The thyroid connection

The thyroid gland is a vitally important hormonal gland that plays an essential role in metabolism, growth and maturation of the human body. The thyroid constantly releases hormones into the blood, helping to regulate many bodily functions.  Additional hormones are produced when the body needs more energy in certain situations like growth, for regulating body temperature or during pregnancy.

The thyroid is located in the front part of the neck below the voice box and has the shape of a butterfly. When working properly, hormones produced by our thyroid travel through our bloodstream and help cells get energy from the food we eat. Thyroid hormones help regulate our body temperature and blood calcium levels, help with growth and development and, during infancy, strengthen 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.

Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) accounts for the majority of thyroid disease cases — up to 80 percent according to some estimates. This condition occurs when our body produces too little thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as fatigue and general sluggishness; unexplained weight gain or increased sensitivity to cold; pain, stiffness or swelling in joints; muscle aches and weakness; heavy menstrual periods; depression; brittle hair and nails; and elevated blood cholesterol.

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.

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.

In contrast, hyperthyroidism results from an overactive thyroid. Symptoms include weight loss; nervousness, anxiety and irritability; increased perspiration; racing heart, hand tremors; difficulty sleeping; increased bowel movements; and muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms or thighs.

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. Other treatments include surgery, or radioactive iodine, which destroys overactive thyroid cells.

Supplementing 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 the 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 critical hormones. Without sufficient iodine, your thyroid cannot produce adequate hormones to help your body function on an optimal level. Iodine deficiency is not that common in the United States because of the prevalent use of iodized salt. However, according to 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, physicians sometimes 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 an important 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, and 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 our 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.

Finally, there are certain foods that should be avoided to protect our 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 our 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 reactions 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 of these vegetables, eaten raw, could interfere with thyroid function, they offer many 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.

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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!

Is butter better?

So when you drop your slice of bread on the kitchen floor, does it land butter side down — or margarine side up?!  Does it matter? “Only if you eat it,” might be the prudent answer. . .since there’s a significant health difference, nutritionally speaking, between butter, margarine and the oils and spreads we use for cooking and food preparation.

Taste, of course, is often the driving force, as well as what kind of food you’re cooking and how you’re cooking it. But the truth will set you nutritionally free…and it typically has more to do with understanding the difference between good and bad fats.

But to answer our initial question, both butter and hard margarine have drawbacks. They each contain a lot of fat and calories. They also contain some of the worst types of fat, both saturated fat and trans fat. Butter has a high amount of saturated fat and some trans fat, while many hard margarines are made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils so they contain a high amount of trans fat in addition to saturated fat. Both of these bad fats can raise your blood cholesterol and contribute to atherosclerosis (when plaque is created that can block arteries leading to the heart and brain).

A better choice for your health is a liquid margarine, or a soft margarine in a tub. These are made with less partially hydrogenated fat than hard stick margarine. Look for margarines that are free of trans fat. 

Ultimately, though, understanding which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t is the first step in lowering our risk of heart disease. In addition to the LDL produced naturally by our body, saturated fat, trans-fatty acids and dietary cholesterol can also raise blood cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats appear to not raise LDL cholesterol; some studies suggest they might even help lower LDL cholesterol slightly when eaten as part of a low-saturated and trans-fat diet.

Know your fats

Saturated fat: This is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol. Saturated fat is found mostly in foods from animals and some plants. Foods from animals include beef, beef fat, veal, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, milk, cheeses and other dairy products made from whole and 2 percent milk. All of these foods also contain dietary cholesterol. Foods from plants that contain saturated fat include coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil (often called tropical oils), and cocoa butter.

Hydrogenated fat: During food processing, fats may undergo a chemical process called hydrogenation. This is common in margarine and shortening. These fats also raise blood cholesterol.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats: Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the two unsaturated fats. They’re found mainly in many fish, nuts, seeds and oils from plants. Some examples of foods that contain these fats include salmon, trout, herring, avocados, olives, walnuts and liquid vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower.

Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help lower your blood cholesterol level when you use them in place of saturated and trans fats. Keep total fat intake between 25 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils.

