How To Overcome Graves Disease: A Functional Medicine Look At The Best Diet To Achieve Remission
There’s no other hormone more powerful than your thyroid hormone. In fact, every single part of your body relies on thyroid hormones to function. Therefore, if your thyroid isn’t working well, chances are the rest of your health is going to be less than optimal.
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I see just how prevenant thyroid problems are amongst my patients. While there are many different types of thyroid conditions, Graves’ disease is one that can often go undiagnosed and untreated for years.
However, once identified, it is my job to help facilitate healing and help people reach remission naturally through lifestyle and dietary changes. For the most part, Graves’ disease can be managed well with a healthy diet.
So let’s take a look at what Graves’ disease is, what the symptoms are, and how we can help someone live relatively symptom-free through a healthy diet.
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What is Graves’ disease?
Approximately 1 in 100 people in America are diagnosed with Graves’ disease - an autoimmune condition where your thyroid becomes hyperactive and leads your thyroid gland to produce an overabundance of hormones. (1) While hyperthyroidism is common, Graves’ disease is one of the leading causes of this condition.
While researchers don’t know exactly what causes Graves’ disease, they do know that with Graves’s disease there is a malfunction in the body’s immune system that produces antibodies that act like TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone). In healthy individuals, TSH directs your thyroid as to what to do. However, these “fake” antibodies masquerading as TSH can lead to an overproduction of thyroid hormones.
Graves’ disease symptoms
Since symptoms of Graves’ disease can look similar to a lot of other autoimmune conditions - specifically other autoimmune thyroid problems - diagnoses can be slightly more difficult at first glance. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness
- Trouble sleeping
- Irregular heartbeat
- Excessive sweating
- Shaky hands
- Weight loss
- Enlarged thyroid (goiter)
- Irregular heartbeat
- Low libido
In addition to these, there are a couple symptoms that are usually tell-tale signs that someone is struggling with Graves’ disease rather than another type of hyperthyroidism. While these symptoms are more rare amongst Graves’ disease patients, they are definitely something to be aware of as they are more closely linked with this condition than any other.
This thyroid eye disease happens when the muscles and tissue in and around your eye become swollen leading your eyeballs to protrude from their sockets resulting in a look of constant “surprise”.
2. Graves’ dermopathy
This skin condition results in your skin having a red, lumpy appearance around your shins.
If you do have any of these symptoms, labs can help you further determine whether or not Graves’ disease is a factor in your health case. Blood tests can look at your levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) since these will be suppressed in the case of Graves’ disease. You can also look at whether or not your body is producing antibodies specific to Graves’ disease.
Doctors will also run two other tests that are more definitive for Graves’ disease:
- Thyroid scan: This looks at where iodine is distributed throughout your thyroid as it shows up throughout your entire thyroid in Graves’ disease whereas it only shows up in small nodules in other cases of hyperthyroidism.
- Radioactive iodine uptake test: Iodine is necessary for your body to produce thyroid hormones. This test looks at how much iodine your body is using and if it is high, it can be an indicator of Graves’ disease.
How food affects Graves’ disease
Once you have determined whether or not Graves’ disease is a factor in your health case, the next step would be to decide on a plan of action to address symptoms and manage your condition. For the most part, diagnoses can be the most difficult challenge of having Graves’ disease as many people can actually reach remission once diagnosed and treatment has started.
In functional medicine, we understand that we need to look at the underlying cause of why someone is struggling with a health problem in the first place. We aim to address these issues at the root with lifestyle and dietary changes.
Food can be one of the most important deciding factors of whether or not someone can find symptom relief considering a person’s diet has great influence over hormone levels and inflammation.
Foods to avoid with Graves’ disease
When developing a healthy Graves’ disease diet, you want to first look at what foods to avoid. While every person’s biochemistry is going to be different and no two people will have the same diet, there are some key foods and nutrients that are more likely to aggravate Graves’ disease symptoms than others.
In the case of Graves’ disease, too much iodine can be extremely harmful considering iodine is necessary for making thyroid hormones and your body is already overproducing them in this condition. Foods high in iodine include:
- Iodized table salt
- Certain seafood (cod, halibut, pollock)
Too much caffeine from coffee and tea can aggravate certain symptoms like increased heart rate, weight loss, and anxiety. Since caffeine can contribute to some of this in people without this condition it’s especially important to be mindful of how much caffeine you are consuming if you do have Graves’ disease.
When the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, it is often a case of mistaken identity, and studies have shown that gluten is one of the main culprits in Graves’ disease. (2)
Gluten is the protein found in wheat and some other grains, and when it passes through the gut lining and into the bloodstream, the immune system will tag the “foreign invader” (gluten) with antibodies for destruction. This can cause a lot of damage to your body as it gets caught in this crossfire – and oftentimes, it is the thyroid that gets mistaken for gluten, due to a similarity in how the molecules look to your immune system.
I always recommend a well rounded diet filled with clean, whole food sources of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats from fruit, vegetables and organic, unprocessed meat. However, there are some specific nutrients that will be extra beneficial to focus on eating to help you reach remission in your journey with Graves’ disease.
1. Sea salt
This will give you all the flavor and health benefits of salt without the added iodine.
Selenium is a vital nutrient for regulating thyroid hormones and function. Deficiency in selenium has also been linked to an increased risk for exophthalmos. Foods rich in selenium include Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds. (3)
Research shows that Graves’ disease has been linked to low iron levels and deficiency. (4) Focusing on iron-rich foods like grass-fed beef, spinach, and legumes if you can tolerate them as some people with gut problems can be sensitive to them.
Ultimately, a diet for Graves’ disease is going to look different for each person once you take into consideration food intolerances and other underlying health problems that require you to avoid specific foods and focus on other nutrients. Since inflammation can specifically inhibit thyroid function, addressing inflammation through an anti-inflammatory diet can also be a great step toward healing.
In functional medicine, we aim to take a deeper look at your thyroid than conventional medicine and take a whole-body approach toward healing.
Functional medicine typically runs a broader range of tests and thyroid panel and looks at a narrower range of optimal results. We are also likely to recommend additional labs to address any dysfunctions with your microbiome, inflammation, immune system, and other hormones. These should all be considered in order to get the most complete picture of what is going on with your health. This also helps us to develop a diet for Graves’ disease and other natural remedies for Graves’ disease tailored to your individual health.
Unlike what many conventional doctors may not tell you, there are many thyroid dysfunctions that don’t show up on labs and more natural things you can do for your health besides just medication and surgery.
If you are ready to take the next step in your health, find out if Graves’ disease is a factor for you, and start addressing healing through diet, as one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
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- Graves’ disease NIH November 2021. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases/graves-disease
- Akçay, Müfide Nuran, and Güngör Akçay. “The presence of the antigliadin antibodies in autoimmune thyroid diseases.” Hepato-gastroenterology vol. 50 Suppl 2 (2003): cclxxix-cclxxx.
- “Selenium deficiency and Graves’ eye disease”. Clinical Thyroidology for the Public vol. 7 issue 8. (2014). https://www.thyroid.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/ctfp/volume7/issue8/ct_public_v78_3_4.pdf
- Fischli, S, von Wyl, V, Trummler, M, et al. Iron metabolism in patients with Graves’ hyperthyroidism. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2017; 87: 609– 616. https://doi.org/10.1111/cen.13450
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.