A lot of changes occur during pregnancy and a woman’s body puts in an amazing amount of effort to support a developing baby during gestation as well as trying to maintain a balance for mom. There is no doubt that this involves a lot of hormonal changes. One group of hormones that can be affected after pregnancy are the thyroid hormones.
Getting to know the thyroid
Your thyroid is best described as a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck. In the body, the thyroid gland is part of your endocrine system. This system uses hormones to communicate to other glands throughout your body. The thyroid plays a large role in maintaining many vital functions by regulating your metabolic rate (aka your metabolism), body temperature, it controls growth, bone metabolism and central nervous system development.
Did you know that by the 10th week of gestation, the thyroid gland has already developed and has begun secreting small amounts of hormones because of its vital role in metabolism and growth, though the majority of the thyroid hormones still come from momma.
Functions of the thyroid
Before we get into the hormones that the thyroid gland produces, it’s important to know that you have a small gland, called the pituitary gland, that sits behind the bridge of your nose in your brain. The pituitary gland is one of the primary glands in the endocrine system and is often referred to as the “master gland”. One of the functions of the pituitary gland is to signal your thyroid to produce more thyroid hormones. It does this by releasing thyroid stimulating hormone (aka TSH). When it receives this message to produce more hormones, the thyroid produces two hormones: tetraiodothyronine (aka T4) and Triiodothyronine (aka T3). Two key nutrients needed to produce these two thyroid hormones are iodine and an amino acid tyrosine. The T4 hormone contains 4 iodine atoms attached to tyrosine and the T3 hormone contains 3. T4 is converted into the active T3 hormone in various parts of the body. The thyroid gland also produces calcitonin which helps to maintain adequate calcium levels in the blood, but we won’t be discussing this hormone in much detail in today’s post.
Issues related to the thyroid
There are two main types of concerns when it comes to thyroid health - hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism (“hypo” means low) is when is not enough thyroid hormone is produced, and often associated with elevated TSH levels. This means that your body is signaling your thyroid to produce more T4 and T3, but the thyroid has insufficient material to make the hormones. The nutrient that is often needed, is iodine. A tell-tale sign of long-term iodine deficiency is a goiter. A goiter is basically the enlargement of the thyroid gland- to hopefully absorb adequate iodine. Hypothyroidism can also be caused by an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s disease. In this condition, the body begins to produce antibodies to attack the thyroid gland (“auto” means own). On the other hand, hyperthyroidism ("hyper" means high or higher than normal) occurs when there is an excess of thyroid hormones (T4 and T3), yet the body has not signaled to create this surplus. Hyperthyroidism is not as common as hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism can also be a result of an autoimmune condition called Grave’s disease.
Subnormal basal metabolic rate (aka lower/reduced basal body temperature)
Decreased pulse rate
Decreased cardiac output.
Increased transit time (aka slower digestion)
Lowered heart rate
Signs and symptoms of Hyperthyroidism
Decreased transit time
Increased heart rhythm
*a well-known symptom of Graves’ disease is bulging eyes
Pregnancy, postpartum and the thyroid
As mentioned above, baby’s thyroid gland is developed and functioning by week 10 of pregnancy. During pregnancy, mom’s body lowers its immune defense so it does not fight against developing baby. After pregnancy, the body begins to increase its immune function back to normal levels. In about 7% of pregnancies, the mother experiences a condition called postpartum thyroiditis where the immune system beings to temporarily attack the thyroid gland causing it to become inflamed during postpartum. It should be noted that these women are at risk of developing autoimmune thyroiditis prior to conception but are not diagnosed with a thyroid condition, currently.
Postpartum thyroiditis occurs in two phases: in the first phase, symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism are experienced from 2 months to 10 months postpartum. The second phase consists of symptoms associated with hypothyroidism and is experienced between 2 months to 12 months postpartum. Any symptoms of hyperthyroidism beyond 12 months is no longer considered postpartum thyroiditis.
Nutrients to consider for thyroid health
Since iodine plays a integral role in thyroid hormone production, it is an important nutrient to include in your diet. Iodine is available in a variety of foods and your needs can easily be met through a well-balanced diet.
Iodine needs vary during the different stages of a woman's life but can easily be met by eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins.
Women 19 and older: 150 mcg per day
Pregnant Women 19 and older: 220 mcg per day
Breastfeeding women 19 and older: 290 mcg per day
*Note: it is recommended to stay below 1100 mcg of iodine per day.
Iron deficiency is a very common deficiency in women of childbearing age. Iron is a component of the protein hemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body. Iron is an important nutrient during pregnancy as the volume of blood required increases as the baby continues to grow. When it comes to thyroid health, iron is used in thyroid hormone production in small amounts. Women who are experiencing iron deficiency pre-, during and post-pregnancy can benefit from incorporating more iron-rich foods in their diet as iron stores are also being built for baby during pregnancy.
Another potentially important nutrient is selenium. Selenium is a mineral that acts as an antioxidant in the body to protect cells against damage. There is some evidence that it may play a role in reducing the risk of postpartum thyroiditis, inflammation of the thyroid gland (“-itis” refers to inflammation); however, more research is needed before its use in treatment can be determined. One thing you can do is incorporate selenium-rich foods into your diet. Check out this post for a list of selenium-rich foods you can add to your diet here.
One thing to note is that these nutrients can easily be obtained through a diet full of whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as lean protein sources and nuts and seeds. Nutrients should always be obtained through food sources before you decide to begin supplementation. Check out how easy it is to eat to support your thyroid below!
If you are experiencing any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it is important to speak to your primary healthcare provider about the symptoms you are facing. Want a personalized plan to support your thyroid health, start here to schedule your free coaching call!