Trans Fatty Acids and Hydrogenated Fats: Trans-fatty acids (TFA) are found in small amounts in various animal products such as beef, pork, lamb and the butterfat in butter and milk.

TFA are also formed during the process of hydrogenation, making margarine, shortening, cooking oils and the foods made from them a major source of TFA in the American diet. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils provide about three-fourths of the TFA in the U.S. diet. The trans fat content of foods is printed on the package of the Nutrition Facts label. Keep trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total calories. For example, if you need 2,000 calories a day, you should consume less than 2 grams of trans fat.

In clinical studies, TFA or hydrogenated fats tended to raise total blood cholesterol levels. Some scientists believe they raise cholesterol levels more than saturated fats. TFA also tend to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol when used instead of natural oils. These changes may increase the risk of heart disease.

Based on current data, the American Heart Association recommends that consumers follow these tips:

  • Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole-grain, high-fiber foods, and fat-free and low-fat dairy.
  • Keep total fat intake between 25 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils most often.
  • Use naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil as often as possible.
  • Look for processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils or saturated fat.
  • Use soft margarine as a substitute for butter, and choose soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) over harder stick forms. Look for “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • French fries, doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes are examples of foods that are high in trans fat. Avoid them as much as possible. 
  • Limit the saturated fat in your diet. If you don’t eat a lot of saturated fat, you won’t be consuming a lot of trans fat.
  • Limit commercially fried foods and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Not only are these foods high in fat, but that fat is also likely to be very hydrogenated, meaning a lot of trans fat.

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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!

Sound ideas for a perfect Valentine’s Day

It’s February already, and we’re coming up quickly on that annual ritual that can delight, mystify, frustrate or make us nuts. . .and we’re not talking about President’s Day! Maybe you finally have it all figured out — flowers, chocolate, a nice card, even a special dinner. It sounds like a perfect recipe for romance…so what could go wrong, right?

Well, plenty — as we all know, despite our hard work and best planning. So what can we do to improve our odds of fully enjoying this Valentine’s Day? Start by considering a gift that doesn’t have to cost a penny, but can pay back richly…the gift of silence.

We live in a noisy, chaotic world full of sounds we like and don’t like, and noise we can and can’t control. Noise at high decibels can physically injure us, temporarily or permanently. But constant noise — even at lower decibels, such as the fans whirling in our computers, furnaces in our homes, road noises and the refrigerator compressor — are all contributing to a heightened level of stress that can make us irritable, short tempered, harder to get along with and certainly not in the mood for love. What’s more, noise-induced stress inhibits our ability to relax, to concentrate and to sleep, adding fatigue to this insidious mix.

We have two nervous systems that are affected by sound, accelerating or suppressing metabolic functions that control alertness, stress and relaxation. The trouble is that as our bodies react to different stimuli, some stress hormones remain active in the brain for too long. It often requires conscious effort to initiate our relaxation response and reestablish metabolic equilibrium, including breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

According to Branwen O’Shea-Refai, LCSW, a therapist, yoga teacher and sound healer, stress management is the key to enhancing relationships, and for improving intimacy.

“We can’t totally eliminate noise and stress, but we can learn how it affects us and practice techniques that can help activate our relaxation response,” explains O’Shea-Refai. “When we are flooded by texts, calls, emails and social media, we become overstimulated, either shutting down or becoming irritable. Exposure to natural sounds like waves, bird songs, rain or healing sounds such as drums and Tibetan bowls helps us reconnect with ourselves.  We have to be grounded in our bodies to have healthy relationships with others.”

For some women, especially those in long-term relationships, the need to feel relaxed and to have their stress under control is an important precursor to intimacy, O’Shea-Refai adds. She suggests that an effective way to prepare for “date night” is to de-stress by getting a break from the kids and work. Seek time alone, she consuls, take a warm bath, read, get a massage, exercise, and listen to or create sounds that suit the mood you’re hoping to capture.

“It isn’t as simple as just putting on classical or New Age music,” she observes. “Soothing music alone won’t eliminate work or life anxiety, though the movements in classical pieces often can match — or help transform — our moods. But silence is also therapeutic, as are ‘cleansing’ or ‘clearing’ noises such as drums, Tibetan musical bowls and chanting. Sound therapists also teach people how to use their own voice to manage stress.”

