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The Zone Diet for Thyroid Patients and Losing Weight With Hypothyroidism

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Updated December 03, 2003

by Mary J. Shomon

I've been looking into whether or not the "Zone" diet approach (Barry Sears, Ph.D. author of the two books: Enter the Zone, and Mastering the Zone) of balancing protein/carbo/fat intake and controlling excess intake of simple carbohydrates (like bread, pasta, etc.) is the best one to pursue for hypothyroid sufferers. My doctor recommended it, and several folks on the alt.support.thyroid newsgroup are having great success with this way of eating.

Also, autoimmune hypothyroidism (such as Hashimotos) is correlated to a higher incidence of other diseases, including diabetes. In addition, hypothyroidism raises cholesterol, and makes it harder to lose weight. Somehow, they're all related, and the Zone seems to have some answers why.

When you eat a carbohydrate, your pancreas secretes insulin to drive down blood sugar back to a normal level. If you eat too many carbohydrates, your pancreas releases so much insulin that it can drive down blood sugar to a level too low to allow your brain to function effectively. This condition of low blood sugar and high insulin can be considered a step away from diabetes.

According to the Zone theory, when you're creating this excess insulin, it also prevents your body from using its stored fat for energy. Hence, your insulin response to excess carbos causes you to gain weight, or you cannot lose weight.

But what are considered "excess carbohydrates?
  1. For some people, most simple carbohydrates (i.e., bread, pasta) are "too much." These people's systems overreact to an amount of carbos that others wouldn't have a problem with. This is why these people seem to gain or have trouble losing, while eating the same amount of food that doesn't cause others a problem. Yep, it's a "glandular problem" for these folks, but the gland is the pancreas!
  2. Some people simply eat too many carbos. According to Sears, only the minority of the population (25%) can eat carbos freely with no blood sugar highs and lows, or weight problems. They are metabolically fortunate. For the rest of us, we're susceptible to carbos. It's being documented that people are eating less and less fat, but getting fatter. If we go on "low-fat diets" and eat only pasta and bagels and Snackwells and fruits and vegs and such, and stay very low-fat, and even exercise, we don't lose and might even gain more.
Now, here are some theories to float.

  1. A slower metabolism can't handle carbos/insulin as it did before. It seems likely that hypothyroidism, with its penchant for slowing down everything else in our systems, also slows down our body's ability to process carbohydrates. Hence, the carbos we could eat pre-thyroid problems now are too much for our systems to handle. So excess carbos lead to excess insulin which leads to excess weight...and someday even perhaps diabetes. Plus, we might end up with even more side effects of blood sugar swings (tiredness, dizziness, fatigue, exhaustion, hunger, etc.) that we may be mistaking as thyroid symptoms.
  2. Stress from chronic physical illness is raising cortisol, which raises insulin. Any illness, such as the chronic thyroid problems we all face, creates physical stress. Stress raises cortisol levels. And increased cortisol increases insulin levels. (I know my cortisol was through the roof last time the doctor checked. She had no idea why.)
  3. There's also a vicious circle aspect to this. The liver mediates between the activities of the insulin-releasing pancreas and the adrenal and thyroid glands, which are supposed to "tell" the liver to release glucose. If the adrenals and thyroid aren't working properly on the "telling" end, or if the liver is sluggish, stressed out, or toxic, and not working on the "receiving" end, the system goes out of balance. Either way, the result is elevated excess insulin (or hyperinsulinism).
Ultimately, some doctors believe that if your adrenal glands are stronger than your pancreas, this can potentially lead to diabetes. If your pancreas is the stronger organ, which is more common, then you get fatigue, lowered body temperature, reduced enzymatic activity, and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Interesting, hmmm. The standard complaints we all seem to have, even when we're getting our thyroid hormone!

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