Have you ever wondered if there’s a natural way to lower your high blood pressure, guard against Alzheimer's, lose weight, and feel better? Well as it turns out there is. Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, founder of NutritionFacts.org, and author of the instant New York Times bestseller “How Not to Die” celebrates evidence-based nutrition to add years to our life and life to our years.

A healthy thyroid

A Healthy Thyroid

It controls your metabolism, produces hormones, regulates your body temperature. So what can we do to keep it healthy?

This episode features audio from Seeing Red No. 3: Coloring to Dye For, Yersinia in Pork, and Iodine Supplements Before, During, and After Pregnancy. Visit the video pages for all sources and doctor’s notes related to this podcast.

Discuss

Hello and welcome to the Nutrition Facts podcast, I’m your host Dr. Michael Greger. 

Now, I know I’ve made a name for myself in explaining how not to do certain things – just look at my books – How NOT to Die – and my upcoming book, How NOT to Diet.  But what I want to share with you is actually quite positive: what’s the best way to live a healthy life? Here are some answers.

Today we focus on that butterfly-shaped gland found low on the front of the neck –the thyroid.  The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system, which is made up of glands that produce, store, and release hormones into the bloodstream. So what’s the best way to keep your thyroid healthy?  We begin with the use of artificial food coloring Red Dye No. 3.  It has yet to be banned despite its purported role in causing thousands of cases of thyroid cancer.

Fifteen million pounds of food dyes are sold every year in the U.S. Why? “Foods are artificially colored to make unattractive mixtures of basic ingredients and food additives acceptable to consumers.” See, food colorings are added to countless processed food products to “conceal the absence of fruits, vegetables, or other ingredients, and make the food ‘appear better or of greater value than it actually is.’” Otherwise, cherry popsicles might actually look like they have no cherries in them!

I’ve talked about the role of food dyes in causing ADH symptoms in kids. But, what about their role in cancer?

Due to cancer concerns, Red dye #1 was banned in 1961. Red #2 was banned in 1976, and then Red #4 was banned. What about Red #3, used today in everything from sausage to maraschino cherries? It was recently found to cause DNA damage in human liver cells in vitro, comparable to the damage caused by a chemotherapy drug whose whole purpose is to break down DNA.

But, Red #3 was found to influence children’s behavior more than thirty years ago, and interfere with thyroid function over forty years ago. Why is it still legal?

An article from the New York Times about Red #3 published way back in 1985. Already by then, the FDA had postponed action on banning the dye 26 times, even with the Acting Commissioner of the FDA saying Red #3 was “of greatest public health concern,” imploring his agency to “not knowingly allow continued exposure” (at high levels in the case of Red #3) of the public to color additives that have clearly been shown to induce cancer. The credibility of the Department of Health and Human Services would suffer if decisions are not made soon on each of these color additives.” That was written thirty years ago.

At the end of the day, industry pressure won out. “FDA scientists and FDA commissioners have recommended that the additives be banned. But there has been tremendous pressure to delay the recommendations from being implemented.”

In 1990, concerned about cancer risk, the FDA banned the use of Red #3 in anything going on our skin, but it remained legal to continue to put it in anything going into our mouths. Now, the FDA said at the time that they were planning on stopping that too, and ending all “remaining uses” of Red #3, lamenting that “The cherries in 21st-century fruit cocktail could well be light brown.” That was 1990.

Over 20 years later, it’s still in our food supply. After all, the agency estimated that “the lifetime risk of thyroid tumors in humans from Red #3 in food was at most 1 in 100,000.”

“Based on today’s population, that would indicate that Red #3 is causing cancer in about 3000 people.”

In our next story we learn about a study that finds the majority of retail pork tested is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant strains of the foodborne bacteria that can hurt our thyroid.

Every year, the federal government tests thousands of retail meat samples for the presence of four types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But, Yersinia enterocolitica is not among them. This, despite the fact that nearly 100,000 Americans are sickened by foodborne Yersinia every year. This is yet another public health breach, filled this week by Consumers Union.