An exercise that’s very effective, she says, is the healing vibration produced when you chant the “ahhh” sound. She has her patients practice this “heart sound” and breathing exercises whenever they feel their stress levels rising, and adds that it even helps calm young children. She also recommends Naad Yoga, the yogic practice of using sound vibrations to affect the mind, body, and spirit, as an excellent way to strengthen metabolic systems that aggravate stress.

“It’s harder to feel attractive, sexy and passionate when you feel emotionally agitated, out of touch, or are being bombarded by work, family and outside stimuli,” O’Shea-Refai concludes. “’Me time’ is not selfish. All our relationships benefit when we actively reduce extraneous noise, center ourselves, and positively shift our energy.”

That’s good news, especially as February 14th, World Sound Healing Day, approaches. And it’s good advice for that other thing we observe on February 14th, too!

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O’Shea-Refai  lives and practices in Bethany. For more information about sound, yoga or alternative healing practices, she can be reached at 203.393.1717, or visit EarthDancing.com.

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!

Make improving employee wellness your winter project

January is over, the deep freeze has set in, and many of us have gone into physical hibernation until the spring thaw. The well-intentioned wellness plans and goals we formulated in late December and early January are already at risk of going south. It’s too cold to walk outside, going to the gym is a time hassle, and we need our comfort food.

If you’re an employer, now is a good time to step in and rally your troops. When we don’t exercise, eat properly or otherwise take care of our bodies mentally and physically, we open ourselves up to obesity and chronic illnesses such as heart and respiratory diseases, diabetes and cancer. Fatigue and depression become commonplace, and all of these maladies contribute to increased time away from work, less productivity while at work and a general malaise that has a negative impact on teamwork, productivity, customer service and morale.

Adopting an organization-wide policy designed to support healthy behavior overall and to improve health outcomes is an important strategy. These programs comprise activities such as health education and coaching, weight-management programs, medical screenings, on-site fitness programs and more.

Wellness programs also include policies intended to facilitate employee health, including allowing time for exercise, providing on-site kitchens and eating areas, offering healthful food options in vending machines, holding “walk and talk” meetings, and offering financial and other incentives for participation. Effective workplace programs, policies, and environments that are health-focused and worker-centered have the potential to significantly benefit employers, employees, their families, and communities.

Here are some ideas to get you started. A useful approach is to recruit employees to meet and discuss wellness options, and then help implement these ideas, with your support.

  • Sponsor walks, runs, bike rides, golfing or other activities for charities or special causes, and encourage workers to participate (pay their entry fees)
  • Sponsor dance lessons, onsite or off
  • Pay for swimming lessons or open-swim time at a local recreation facility
  • Conduct a health fair, with screenings for cholesterol, BMI, blood sugar, etc.
  • Promote “stretch time” and breaks and encourage workers to move around physically
  • Offer smoking-cessation workshops
  • Create healthy competition for achieving personal healthcare goals and a system for monitoring progress and rewarding participants who meet their goals (not just the top achievers, but everyone)
  • Bring a massage therapist to the office or workplace for scheduled appointments with workers
  • Conduct yoga, meditation or other wellness-related classes onsite during the day or after work hours
  • Pay all or a portion of gym or fitness center memberships
  • Consider creating a workout room or space onsite, even if it’s a shared space like a large conference room, lunch or storage area
  • Encourage employees to “wear the colors” and participate in local softball, volleyball, soccer and other competitive sports
  • Bring healthy snacks into meetings and serve healthy lunches
  • Encourage employees to walk at lunch, during breaks or before and after work
  • Make health and wellness videos and educational materials available to employees
  • Instead of candy, cookies and soda, substitute fruit, yogurt and other healthy snacks at meetings and in vending machines
  • Invite guests, such as nutritional experts, chefs and personal trainers to present to employees onsite or locally.

These are just a few ideas — there are hundreds of good programs and suggestions for improving employee health. Although some health risk factors, such as heredity, cannot be modified, focused education and personal discipline can change others such as smoking, physical inactivity, weight gain, alcohol use and, by extension, hypertension, high cholesterol, and even depression.

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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!