at first, becoming increasingly severe only after a number of years, making them easy to overlook.

In the United States, hypothyroidism is most often the result of an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which causes our immune system to attack and destroy the thyroid. It’s thought that a virus, bacteria, genetics or a combination of environmental factors may contribute to Hashimoto’s. Worldwide, however, hypothyroidism is most often caused by an iodine-deficient diet.

Other less common causes of hypothyroidism include radiation therapy used to treat head and neck cancers, thyroid surgery, certain medications, pregnancy, pituitary gland disorder, or congenital issues. A blood test that measures our levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is typically used to diagnose hypothyroidism, and treatment usually involves taking a synthetic or natural thyroid hormone daily.

With hyperthyroidism, our body produces too much thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
  • Increased perspiration
  • Racing heart
  • Hand tremors
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased bowel movements
  • Fine, brittle hair
  • Muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms or thighs

Most often, hyperthyroidism is caused by an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease, in which our immune system produces antibodies that stimulate our thyroid, causing it to produce too much T4 hormone. The exact cause of Graves’ disease is unknown, however it’s suspected that severe emotional stress may trigger the illness in some people. Family history may also be a factor.

A TSH blood test can typically diagnose hyperthyroidism, and the condition is usually treated with anti-thyroid drugs that block the gland’s ability to produce thyroid hormone, surgery, or radioactive iodine, which destroys overactive thyroid cells.

What to eat for improved thyroid health

As with virtually every bodily function, our diet plays a role in the health of our thyroid. There are some specific nutrients that our thyroid depends on and it’s important to include them in our diet:

Iodine: Our thyroid contains the only cells in our body that absorb iodine, which it uses to make the T3 and T4 hormones. Without sufficient iodine, our thyroid cannot produce adequate hormones to help our body function on an optimal level.

Iodine deficiency is typically not widespread in the United States because of the prevalent use of iodized salt. However, according to a nutrition evaluation conducted by the CDC, up to 36 percent of women of childbearing age may not get enough iodine from their diets, and it’s thought that iodine deficiency is on a slow but steady rise.

Because iodized salt is heavily processed, some recommend avoiding iodized salt and instead getting iodine naturally from sea vegetables (seaweed), such as hijiki, wakame, arame, dulse, nori, and kombu. Too much iodine can actually trigger thyroid problems and worsen symptoms, so it’s important to have a healthy balance.

Selenium: This mineral is critical for the proper functioning of our thyroid gland, and is used to produce and regulate the T3 hormone. Selenium can be found in foods such as shrimp, snapper, tuna, cod, halibut, calf’s liver, button and shitake mushrooms and Brazil nuts.

Zinc, Iron and Copper: These metals are needed in trace amounts for healthy thyroid function. Low levels of zinc have been linked to low levels of TSH, whereas iron deficiency has been linked to decreased thyroid efficiency. Copper is also necessary for the production of thyroid hormones. Foods such as calf’s liver, spinach, mushrooms, turnip greens and Swiss chard can help provide these trace metals in your diet.

Omega-3 Fats: These essential fats, which are found in fish or fish oil, play an important role in thyroid function, and many help our cells become sensitive to thyroid hormone.

Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is made up of mostly medium-chain fatty acids, which may help to increase metabolism and promote weight loss, along with providing other thyroid benefits. This is especially beneficial for those with hypothyroidism.

Antioxidants and B Vitamins: The antioxidant vitamins A, C and E can help our body neutralize oxidative stress that may damage the thyroid. In addition, B vitamins help to manufacture thyroid hormone and play an important role in healthy thyroid function.

There are certain foods that should be avoided to protect thyroid function. These include:

Aspartame: There is concern that the artificial sweetener aspartame, sold under the brand name Nutrasweet, may trigger Graves’ disease and other autoimmune disorders in some people. The chemical may trigger an immune reaction that causes thyroid inflammation and thyroid autoantibody production.

Non-fermented soy: Soy is high in isoflavones, which are goitrogens, or foods that interfere with the function of your thyroid gland. Soy, including soybean oil, soy milk, soy burgers, tofu and other processed soy foods, may lead to decreased thyroid function. Fermented soy products, including miso, natto, tempeh and traditionally brewed soy sauce, are safe to eat, as the fermentation process reduces the goitrogenic activity of the isoflavones.

Gluten: Gluten is a potential goitrogen and can also trigger autoimmune responses (including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) in people who are sensitive. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley, along with most processed foods.

The isothiocyanates found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are goitrogens as well. While it’s true that large amounts could interfere with thyroid function, especially if eaten raw, these veggies offer a myriad of other health benefits that make the benefits outweigh the risks for most people. If you know you have thyroid disease and want to be especially careful, steaming these vegetables will negate the goitrogenic effect, making them a healthy addition to your diet.

If you suspect you have thyroid disease, you should visit your health care practitioner for a full thyroid hormone panel. In fact, even if you don’t suspect you have a problem it’s a good idea to get tested as part of your regular checkups.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Why Aren’t You Laughing?!