Pigs are assumed to be the main reservoir for the pathogen, and pork and pork products, the main source of human infection. Most foodborne pathogens tend to come from a variety of sources, but 100% of the attributable Yersinia outbreaks reported in the United States over the last decade or so were caused by pork.

So, how contaminated is the U.S. pork supply? Consumers Union tested nearly 200 pork samples from cities across the country, and found more than two-thirds contaminated with Yersinia—90% of which were resistant to one or more antibiotics.

In most cases, Yersinia food poisoning just causes acute gastroenteritis— characterized by fever; abdominal pain; often bloody diarrhea. Sometimes cases can be confused with appendicitis though, leading to unnecessary emergency surgery. Long-term consequences of infection include chronic inflammation of the eyes, kidneys, heart, and joints. Within a year of a bout of Yersinia food poisoning, victims are at 47 times the risk of coming down with autoimmune arthritis. And, the bacteria may also play a role in triggering an autoimmune thyroid condition, known as Graves’ disease.

How widespread is Yersinia in U.S. pigs? A national USDA survey of fecal samples found half of American herds tested were infected. The emergence of human infection over the last century may in part be due to changes in the meat industry, such as slaughter plant consolidation, and an increase in farm size and intensification of production. Higher stocking densities of pigs on factory farms is one of the factors that’s been associated with increased prevalence among herds. Inside some swine confinement buildings, researchers have been able to culture the bacteria right out of the air.

The pork industry crowds pigs because overcrowding pigs may pay, according to the trade publication National Hog Farmer. You can, evidently, maximize profits by dropping the space per pig to six square feet—that’s like a 200-pound pig in the equivalent of two feet by three feet. They acknowledge this presents some problems—inadequate ventilation, increased health risks—but, sometimes, “crowding pigs a little tighter will make you more money.”

The equation for pork producers is even simpler when it comes to Yersinia, since the bacteria does not cause clinical disease in pigs. Thus, it does not present a production problem. The fact that the industry bottom line isn’t directly affected, no matter how high infection rates climb, may explain why there’s no industry-wide Yersinia monitoring and control programs in place in the United States. The costs of crowded confinement can simply be passed on to the tens of thousands of Americans who continue to be sickened every year, at an annual cost estimated at a quarter billion dollars.

Research from Europe suggests pigs raised using organic methods may have 50 times lower odds of harboring infection, compared to pigs raised conventionally. Unfortunately, you can’t really extrapolate that to the U.S., since organic production here is really more about what animals are fed, rather than how they are treated. The researchers attribute the lowered infection rates to factors like lower stocking densities, and lower levels of stress among the animals.

If stress is indeed a contributing factor, things may be looking up in Europe. On January 1, 2013, just about a month away, gestation crates for pregnant pigs are going to be banned across all 27 nations of the European Union—whereas in the U.S., where crating continues to be a predominant practice, pregnant sows have been shown to have among the highest prevalence of Yersinia infection. Though consumers don’t directly eat as many of the moms, the sows can be a source of infection for piglets, who can then carry the infection through to slaughter.

“Practices that restrict natural motion, such as these sow gestation crates, induce high levels of stress in the animals and threaten their health, which in turn may threaten our health too.”

Crated sows have been shown to have impaired immunity—thought to be as a result of elevated stress hormone levels, related to the frustration of normal maternal behaviors, like nest building.

Yersinia is one of the reasons why the disease resistance of mother pigs matters when it comes to public health. Thankfully, major retailers, restaurant chains, and leaders in the pork industry have started phasing out gestation crates, which may end up improving the welfare of both animals and humans.

Another proposal to break the Yersinia cycle from farm to fork is to pay producers an incentive bonus if they keep Yersinia-free flocks. That’s the carrot. And the stick is that fresh meat would only be allowed from infection-free herds, diverting pork from infected herds to just making pre-cooked products.

