The Master Endocrine Gland
As a gut health-focused dietitian, I find it important to address not only gut-specific symptoms and strategies, but to also look at the other parts of the body that impact the functioning of our gut. One of these areas is our thyroid health.
The thyroid is a small gland that sits at the base of the throat and is considered the master gland of the endocrine system, as it directly interacts with every other gland in the system. This means that a healthy thyroid is essential for properly-functioning digestive, reproductive, immune and stress adaptation systems in the body, so taking good care of it has huge health implications.
The roles of the thyroid include making and storing thyroid hormone, regulating body temperature. and regulating metabolism--this role is important for weight maintenance, but also determines how quickly our body processes food to use it for energy, impacting digestion. Good thyroid health is also needed for fertility in both men and women, and for development and growth of the fetus during pregnancy. In children, it is needed for proper development, both physically and cognitively.
As part of the HPAT axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid), the thyroid influences hormone balance in the endocrine system, along with helping to maintain balance of the reproductive hormones. This little gland has big implications in the health of our whole body.
The Thyroid-Gut Connection
While we can see the role of the thyroid in our hormones and metabolism, the connection between the gut and the thyroid is lesser-known. However, the presence of a "gut-thyroid" axis is becoming more widely accepted, as the functioning of the thyroid and the digestive system are directly linked.
Because the thyroid influences metabolic rate, it then impacts digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients, as well as gut motility, which is how quickly food moves through the GI tract. For those with dysbiosis, an imbalance in beneficial and pathogenic microbes, in the gut, slow gut motility can be a major factor contributing to overgrowth of pathogen, leading to diagnoses like Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), fungal overgrowth, or H. Pylori.
As with its influence on other glands, the thyroid helps to regulate pancreatic function, which can impact digestive enzyme production and overall gut function. Plus, adequate thyroid function is needed for secretion of digestive juices, from salivary enzymes to stomach acid production and bile flow, all needed for proper breakdown and absorption of food and nutrients.
Every cell in the body has thyroid hormone receptors, and the gut is no different. The cells in the lining of the gut require thyroid hormone to work properly, which can have implications for intestinal permeability, lack of healthy mucosa and poor gut immune functioning.
While a well-functioning thyroid is needed to keep things moving properly through the digestive system, conversely, a healthy gut supports proper thyroid function. Having a balanced microbiome, healthy gut mucosa, integrity in the gut lining and adequate stomach acid all have connections to a properly-working thyroid.
Poor gut health can lead to impaired absorption of nutrients, which can lead to inability to make thyroid hormones, and nutrient deficiencies a major factor for thyroid dysfunction. The liver, which is needed to get rid of toxins and excess hormones, can impair thyroid function if not working properly, as the thyroid is very sensitive to toxins like heavy metals. Plus, much of the thyroid hormone is activated in the liver, and some in other part of the gut, so we need the liver to work well to allow our body to have the usable form of thyroid hormone it needs (T3).
If leaky gut is present, particles from our food and environment can cross the gut barrier, instead of being excreted in waste, and cause inflammation and even an autoimmune response. Many thyroid conditions are autoimmune in nature, including Hashimoto's thyroiditis (hypothyroidism) and Grave's disease (hyperthyroidism), so having strong gut integrity may help protect the thyroid. Healthy overall immune function is also necessary for protection from autoimmunity, as well as infections in the gut and the entire body. Poor immune functioning is often seen in both gut and thyroid conditions, and addressing this is necessary for the gut-thyroid axis to be healthy.
The thyroid has very specific nutrient needs and is also very sensitive to toxins and inflammation, so it is no wonder why so many have dysfunction in not just one, but both of these systems, as they are intricately connected. Taking special care to nourish and protect the thyroid though diet and lifestyle may be a piece of your gut-healing puzzle.
What Can Thyroid Dysfunction Look Like?
How would you know if your thyroid isn't working as it should?
Some common symptoms of thyroid dysfunction (which can be under- or overactive) include:
If you experience these symptoms above, it is certainly worth getting a full thyroid panel run by your doctor to determine if an imbalance of thyroid hormones is part of your health picture. Medication may be necessary, but there are often other areas to address as part of your care plan, including nutrition, lifestyle facotrs and healing the gut.