Humor is a universal language, and good medicine. We watch comedies on television and at the movies and read humorous articles and books. We relax at the end of the day with Letterman, Fallon, or Kimmel. We enjoy sharing a joke at the office, when we’re meeting with friends, over the phone or through social media. Think about how you feel when you laugh or make someone else laugh. And when you laugh at yourself, a situation or something you’ve observed, it relieves tension, defuses situations, and helps us bond with others. 

Laughing makes us feel good — and that good feeling can stay with us long after the laughter stops. In fact, the sound of roaring laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze.

April is National Humor Month, but every healthy day should include humor and laughter and its many benefits:

  • People with a sense of humor typically have a stronger immune system.
  • People who laugh heartily on a regular basis have lower standing blood pressure than the average person. When people have a good laugh, initially the blood pressure increases but then decreases to levels below normal. Breathing then becomes deeper, which sends oxygen-enriched blood and nutrients throughout the body.
  • Laughter can be a great workout for your diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles. It massages abdominal organs, tones intestinal functioning, and strengthens the muscles that hold the abdominal organs in place. It is estimated that hearty laughter can burn calories equivalent to several minutes on the rowing machine or the exercise bike.
  • Laughter stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information. Laughing also elevates moods.

Striving to see humor in life and attempting to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them will help improve our disposition and the disposition of those around us. Our ability to laugh at ourselves and situations will help reduce our stress level and make life more enjoyable. Humor also helps us connect with others. People naturally respond to the smiles and good cheer of those around them.

Tips for adding more humor and laughter in our life include

  • Remember to have and seek fun and opportunities to laugh
  • Spend time with those who help us see the bright side and who make us laugh
  • Get regular doses of humor from various sources such as television, movies, plays, shows and performances, or books
  • Don’t take ourselves and others too seriously…keep life and work in perspective.

Head off stress with regular bouts of laughter and by sharing humor with others. Remember, nobody’s perfect and life should be fun. Laughter can make us feel like a new person. We all can use some of that…no joke.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Big Eyes, Big Plates, Big Bellies

Come spring, there are two feared words certain to cause emotional distress and anxiety, trigger subconscious rumblings, and often motivate us to the equivalent of fight or flight action. Ready? Here they come:  Bathing suits!

If you’re on top of your game physically and nutritionally, you may not have to crack a sweat worrying about your body shape, weight, physical image, and related health factors like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, increased blood pressure, and raised cholesterol levels. But if you’re like many of us, you’re likely coming off the winter months weighing more than you’d like and beyond the healthy weight and body mass index your doctor recommends.

The well-tested and reliable combination of healthy eating and exercise always is a major factor in fighting the battle of bulges. But cutting carbs, salt and sugars, reducing processed foods, increasing proteins and adding fiber is only part of the battle. Understanding what you’re eating – and how much is appropriate – is the other side of the nutritional coin.

Eliminating “portion distortion”

According to the National Institutes of Health, a portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or in your own kitchen. A “serving size is the amount of food listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts.

Sometimes the portion size and serving size match; sometimes they do not. Over the past years, portions have grown significantly in fast-food and sit-down restaurants, as has the frequency of Americans eating out. Subsequently, waistlines across the United States have grown right along with this trend.  

Big portion sizes can mean you’re getting more food than your body can stomach to maintain a healthy weight. It’s important to learn how much to put on your plate to help control how much you eat. Consider these statistics from the American Heart Association study, “A Nation at Risk: Obesity in the United States:”

  • Adults today consume an average of 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985.
  • Americans eat out much more than they used to.
  • Portion sizes for foods and beverages have grown dramatically over the last 40 years, up to five times more than their original size
  • Portions for many of these foods now exceed federal recommended standards by as much as eight times.

Tracking your calories helps you monitor your weight. It helps to know what the appropriate serving size is so you can correctly estimate the calories in your portions, especially if you dine out a lot. Portion sizes that are typically offered in restaurants are often double or triple the standard recommended serving sizes of most foods. Using a food diary can help you pay closer attention to what you’re eating, how much and how often.

You may see that the portions you’re consuming are often more than what you need to eat to keep your body at a healthy weight. It’s critical to establish a total eating pattern which balances calories consumed versus calories expended in one day.

Eating with the season

Seasonally related nutrition requires a quick lesson in anthropology. Winter, unlike the warm-weather growing season, was not a time of caloric abundance. Centuries and millennia ago, food was markedly scarcer in the winter.

Nature made up for this annual caloric shortfall with the final ripening, at the end of the growing season, of carbohydrate-rich produce such as squash, pumpkins, beans and potatoes. Notice that as the growing season draws to a close each fall we enjoy acorn squash, pumpkin pie, zucchini bread and stews made sweet with root vegetables.

All of these are foods designed by nature to provide one more chance to increase the likelihood of our surviving through the winter. Then, when spring finally arrived, we began to restore our nutritional reserves with the first crops to appear:  Small green shoots, like asparagus, and then leaves low in calories but rich in nutrients.

