As the winter season comes rolling in our natural response is to bundle up and hunker down. For some this is a pleasant time to enjoy hot beverages and maybe a warm fire. Actions such as these can be done for comfort and relaxation. But for others, such as those with thyroid conditions, they may be a necessity!
Thermoregulation and Cold Intolerance
The thyroid is critical in thermoregulation, which maintains the body’s temperature and regulates heat. Unsurprisingly, as conditions get colder the thyroid has to work harder to keep us warm. Those with thyroid conditions tend to be less capable of dealing with cold weather. Inability to maintain proper body heat (the average resting body temperature for adults is 98.6 Fahrenheit, 37 degrees Celsius) can lead to cold intolerance.
In fact, some of the most common causal factors of cold intolerance involves hormone function. There are three major contributors that are commonly found in those who are cold intolerant.
- Hypothyroidism, reduced thyroid activity, leads to a reduced metabolic rate. As metabolism reduces the body becomes decreasingly effective at producing heat.
- Hyperthyroidism, overactive thyroid activity, can cause individuals to have less fat and reduced muscle mass. Both fat and muscle act as a sort of insulation and help regulate body heat.
- A dysfunctional hypothalamus, the gland located in the brain that regulates core body temperature, can cause significant fluctuations in body temperature. If this system malfunctions, body temperatures can be allocated to improper ranges.
Cold Weather and the Thyroid
Cold weather has a notable impact on those with thyroid conditions, but it can also impact the thyroid of healthy individuals. Because the body requires more heat, it produces additional TSH in order to boost metabolic action. Due to this influx of TSH (this commonly occurs during extended periods of cold weather), one may be incorrectly diagnosed with mild hypothyroidism, or subclinical hypothyroidism. To avoid misdiagnosis, it is best to have multiple tests done in different seasons as hormone levels fluctuate dependent on moderate and cold seasons.
In a 2013 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, a shift was recognized in thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels based on the season. Tests gauging TSH levels were conducted monthly among 1,751 individuals diagnosed with subclinical hypothyroidism and 28,096 healthy individuals with normal thyroid function. Results showed that there is a definite seasonal pattern in TSH levels. In both groups, levels of TSH decreased during the summer and fall months and increased during the winter months all the way through to the spring. This data, as suggested by David S. Cooper, MD, could be the body compensating for cold weather by increasing hormone production and thereby boosting metabolic function. As this study shows, a thyroid condition is not required to feel the impact of system-slowing effects brought on by cold weather.
Healthy Habits for the Holidays
Although dysfunctional hormonal activity in the body can amplify the effects of cold weather, those without thyroid conditions can also benefit by combatting winter weather woes. Fortunately, there are a number of factors that rest within your control to prevent winter harshness slowing you down this season.
Due to the change in day/night cycles that occurs in winter, one may suffer from lack of sleep. Poor sleep not only impacts the thyroid, but can cause the body to be weakened allowing colds and flus easier access. Sleep promotes needed regeneration, keeps the autoimmune system working properly and helps maintain hormone balance. A typical adult requires seven to eight hours of sleep per night. During the winter that number increases slightly and for those with thyroid conditions they may require even more sleep. Because sleep is such a critical factor in overall health it is important to get adequate sleep and make time during the winter to go to bed early or sleep in a little later.
Cold weather places extra burden on our body to keep temperatures maintained at a constant level. Just like any other heat source, it is important to provide the right fuel. One of the best ways to keep the fire burning is by eating more thermogenic foods, which create heat as they are converted into energy. Thermogenic elements can be found in a number of fruits, vegetable, herbs, meats, dairy products, and spices. Common thermogenic foods include:
- Some Chilies
- Red and Black Pepper
- Saturated Animal Fats (lard, duck fat, clarified butter)
- Coconut Oil
Because the thyroid is working overtime during extended periods of cold it is important to provide it with the nutrients it needs. Eating high quality fats and proteins every few hours can assist in keeping your body appropriately fueled. Some foods that benefit the thyroid include fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and other healthy proteins such as ocean fish, lean meat, poultry, and beans. These foods can help you keep up with the extra demand of the thyroid during cold weather.
There are also some foods to avoid during the winter. Processed sugars can be especially detrimental to those with thyroid conditions. This may be due to insulin resistance, autoimmune susceptibility, and/or food allergies. Whatever the reason, excess sugar may not provide appropriate fuel for the thyroid and can easily lead to weight gain due to reduced metabolism brought on by the cold.
Soak up the Sun
Although days get darker earlier and there are fewer sunlight hours during the day it’s worth the effort to spend some time catching some rays. Studies have shown that exposure to sunlight, at least 20-30 minutes a day, benefits both brain chemistry as well as the endocrine system. Getting enough sun also combats Vitamin D deficiency which can reduce autoimmune efficiency. Don’t fret if you feel like it’s too cold to pull out a lawn chair and sit out in the yard. Simply allowing natural sunlight to hit your body and face through windows provides notable benefits. However, if you’re out running errands or are brave enough to go for a stroll, avoid wearing sunglasses as they inhibit the positive effects of sunlight.
Warming up Winter
As these colder months begin to settle in, remember to listen to your body and respond appropriately. If you feel cold quicker than others and just can’t seem to warm up no matter what you do, get checked for a thyroid condition. Those with thyroid conditions have reduced tolerance to cold and are at greater risk of hypothermia. Additionally, studies have shown that living in colder climates increases the risk of developing thyroid cancer (Alaska has risk rates twice that of the warmer Texas). This is all the more reason to be informed and proactive in combating winter weariness and keeping the thyroid strong. During this season keep warm, sleep-up, eat well and catch some rays!