When there are issues with the thyroid, you must address your gut health, even if you don't have overt symptoms like gas, bloating or diarrhea, as you can still have dysbiosis in the gut without these symptoms. If you do have issues with the gut, especially GERD, dysbiosis or constipation, be sure to address thyroid health by getting labs done and ensure you are getting proper nutrition for the thyroid as part of your diet.
Nutrients Needed to Support Thyroid Health
So we know we need to take good care of our thyroid, for our gut and our overall health, but how do we do that with nutrition? Well, starting with a protein-rich, nutrient-dense ancestral diet that avoids processed foods builds a good nutritional foundation, but there are also some very specific nutrients that the thyroid needs to run like a well-oiled machine. Many of these are inadequate in the modern diet, which makes sense when realizing how many millions of people thyroid dysfunction impacts.
Some of the nutrients needed to support the thyroid are used in the synthesis, activation, or metabolism of thyroid hormone, or they play a role as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories as protection. Others support gut health to, in turn, benefit the thyroid.
Here are the main nutrients of concern when it comes to the thyroid:
My Top 12 Foods to Support the Gut-Thyroid Axis
Knowing which nutrients we need can only get us so far, so let's put that knowledge to good use and get practical! There are so many nutrient-dense foods that can help to nourish the thyroid, but here are a few key foods to get you started on supporting your thyroid (and gut!) though nutrition:
Habits to Help Support Thyroid Health
As with supporting every aspect of health, diet is not the only change to consider to improve the health of your thyroid. This gland also needs protection from toxins, stress and inflammation, and there are some changes to make to the lifestyle to accompany dietary changes when looking to heal the thyroid.
If you are looking to support your thyroid, here are some other lifestyle modifications to address:
It is important to note that diet and lifestyle may not be substitutes for prescriptions, but may be adequate for some to improve their thyroid health or can be used in conjunction with medication. This is why working with doctors and nutrition professionals in complicated health conditions like these is so necessary.
Do I Heal the Gut or the Thyroid?
Because the gut and thyroid have a direct connection, it is a bit of a chicken or egg situation, so it can be confusing to know where to start when it comes to making dietary changes. The main thing to remember is that, if dysfunction in one area exists, there may be imbalance in the other, so expanding your idea of what your healing protocol might include is important. In short, you almost always need to address both--it is a two-way street.
If you struggle with certain gut conditions, especially constipation, bloating or SIBO, then addressing thyroid nutrition and lifestyle strategies is essential, especially if these symptoms or infections keep coming back. Of course, other gut-healing protocols will be a focus of your plan, but you will likely need to nourish your thyroid using the foods and nutrients listed above in order to support gut health.
Conversely, when thyroid dysfunction exists, especially when there is autoimmunity present (Hashimoto's, etc.), you must consider gut healing as part of your journey. You will certainly need nutrition and lifestyle modifications to ensure your thyroid is adequately nourished but also take care to address your gut function. Adding in strategies to balance the gut microbiome, ensure adequate stomach acid, seal leaky gut, lower gut inflammation, and support liver function and bile flow, all can be part of supporting thyroid health.
Digging deeper into either side of this gut-thyroid axis is important, especially if you have chronic, ongoing issues on either side that don't seem to budge or improve despite your best efforts. In these cases, it's really time to consider if there is more going on in your health struggles.
Need More Support?
When experiencing issues thyroid and/or gut health, it can be difficult to know what changes to make and even harder to do it alone. But you don't need to DIY it!
It can be so beneficial to get support from a healthcare professional when you're on this healing path, helping to get the right tests (like your complete thyroid panel with antibodies, vitamin D, iron status, and comprehensive stool testing), implement diet changes to ensure nutritional adequacy, add proper supplementation and medication if needed, and use gut-healing protocols as part of your plan.
If you think some gut-healing could be beneficial as part of supporting your thyroid and want help, reach out!
Visit my website to learn more about my services, book a package or set up a FREE 15-minute consult to see if working together might help you on your healing journey!
So you know fermented foods are a MUST for maintaining good gut health, and you want to make your own ferments at home but don't know where to start...then this is the post for you!