“Although such a two-way splitting of pig-meat production would pose a logistic problem,” it could be actually possible if “enough emphasis were to be placed on cost/benefit for public health.”

There are also measures effective at reducing Yersinia contamination of the meat in the slaughter plant. “By sealing off the excised rectum with a plastic bag” during evisceration, you may get a ten-fold drop in carcass contamination. According to data from the Norwegian National Institute of Public Health, human Yersinia infection rates dropped about 25% after the introduction of the plastic bag technique across pig slaughterhouses in Norway.

Let me end by putting the new Consumer Reports finding in perspective. Yersinia in pork ranks only sixteenth in terms of the greatest foodborne disease burdens in the United States.

The worst, in terms of societal cost and quality-adjusted years of life lost, is poultry-borne Campylobacter bacteria—found contaminating 38% of chicken breasts in the latest retail meat survey released this year.

Then comes the Toxoplasma brain parasite in pork; Listeria in deli meat; and Salmonella in, again, poultry.

So, as concerning as this new report may be, the greatest food safety concern may be the original white meat.

In our final story, we hear about a study that advises pregnant women to take a daily iodine supplement.

Although severe iodine deficiency was eliminated in the United States nearly a century ago, after the introduction of iodized salt, iodine intake has declined in recent decades. Public health efforts to limit salt intake to decrease cardiovascular risk, in conjunction with increasing use of non-iodized salt, may in part be to blame.

Now, not adding salt to foods is a good thing, as sodium is considered the second leading dietary killer in the world—second only to not eating enough fruit. But if you do add table salt, make sure it’s iodized, as it is a myth, and often also false advertising, that so-called “natural” sea salt contains significant amounts of iodine.

Fruits and vegetables provide iodine, but the amounts can vary depending on where it’s grown; how much iodine is in the soil. Because iodine is particularly important for fetal brain development, there’s a recommendation that all U.S. women who are pregnant, lactating, or even planning a pregnancy should ingest dietary supplements containing 150 mcg of potassium iodide per day.

Is there evidence that they’re not getting enough now? Well, we’d like to see urine levels in pregnant women over 150. But in the U.S., pregnant women only average about 125. For example, a recent survey in New York City showed only about half of pregnant women were making the cut. Don’t most women take prenatal vitamins, though?

Only about half of prenatal multivitamins contain any iodine at all. And so, only about one in five pregnant women in the U.S. are following the recommendations of the American Thyroid Association to take a daily iodine supplement—specifically in the form of potassium iodide rather than seaweed, as the levels in seaweed are subject to natural variability. Though the iodine content was as much as 90% off in some of the potassium iodide prenatal supplements, the kelp supplements varied even wider, off by as much as 170%.

Now, the American Thyroid Association admits they don’t have evidence that the current borderline insufficiency levels are leading to undesirable outcomes, and so, their rational that all pregnant women take iodine supplements is a bit tenuous. But until such data are available, they figure better safe than sorry.

A randomized, placebo-controlled interventional trial would answer the question once and for all, but the existing evidence for iodine supplementation during pregnancy is so convincing that it would be considered unethical to randomize pregnant women to a placebo. And so, when it comes to sufficient iodine intake during pregnancy, I’d recommend, just do it.

We would love it if you could share with us your stories about reinventing your health through evidence-based nutrition. Go to NutritionFacts.org/testimonials. We may be able to share it on our social media to help inspire others. To see any graphs charts, graphics, images or studies mentioned here, please go to the Nutrition Facts Podcast landing page. There you’ll find all the detailed information you need plus links to all the sources we cite to each of these topics.

NutritionFacts.org is a nonprofit, science-based public service, where you can sign up for free daily updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos and articles. Everything on the website is free. There’s no ads, no corporate sponsorship. It’s strictly non-commercial. I’m not selling anything. I just put it up as a public service, as a labor of love, as a tribute to my grandmother – whose own life was saved with evidence-based nutrition. Thanks for listening to Nutrition Facts. I’m your host, Dr. Michael Greger.