Today we enjoy eating in abundance straight through the winter, and arrive at spring with our winter insulation intact.

But nature, again, has provided a perfect solution. Spring is a great time of the year to eat seasonal, local produce. Greens, parsley, asparagus and rhubarb are coming up. There’s thyme, and rosemary and sage, too, to sprinkle on salads. Eat plenty of greens all year round, but especially in the spring.

And while you’re thinking about healthy eating, here’s an important note on carbs. While some people will embark on low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss in the short run, these are not sustainable. Completely restricting carbohydrates in our diets is often not a realistic or even healthy approach for a long-term weight management plan or a healthy lifestyle. Carbs are what give us energy, so we have to make smart choices when it comes to selecting the best ones for us.

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 Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Don’t Let Stress Break Employees’ Hearts or Their Spirits

It isn’t a coincidence that National Stress Awareness Month and National Humor Month are observed at the same time. Stress is a very common denominator for humans, regardless if at work, home, school, or wherever our daily travels carry us. And humor is a factor we can learn to embrace in our efforts to reduce the pressure and strains that are killing us, literally and figuratively.

We all experience stress, though it affects each of us differently. Sometimes we don’t recognize when we’re acting short tempered, impatient or easily distracted. When stress levels are high, we can become withdrawn, agitated, depressed or angry. We may not sleep well, can eat less or too much. We also may experience tightness in our chests, stomach discomfort, headaches, increased blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure, and other physical manifestations.

In the workplace, these symptoms often drive increased absenteeism and presenteeism (coming to work while sick), lower productivity, and service errors. Stress also has a negative impact on safety, quality, and teamwork.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey conducted by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors. The APA’s recent Stress in America survey (released last winter) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65% of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35% reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42% of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, only 36% report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs, and just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work.

Employers can’t eliminate all the factors that cause their workers to feel stressed, but there are a number of items that can be addressed. Working with your staff to create wellness and feedback programs, encouraging them to take breaks, work out, walk, or nap are extremely beneficial. And providing access to stress-relief activities without having to leave work are a few solutions.

As one workplace example, Christy Graham, wellness champion at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, says they implemented yoga classes starting in fall 2013. The classes are held onsite once a week from 12:15 pm to 1:00 pm. Graham contacted several studios before choosing an instructor, and says the Bushnell staff really enjoys the classes. Half a dozen employees participate, she adds, and the fee is only half of what yoga classes held offsite normally would cost. She also sends out a reminder email about a farmer’s market held weekly near their office. Additionally, staff regularly walks together at lunchtime in nearby Bushnell Park, and they have added a water cooler to help keep hydrated.

Address the issues that are adding to your stress

Whether we’re the employer or an employee, often the best way to cope with stress is to find a way to change the circumstances that are causing it. And one common set of tools that traverse all aspects of our lives is our ability to efficiently manage time, especially if we tend to feel overwhelmed at work. Here are some useful tips for reducing time-related stress:

  • Set realistic goals. Work with colleagues and leaders to set realistic expectations and deadlines. Set regular progress reviews and adjust your goals as needed.
  • Make a priority list. Prepare a list of tasks and rank them in order of priority. Throughout the day, scan your master list and work on tasks in priority order.
  • Protect your time. For an especially important or difficult project, block time to work on it without interruption.
  • Get other points of view. Talk with trusted colleagues or friends about the issues you’re facing at work. They might be able to provide insights or offer suggestions for coping. Sometimes simply talking about a stressor can be a relief.
  • Take a break. Make the most of workday breaks. Even a few minutes of personal time during a busy workday can be refreshing. Similarly, take time off when you can — whether it’s a two-week vacation or an occasional long weekend.
  • Have an outlet. To prevent burnout, set aside time for activities you enjoy — such as reading, socializing or pursuing a hobby.
  • Take care of yourself. Be vigilant about taking care of your health. Include physical activity in your daily routine, get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  • Seek help. If none of these steps relieves your feelings of job stress or burnout, consult a mental health provider — either on your own or through an employee assistance program offered by your employer. Through counseling, you can learn effective ways to handle job stress.

It’s also critical to keep your perspective. When your job is stressful, it can feel as if it’s taking over your life. To maintain perspective:

  • Get other points of view. Talk with trusted colleagues or friends about the issues you’re facing at work. They might be able to provide insights or offer suggestions for coping. Sometimes simply talking about a stressor can be a relief.
  • Take a break. Make the most of workday breaks. Even a few minutes of personal time during a busy workday can be refreshing. Similarly, take time off when you can — whether it’s a two-week vacation or an occasional long weekend.
  • Have an outlet. To prevent burnout, set aside time for activities you enjoy — such as reading, socializing or pursuing a hobby.
  • Take care of yourself. Be vigilant about taking care of your health. Include physical activity in your daily routine, get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  • Seek help. If none of these steps relieves your feelings of job stress or burnout, consult a mental health provider — either on your own or through an employee assistance program offered by your employer. Through counseling, you can learn effective ways to handle job stress.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!