The world of fermentation can be scary to dive into, but I promise it can be easy and fun! I have been fermenting my own foods at home for over twelve years, starting with home brew kombucha in my college apartment, so you know you don't need much extra tools or space to start fermenting.
First, let's talk about the kitchen tools you'll need to get started. For the most part, the utensils and gadgets will you need are basic items you may already have on hand, with a few extra pieces to make your fermentation process ever better. With the list below, you can ferment almost anything, from kefir and kombucha to sauerkraut and yogurt--and with so little cost compared to buying pre-made ferments at the store.
Pair these simple items with organic, seasonal produce and other high quality, whole-food ingredients and you are on your way to homemade, nutritious ferments.
Here's my list of 12 fermentation essentials, plus a few extra fun gadgets if you want to get a little nerdy with it.
1. Big Cutting Board
For vegetable fermentation projects like making sauerkraut or kim chi, you're going to need a nicely-sized cutting board to have room for all your chopped veggies. You can opt for a wooden or plastic cutting board, whichever you prefer, using one that is sturdy and durable. I like a big cutting board for these jobs, so I can spread out and make a big mess that stays (mostly) on the board.
I prefer wooden cutting boards in general, but keep in mind that wooden cutting boards must be cleaned and sanitized before using for fermentation projects and remember that they can stain easily when you are chopping turmeric or beets, or hold odors like onions and garlic. I typically use a plastic board just for fermentation for these reasons, but stick to wooden for all my other cutting needs.
2. Chef's Knife (and something to keep it sharp)
I like to chop my veggies by hand, so having a good, sharp chef's knife is key for vegetable ferments. You could certainly use a food processor to do the cutting for you, but I like interacting with the produce, adding in my own microbes while also getting some movement in instead of having a machine do it for me. See the "bonus" list for more on using a food processor.
If you are making mega batches of kraut, I totally get not doing it by hand, but for smaller projects, a good chef's knife is a must. Be sure to keep it sharp both for ease of cutting and for safety, storing knives in a block or on a magnetic strip--never in the drawer!--to keep them sharp even longer.
Depending on your fermentation project, you may want a small paring knife on hand as well, so keep that in mind when stocking your ferment-friendly kitchen.
3. Other Sharp Stuff: Graters and Peelers
Like I said with the chef's knife, I like to do things by hand. This carries over to the box grater as well. Instead of using a food processor, I go for the four-sided box grater for shredding vegetables to go into my ferments, such as carrots or beets. One of the sides on mine is a zester, which works well for citrus peel and ginger, but if yours doesn't have this feature, you could purchase a separate zester to play with.
Less crucial but somewhat helpful is a vegetable peeler. I typically keep my peels on for fermentation and cooking, but if you like or need to peel your veggies before using, keep a nice, sharp peeler on hand for your projects.
4. Wooden Spoons
Whether for mixing vegetables with salt, stirring sugar into tea for kombucha or using the handle to press kraut into a jar, a sturdy wooden spoon is a must for fermenting. Wood is preferable over plastic or metals for utensils, as it is non-reactive so you can mix more acidic foods with it, and it will probably make its way into most of your kitchen projects anyway, so it is essential to have around. You could even carve your own if you were so inclined!
5. Large Mixing Bowls
Big mixing bowls are great for filling with cabbage and salt, then massaging the heck out of it to make kraut. You can also use them for brining Napa cabbage for kim chi and making sourdough bread. I typically use stainless steel bowls as they are easy to clean and aren't breakable, but ceramic or glass bowls work well, too. Try to avoid using plastic bowls if possible and have a set of quality bowls as part of your fermenting kit.
6. Funnels of Varying Sizes
To prevent making (more of) a mess when I am transferring my cabbage into jars for kraut and kim chi, I like to use a wide mouth canning funnel. I tend to use stainless steel, but if you have a plastic one that will do. I also like to have a smaller, more narrow-mouthed funnel for bottling kombucha, kefir or ginger ale for their second ferments. Using funnels not only keeps your kitchen tidier, but I find that I lose less to spillage, saving money and food, which I love.
