Weight gain is one of the most common struggles I see women dealing with in my practice. It’s especially difficult for women who have always been thin, but suddenly find themselves carrying around several extra pounds – and they haven’t changed a thing about their lifestyle. So where is that weight coming from? Quite often these women ask me, “Is it my thyroid?”
I love that more women are recognizing that their thyroid is an important gland that can have a big impact on their health – including weight. Weight gain is a complicated issue, and there are typically many factors at play, but issues with thyroid functioning are definitely a possibility worth exploring.
Thyroid hormones are responsible for many essential functions, including regulating metabolism and the way your body uses nutrients. So if these hormone levels are imbalanced, weight gain is one of the most obvious symptoms.
And it doesn’t take a major imbalance to throw things off. Studies have shown that even slight shifts within the “normal” reference range can lead to weight gain. What does that mean for women? Often, it means they’re told everything is fine with their thyroid, even though they have a minor reduction in thyroid function. And if that reduction is causing symptoms, everything is not fine! This is called subclinical hypothyroidism, and it happens often enough that women should know about it.
Because there’s more awareness about the importance of a high performing thyroid gland, I’m not just seeing women with major problems anymore. My patients come to me with varying levels of thyroid dysfunction, and I tell them all that a holistic approach is key. Every woman I know can benefit from looking at thyroid functioning as one piece of the complex puzzle of hormonal balance – especially when it comes to weight gain.
How Imbalances in Thyroid Hormone Levels May Impact Weight
One of the earliest symptoms of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can be unexpected weight gain and/or difficulty in losing weight, even when the imbalance is very small.
Though quite a bit of research has been conducted on the connection between thyroid hormones and weight gain, there are still a lot more questions than answers, and more research is necessary. Part of the problem is that low levels of thyroid hormone can cause weight gain, but increased weight can also cause thyroid imbalances; that makes it easy to get stuck in a cycle and harder to determine the best treatment options.
One review of studies discussed the complicated relationship between obesity and thyroid function, and the idea that even small differences in thyroid function can have an impact on BMI and obesity. When the thyroid, a small butterfly shaped gland that sits low in the front of your neck, produces too much or too little thyroid hormones, imbalances occur. And when your body can’t use those hormones properly, impaired function is likely.
Whatever the cause, imbalanced levels of thyroid hormones can slow your metabolic rate, causing weight gain or making weight loss extremely difficult. And your thyroid doesn’t operate in isolation. This gland is connected to the smooth functioning of many systems including neurotransmitters, reproductive hormones, and adrenal glands. These systems can also have an impact on weight, so if your thyroid isn’t functioning properly, you may be even more likely to gain weight.
There’s been a lot of talk about the impact of leptin and reverse T3 on weight regulation and metabolism. Levels of both of these hormones are changed when dealing with hypothyroidism, meaning they could contribute to the weight issues so many women battle when dealing with an underactive thyroid.
Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells. Leptin levels typically increase as fat is accumulated, letting the body know that it has adequate energy (fat) stored. These signals should cause your body to burn fat rather than continuing to store the excess. But in some people, leptin resistance is at play. This means that even though there’s plenty of leptin circulating, your body won’t respond appropriately. Because your body is getting an incorrect message – that you are starving – it will increase, rather than reduce, stored body fat. We also now know that some people have a genetic predisposition to leptin resistance, like me. I have to work extra hard to send signals to my brain that I am full. (Lots of vegetables on my plate).
T3 is a thyroid hormone that increases metabolism, produces energy, and can promote weight loss. T4 is another thyroid hormone, that is actually produced in higher amounts, but converts to T3 in the tissues.
T4 can also convert to reverse T3, an inactive form of T3 that actually reduces metabolism and holds on to stored energy. High levels of reverse T3 can not only cause weight gain — they can be caused by weight gain as well. Confusing, isn’t it? And the things that contribute to high levels of reverse T3 are stress and constant dieting.
Suffice it to say that it’s important to know about any hormonal imbalances when considering weight loss issues. If you have all the pertinent information, you can better understand what might work in your unique circumstances.
Aren’t I Too Young for Thyroid Issues?