25 responses to “A Healthy Thyroid

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  1. At 8:20 Dr Greger says January 1, 2013, a month away. This was recorded in 2012? Is it possible to have the date of creation listed at the top so we have an idea of how current the information is? Science and medicine and research come out with new information every day and something that is six years old might need to be taken with a grain of salt (iodized, of course)

  2. Hi Dr Greger

    My mom is resistant to following the daily dozen because she’s so accustomed to dieting, currently the diet du jour is weight watchers. Also, she’s afraid because it’s more food than weight watchers allows with the insane point system they advocate. Finally, she doesn’t have normal thyroid function and takes replacement medications. Is there any advise or science updates you have that would help me to convince her to throw away all these ideas and just do the daily dozen for life, pun intended?

  3. hi that was great i had a retrospective assesment in 2016 in hashimoto thyroiditis &we found a meaningful effect of dyes on hypothyroidism in 100 patients . thanks alot for your useful podcasts

  4. Hi, Dr. Greger and team!

    Thank you all for the useful information.
    I was wondering if there is any way to address high levels of TSH only with food intake?
    I’ve been a vegan for over 3 years now and before that I was on a vegetarian diet for 6 years.
    Ps.: My T4 free levels are normal.

    Thank you so much!!

    1. Hi, Miguel Franca! In men, too much iodine can raise TSH levels, as can elevated triglycerides. You can find everything on this site related to triglycerides here: https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/triglycerides/, and everything related to iodine here: https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/iodine/ Everything related to thyroid health is here: https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/thyroid-health/ I hope that helps!

  5. Thank you Dr. Greger. I’m loving my plant based diet, but haven’t yet made the full conversion. I have an underactive thyroid and for eight years have been taking a porcine desiccated thyroid supplement, which improved my system symptoms dramatically, but I would like to have a vegan alternative. Do you have any suggestions? Also the role that chlorinated water plays in weakening the thyroid I believe is also a public health issue.

  6. Hello, my partner had his entire thyroid removed when they found cancer in one of the segments. He’s been taking synthetic thyroid for over 10 years now (synthroid) and it’s a constant adjustment of the dosage.
    I feel there has not been a lot of discussion around the interaction of soy/soy products and Synthroid. We did some elimination of soy a few years back from our diet and his energy seemed to greatly improve.
    Is there any recommendations or advice you can give to those wanting to switch to a plant based diet but taking a synthetic thyroid medication every day?
    And what should we expect?
    Our doctors have not been helpful in shedding any light on synthroid interactions and nutritional needs for someone without a thyroid.
    Please help.

    1. Hi, H! It may be a simple matter of timing. There are foods and other drugs that interact with Synthroid, decreasing its effectiveness. Synthroid should ideally be taken at the same time every day. If your partner takes a multivitamin and mineral supplement, it should be separated by at least 4 hours from taking the medication. Calcium-rich foods and soy (tofu is both, when a calcium coagulant is used to make it) can interact with Synthroid, and should not be eaten within several hours of taking this medication. You might find this information useful: https://www.drugs.com/food-interactions/levothyroxine,synthroid.html Of course, if he finds he does better without soy, there is no reason he needs to eat it. There are plenty of other foods he can enjoy. I hope that helps!

  7. Hi! Thank you so much for all the great information. I have Hashimoto’s and have recently had 3 different people tell me I should avoid gluten. I have never had a GI issue with gluten, but is there really an autoimmune issue with it? Particularly for the thyroid? Thanks!

  8. Hi Anniefan,

    I am a volunteer for Dr. Greger. Thank you so much for your question.

    Unfortunately, there doesn’t really seem to be any studies on a gluten-free diet and Hashimoto’s. However, there are case reports that avoiding foods with higher sensitivities may be beneficial. You could try to eliminate gluten from your diet and see if you notice a difference. Of course, if there are other foods that you notice a sensitivity to (e.g., milk, egg, nuts, soy, etc.), then just try eliminating one of those foods you suspect that you might be sensitive to. If you feel better, keep that food out of your diet, and try eliminating another food if you wish. If it makes no difference, add it back to your diet and try another food.

    It can’t hurt to take gluten out of your diet as long as you replace it with healthy alternatives (such as other whole grains).

    I hope this helps, and best of luck!

  9. With a diagnosis of Hashimotos Thyroid disease, it is not recommended to eat cruciferous vegetables. (Its challenging to follow a plant based diet without crucifereous veggies!) Is this research based? Also, what recommendations would the research suggest for someone with Hashimoto’s?

  10. First and foremost, the time and energy gone into the research on nutritionfacts doesn’t go unnoticed and it has played a pivotal role in my diet and overall health. So, thank you!

    I’m pregnant with my second child and was recently diagnosed with Hashimotos— as you can imagine this is very unsettling and I’m desperate for answers. I’m on medication to manage my TSH levels but I’m a full believer in curing or improving disease with food. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of research for diet and Hashimotos besides the autoimmune protocol diet, which is basically a more restrictive form of the paleo diet. Because I’ve been following Dr. Greger’s work for some time now, I find it very hard to believe that this is the best thing for my body; however, I’ve heard countless stories of people getting into remission from adopting this diet. Is there any research or insight that can be offered as nutrition guidelines for people with Hashimotos in regards to a plant-based diet? Studies to show effectiveness of plant-based for positive thyroid function, food to avoid, foods or supplements to include, etc.? Any input is so valued. Thank you!

  11. This was really disappointing. Outdated and not really a program on how to have a healthy thyroid. I wish Dr. Greger would do a program on hypothyroidism. How to prevent, how to address, and anything else that pertains to the topic. It’s an extremely common problem, and it’s not clear why.

  12. Also curious about recommendations for dealing with hypothyroidism. I have read that flax seed and cruciferous vegetables are not that good, but then you lose out on a lot of other benefits such as flax seeds for hypertension.

  13. I have been vegan for 29 years. I take b12 supplements. I have thyroid nodes and would like to know if there is a way to reduce the size and/or eventually get rid of the growths/ nodes through diet. My blood work according to the doctor reflects me not having an under active or overactive thyroid. Is eating cruciferous veggies bad for my thyroid? Are any other vegan foods bad for my thyroid? I don’t eat wheat, soy or corn and I mainly have an organic diet at home, I do occasionally eat out where the food is not organic. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Sounds like you are following an excellent diet and closely monitoring those thyroid nodes. A program on “Iodine and Thyroid Health” at the American Thyroid Association annual meeting, focusing on the potential effects that dietary modifications gave some practical advice that may be helpful to you in reviewing if you should avoid cruciferous vegetables: https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/thyroid/thyroid-diet-how-to-eat-with-a-thyroid-disorder (with research citations given) Suggestions included focusing on eating enough vegetables, not which one to avoid and reducing risk by mixing up your choice of vegetables, and avoiding raw cruciferous veggies.
      I hope this is helpful

  14. Diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer recently. Quite surprising because I don’t seem to have any risk factors. Curious whether the plant-based diet I adopted several years ago contributed to this somehow.

    Also, does Dr. Greger endorse the website that volunteer drkadish linked? It seems to view the natural, non-vegan sources of thyroid hormone as viable and it is slanted against the mainstream thyroid medical community.

  15. Hello, I was wondering – not sure if I just haven’t noticed – but how is it with treating barely functioning thyroid in adulthood ? What’s the best way to treat it? Because the doctors told me the best is to wait while it’s not gonna be able to function at all, and then they can treat it – with pills and medications ?

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