This article is shared with permission from our friends at PaleoHacks.
If you struggle with consistent fatigue, weight gain, brain fog or lack of vitality, you’re not alone. These symptoms, which may indicate a sluggish thyroid, seem to be on the rise.
If you’ve gone to your doctor for help, you likely left with few answers to your problems. The tricky part for doctors is these symptoms fit a myriad of other conditions and you don’t fit into any specific diagnosis. This grey area between health and full-blown disease is where many people find themselves but are unsure how to restore their health and vitality.
Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck, and it acts like a bellwether for your body, constantly assessing how well (or poorly) systems are running. If you’re struggling with poor blood sugar control or high stress – two common root causes of thyroid problems – your thyroid hormone output may be significantly affected. This will leave you struggling with all the symptoms mentioned at the outset, a major roadblock to productivity at work, performance in the gym and maintaining your ideal weight and health.
Your brain is ultimately the master conductor of your thyroid to determine if it needs to ramp up (or down) thyroid hormone output to maintain homeostasis.
If you struggle with fatigue, weight gain, constantly cold hands or feet, sluggish bowels or brain fog, your thyroid hormone output may be out of balance. This is known as thyroid dysfunction, that “grey area” between a full-blown disease condition like hypothyroidism and good health.
Fatigue, weight gain, brain fog and sluggish bowels are signs of thyroid dysfunction.
Chronically high insulin levels – your blood sugar hormone – is a key player that may be throwing off your thyroid health by promoting excessive inflammation in the body. Your sluggish thyroid is simply the “alarm bell” that sounds to highlight the dysfunction.
Let’s take a closer look at how blood sugar and insulin imbalance impact your waistline, how it impacts thyroid health via inflammation, and how restoring healthy insulin function lays the foundation to restoring your health and vitality.
The Insulin Sensitivity and Weight Loss Link
Insulin is your body’s blood sugar hormone, released by the beta-cells of your pancreas in response to food. If you’re lean, fit, or in good health, you’ll have very good insulin sensitivity, meaning your body only needs to release a relatively small amount of insulin to get the job done. The more overweight, out of shape, or in poor health you are, the greater amounts of insulin you’ll need to pump out to cope with the same meal. This leads to elevated insulin levels, a major problem for weight loss and overall health.
The more overweight you are, the greater amounts of insulin you’ll need to pump out to cope with the same meal.
Insulin functions like a fuel selector switch. If you’re healthy and fit, you’ll have low insulin levels, allowing your body to burn body fat effectively for fuel. If you’re struggling with weight gain or poor health, you’ll likely have chronically higher insulin levels, which directly block your capacity to burn body fat. (1)
Consistently high insulin levels, therefore, keep your body in “sugar-burning” mode, using the food you eat (and sugars you crave) for energy. On the other hand, if insulin is low, your body can flip the switch and select a different fuel (i.e., break down your body fat stores) to supply energy for your activity.
High Insulin, Inflammation and Sluggish Thyroid
If you struggle with high insulin levels, you’ll also struggle with inflammation. Weight gain and high belly fat are both associated with chronically high insulin levels and are powerful predictors of systemic inflammation. (2) This type of chronic “head to toe” inflammation is a major roadblock to thyroid health on multiple levels: it impairs the brain’s ability to communicate with the thyroid gland and the ability of thyroid hormones to get into the target cells. (3)
If your digestive system is inflamed, there is a strong chance your brain is likely “on fire” as well. This systemic inflammation impairs the hypothalamus communication with the thyroid, leading to lower thyroid-releasing hormone (TRH) levels and lower thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) release from the pituitary to the thyroid gland itself. Lower TSH leads to lower T4 hormone output, and now your metabolism will start to show signs of slowing. While not a full-blown pathology, your TSH levels will likely dip toward the lower end of the “normal” range for TSH tests.
Chronic inflammation is also a major roadblock “downstream” of your thyroid gland at the tissue level. Your T4 thyroid hormone must be converted into the active T3 at the tissue level, but when systemic inflammation is high from chronically high insulin levels and weight gain, the hormone cannot dock onto the receptors effectively. It’s like having a poor connection from your iPhone charger to your phone… if it’s not docking effectively, you can’t recharge your phone. The same principle applies to thyroid hormones.
How to Eat for Better Insulin and Blood Sugar Levels
Chronic inflammation due to high blood sugar and insulin is a major roadblock to healthy thyroid function. Modifying your carbohydrate and sugar intake is paramount to cooling your internal fire. The research is clear: high insulin levels are strongly associated with higher TSH levels (and both are associated with weight gain and obesity). (4) If you fail to correct this, you’ll be constantly fighting an uphill battle.
Metabolic syndrome is characterized by high blood pressure, high insulin and high blood pressure.
For many people in America, this scenario has already reached a tipping point. A condition called metabolic syndrome – characterized by high blood pressure, high insulin, high belly fat, abnormal cholesterol and chronic inflammation – now affects over 50 million Americans, and it dramatically increases your risk of sluggish thyroid (as well as heart disease and diabetes). (5)
So, how can you right the ship and get yourself back on track?
A low-carb, high-fat diet (LCHF) is proven to be one of the most effective nutrition strategies to dramatically reduce insulin levels and correct high blood sugars. A Paleo approach is effectively an LCHF diet, with your plate full of grass-fed and wild animal proteins, healthy fats, plentiful vegetables and modest amounts of fruit. A low-carb Paleo diet is chock-full of healthy fats like coconut oil, avocado, animal fats, low-carb options like cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, kale, etc.), leafy greens (e.g., arugula, spinach, salad greens, etc.) and low-carb fruits like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, while eliminating or minimizing sugars and processed carbs.
A recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a Paleo diet improved blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, as well as high triglycerides, far better than the diabetes-specific diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association. (6) A low-carb approach is also shown in the research to powerfully reduce high fasting insulin levels, a major roadblock to thyroid health, and therefore a great place to start to reboot your blood sugars and thyroid. (7)
(Not sure how to get started on a low-carb Paleo diet? Try these low-carb Paleo breakfast options!)
You don’t have to suffer from metabolic syndrome or prediabetes for high insulin levels to rear its ugly head and cause a sluggish thyroid. If you’re struggling with weight gain and low energy, then improving your blood sugar and insulin function will go a long way to cooling inflammation and thus improving thyroid health.
An LCHF approach is a great starting point and provides you with significant benefit in the first 3-6 months. However, at some point down the road, you may reach a plateau in your progress. At that point, it’s important for you to re-assess your health. (Don’t make the common mistake of further reducing carbs to overcome the roadblock, as long-term, very low-carb intake can negatively impact stress levels and derail thyroid health.)
Life is all about balance, and your health is no different.
Chronically high blood sugar and insulin levels are a major root cause of poor health and a sluggish thyroid. If you’re like most Americans following a higher carb, low-fat approach, adopting a low-carb diet is a great place to start to improve insulin sensitivity, kick-start weight loss, and reboot thyroid health.
Your body is dynamic and constantly adapting to the stimulus you provide it, whether it’s from food you eat, the amount of movement you get in a day, your sleep quality, or stress. Address the root causes of thyroid dysfunction and you’ll reverse your sluggish thyroid, kick-start fat loss, and upgrade your overall health.