Thyroid dysfunction is more common in women during midlife, but it can impact women of any age. Natural hormonal fluctuations during certain times of your life can mean that thyroid issues are more likely to surface. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to symptoms you are experiencing, rather than just dismissing them as “normal.” Any time you are having symptoms that make life uncomfortable, you should explore what’s causing them rather than simply living with them!
Your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, perimenopause and full menopause can all make thyroid issues more likely. Chronic stress that impacts your adrenal glands may also quickly lead to thyroid imbalances. And even if none of these factors are present, if you suddenly experience weight gain with no explanation, looking at the possibility of thyroid disease or imbalances is a good idea.
What Can I Do to Manage My Thyroid and Weight Gain?
Too many women have been told that they fall in the normal range, so there’s nothing to be done about the symptoms they’re experiencing – including weight gain. I disagree wholeheartedly! The best thing you can do to support your thyroid is to make good nutrition an ongoing lifestyle choice, not a “diet” you only do once in a while. Supplementation can also make a big difference, especially during times when your thyroid might be under more stress than usual due to natural hormonal fluctuations or stress.
So many women make dieting a way of life — they’ve yo-yoed up and down so often, they sometimes don’t even know what their “typical” weight is! The “feast or famine” methods they often use actually work against their weight loss goals. Drastically changing the way you eat on a regular basis can decrease your metabolic rate, and put stress on your other hormone systems. The end result is weight gain not loss!
So how can you eat to support your thyroid and manage your weight? Let’s take a look at some quick tips.
For Best Nutrition, Stick to Whole Foods as Often as Possible
The more food is processed, the less nutrients it offers. To get the whole range of essential nutrients you need, it’s best to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds in their natural state, or minimally processed.
Eat on a Schedule
Many women feel better when they set and stick to a regular schedule of meals and snacks. Waiting too long between meals and snacks can put stress on your thyroid gland. When eating to support your thyroid, you should eat breakfast within an hour of waking to jumpstart your metabolism.
Protein at Every Meal and Snack is Important
Protein carries your thyroid hormones to the tissues in your body, and helps regulate thyroid function. Fiber is also an important element, particularly at breakfast and lunch. Don’t default to grains for fiber, since these can have a negative effect on your thyroid. Try fruits and vegetables for a healthy fiber boost!
Eliminate Foods That Can Interfere with Thyroid Function
When working to heal your thyroid (or support it so it doesn’t become imbalanced in the first place), it’s best to cut out gluten, sugar/sweeteners, alcohol, and any kind of over-processed junk foods which offer no nutritional value.
Decrease the Foods That Contain “Goitrogens”
Goitrogens are compounds known to suppress thyroid function. Knowing which foods contain these compounds is important, so you can avoid eating them raw. Some common foods that contain goitrogens are soy products, starchy plants like sweet potatoes, certain fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are well known goitrogenic foods. But you don’t have to give these up altogether – just steam or cook them to reduce or eliminate the goitrogens..
Give Yourself a Little Extra Support
I recommend that all women take a high quality multivitamin-mineral supplement that contain iodine and selenium, essential minerals for thyroid support. Zinc, iron and copper are also important ingredients.
If you need a little extra thyroid support, add a supplement designed for that specific purpose, like my Thyroid Support. My formula is designed to support healthy cortisol, insulin and blood glucose levels. Ingredients include both iodine and selenium, along with tyrosine and copper elements to support the “feel good” compounds dopamine and norepinephrine.
If you want the full range of health benefits to promote healthy thyroid function, try my Thyroid Health Program, which includes My Multi Essentials, Thyroid Support, and EPA/DHA support.
A Healthy Thyroid Can Be Essential to Weight Management
Any time you notice symptoms – like weight gain that seems to happen overnight – I recommend talking to your health care provider. Symptoms should be ignored — they’re your body’s cry for help! Test results can be helpful, but they’re not the only factor. Know what your “normal” is, and take action when something doesn’t feel right.
Conventional providers often turn to medication first; I use it as a last resort. I have helped countless women regain hormonal balance and maintain a healthy weight with some critical lifestyle changes. Good nutrition is always my first suggestion! Eating well to support balanced thyroid hormones (and other critical hormonal balance too) just might make the difference you need! And what do you have to lose by trying it? Just that stubborn weight!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD