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Did you know there are two crucial nutrients we tend to be deficient in, that can contribute to everything from hypothyroidism, to fatigue, hair loss, and even poor immune function? Those nutrients are iron and Vitamin A – and today we’re going to chat about why (and how) you should get them through food!

One of these you’ll most likely be very familiar with (all my anemic ladies with cold hands and feet represent), and the other you may have never thought twice about a day in your life. After all, don’t we get enough Vitamin A through beta-carotene rich foods?

Let’s chat about why these nutrients are so important for life-long healthy thyroid function, and why beef liver contains a much more bioavailable form of both than what can be found in plant foods or supplements alone.

FIRST OF ALL, WHY IS IRON SO IMPORTANT FOR THYROID FUNCTION?

Anyone who’s been anemic can tell you how miserable it feels to be low in iron. The fatigue, the pale complexion, and always feeling like the coldest person in the room. 

But when you think about how those symptoms directly relate to iron deficiency’s detrimental effect on your thyroid, things are put into perspective and get real. It’s incredible to think that a deficiency of this one single mineral can put a damper on thyroid function and contribute to everything from hypothyroidism to hair loss to dry skin – but it’s a reality for so many of us who are struggling finding answers to our symptoms.

Iron deficiency can not only affect thyroid hormone production and conversion, it is often the primary cause of the hair loss we experience with thyroid disease, even when medication dosage is adequate and thyroid labs are “normalized.” While labs can be normal on paper thanks to the use of thyroid hormone medication, when these deficiencies are lingering underneath the surface, the symptoms of hypothyroidism can linger too. 

In fact, one study conducted in Iran involving adolescent girls set out to understand the effect of low iron on young women by collecting urine and serum samples of those with iron deficiency. The results concluded that there was a significant correlation between the T4, TSH and ferritin levels studied in the subjects, and indicated that iron deficiency has a direct effect on thyroid hormone status.

Additional papers have found that iron deficiency anemia directly impairs thyroid metabolism in animals and humans, and can even negatively affect growth and development of children due to this interplay.

THE IRON CONUNDRUM: FOOD VS. SUPPLEMENTS

Iron is the one mineral I recommend getting from food as much as possible unless levels are extremely low (and as you work to optimize your digestion and microbiome, you’ll end up absorbing more and more of it from food). 

The reason I say this is because many people end up taking iron supplements for years on end and never see a true or permanent difference in their iron levels. Thus, I believe that most of our iron deficiency issues come from poor absorption and gut dysbiosis, rather than a lack of it in our diets – especially when you think about the fact that much of the food we eat in North America has been fortified, not to mention the access we have to chicken, red meat and other iron-rich foods. It’s not that we’re not eating enough iron, it’s that we’re not absorbing it!

Gut inflammation due to gut dysbiosis (overgrowths of bacteria, yeast, or parasites) as well as intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) both create obstacles when it comes to absorption of iron through food and even supplements. In fact, both good and bad bacteria fight for iron in the gut, and often, iron supplementation without correcting gut microbiome balance first can end up feeding infections rather than your own tissues. 

Yeasts, like Candida albicans (another common overgrowth), are especially good at sequestering iron from their hosts and exploiting that nutrition for their own growth. 

Thus, I recommend focusing on addressing gut health first and utilizing a protocol if necessary, before any type of iron supplementation and in the meantime, getting iron from whole food sources.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN IRON & VITAMIN A

There’s also a conversation to be had about iron’s relationship to our second nutrient, Vitamin A. Studies show that simultaneous use of iron and Vitamin A supplements seemed to be more effective in preventing iron deficiency anemia than the use of either of these micronutrients alone.

VITAMIN A: ANOTHER CRUCIAL THYROID NUTRIENT 

Speaking of A, let’s quickly chat about why this vitamin is so important for healthy thyroid function.

Vitamin A actually plays a key role in reversing sluggish thyroid function, and is needed in adequate amounts for long-term optimal thyroid function. In one study, separate groups of obese and non-obese women supplemented with 25,000 IU of Vitamin A per day. After four months, both groups showed and increase of circulating thyroid hormone and a decrease in TSH, indicating improved thyroid function.

This is because Vitamin A is required for the activation of thyroid hormone receptors, and insufficient intake may depress thyroid function. Animal studies have shown that vitamin A deficiency interferes with thyroid health on the pituitary level of the HPAOT (hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenals – ovaries – thyroid) axis. When Vitamin A deficiency is present, the pituitary sends out an increased “message” to the thyroid that we need to produce more thyroid hormone, thus raising TSH levels. 

DON’T WE GET ENOUGH VITAMIN A FROM BETA-CAROTENE?

Unfortunately, we don’t actually get enough true Vitamin A in our diets (meaning animal-based retinol), since the beta-carotene form found in plants has to be converted by enzymes that many of us are deficient in due to micronutrient status or genetics.

And yes, genetics are key here! A portion of us (including myself) have genetic mutations that hinders the proper conversion of beta-carotene to true, bioavailable retinol. 

While beta-carotene will of course give you some Vitamin A at the end of this conversion process that varies person to person, I also don’t see a lot of us consuming enough cooked carrots, squash and sweet potato to make a real difference when deficiency is present.

WHERE BEEF LIVER COMES IN

Nutrition-wise, I believe the best way to get both of these micronutrients (Vitamin A and iron) is to consume a solid serving of grass-fed beef liver every 1-2 weeks, or a smaller amount of beef liver capsules daily. The problem is, beef liver capsules can get expensive, especially when you already have a few supplements in your regimen. Plus, who wants to swallow extra capsules when you may not need to?

Buying beef liver from a local farmer or butcher is also far more cost effective – Nick and I got our most recent purchase of grass-fed beef liver at the farmer’s market for $5/lb. The only problem is, of course, you need to hide the flavor.

Nick and I figured out that we could make rice, liver, and ground beef meatballs where everything is mixed together and well-seasoned to “hide” the liver taste. After a hundred different iterations and lots of trial and error, you can find the final recipe here that gets us to eat liver twice a month, every month. It never fails, and might I add that these meatballs taste amazing in a homemade red sauce with some gluten free pasta! 

Give this recipe a try and see how you feel. We’re always amazed at how much more energized and clear we feel when we keep this meal in consistent rotation. Food matters, nutrient deficiencies matter, and you can make a huge improvement in your thyroid’s function and optimization by adding more nutrient-rich meals like this to your diet.

STRUGGLING WITH HYPOTHYROIDISM? WE’VE GOT YOU COVERED.

For more information like this, listen to my newest podcast episode “The Complete Guide to Hypothyroidism.” It’s like a masterclass of everything I’d want someone struggling with thyroid function and chronic fatigue to know. This episode is a culmination of 10 years of my own experience with thyroid function personally, everything I’ve learned from expert practitioners, and clinical pearls from my traditional herbalism training. 

We chat not only about iron and Vitamin A, but zinc, selenium, iodine, inositol, and other dietary strategies to fill in deficiencies and gaps. We also cover the 6 lab tests you need beyond TSH, thyroid-specific herbs and adaptogens, nuances in medication options, why gut health matters, and 3 actionable steps to improve your microbiome today.

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