7. Glass Jars and Plastic Lids
Once your veggies are chopped, they need somewhere to ferment, and my go-to is the Mason jar. So many of my ferments are made in glass mason jars, so I have a lot on hand at all times. My krauts, kvass, pickles, yogurt, kefir and even my sourdough starter all live in glass jars, so these are essential if you want to do many different fermentation projects.
Now, if I am looking to make a really big batch of something like pickles, I will go for my gallon-sized ceramic crock, but even then I will sometimes use two half gallon jars instead for ease of storage and to be able to check on the ferment's progress. For making kombucha or jun, I use a gallon-sized glass jar that works really well, so having multiple sizes of glass jars lets you ferment so many different things.
I love that I can see in the jar to watch how my ferments change over time, and also to easily check for scum, mold and yeast on the surface. The pint and quart jars are nice for making small batches when you are experimenting with flavors or have a smaller amount of produce to use up.
For lids, I use the BPA-free plastic lids when I ferment in jars because they don't rust or corrode like the metal ones do, and they are a single piece, making them easier to clean. I ensure that the lid doesn't touch the actual ferment by avoiding over-filling my jars. You can certainly use metal canning lids for fermentation, but be sure to place a piece of parchment paper between the jar and lid to prevent corrosion.
8. Kitchen Scale
I measure almost everything in my kitchen by weight, as it is the most accurate way to measure. Maybe I am just being a food snob (likely), but I often find better results with weight than volume. For making sauerkraut, the amount of salt required is based on weight of vegetables, so using a scale is really important for successful and safe ferments in this case.
If you are unsure about purchasing one, trust me, you will find many ways to use a kitchen scale in addition to fermentation, like making good coffee or bread, so it won't just take up space in the cabinet until you are ready to ferment.
I like to use digital for better precision and more units of measure, but if you find a lovely vintage analog scale, go for it.
9. Swing-Top Bottles
If you are going to be making fermented beverages and you want to safely carbonate them, then I really urge you to get a set of flip-top bottles, sometimes called "Grolsch" bottles. The seal that the swing-top provides lends itself to well-carbonated, bubbly beverages like kombucha, water kefir and ginger ale, as opposed to reusing other jars that don't have as tight of a seal.
I use amber bottles that are round in shape because the amber glass prevents damage from light and the round shape of the bottles helps to prevent explosions when your ferments begin to bubble, making them safer to use.
These are often used in home-brewing beer, so you can find these through brewery supply stores or online retailers. A set of a dozen will enable you to make many different fermented beverages, keeping you hydrated and full of probiotics, with very little cost up front.
10. Fine Strainers
Fine mesh strainers are great for removing tea leaves when brewing kombucha or for removing kefir grains once a batch is done fermenting. I like to have a larger and a smaller size so I can tailor it to whatever project I am working on, but I find I use my small one a lot more when I am making fermented beverages.
It can also be nice to keep cheesecloth on hand to strain yogurt or kefir for making thickened dairy products like Greek yogurt or labneh.
11. Mixing cups and spoons
Precision is important in fermentation, both for safety and for quality. A set of measuring utensils for liquid and solid items is key for a ferment-friendly kitchen, as well as probably a million other kitchen uses.
You'll need measuring cups for sugar in batches kombucha or water kefir and measuring spoons for starter cultures, salt in krauts, pickled veggies, and more. Liquid measuring cups are needed for making brine, useful in kvass, pickles, and kim chi.
12. Fermentation Weights
To keep your veggies submerged in their brine and prevent molding, a weight can prove very useful. You can see one floating in the pickles in the above picture! There are several companies now, such as Pickle Pebbles, making glass weights that fit into both wide- and narrow-mouth glass jars, to ensure everything stays safely under the brine. I also use them to keep small pieces of kraut keep floating to the top of the jar, or with pickled veggies that are larger and like to float.
If you don't want to purchase specialty fermentation weights, you can use a smaller jar fit into a larger jar as a makeshift weight; in this case, you'll need to cover the jar with a fine weave cloth in leiu of a lid.
There you have it! The twelve items I use very regularly for fermenting vegetables, dairy, and beverages. These are all low tech, electricity-free items, so homesteaders off the grid and apartment dwellers alike can use them with ease.
Ok, so you have all the basics, but maybe you want a few extra gadgets to make fermenting more fun or easier...here are 5 more items you could keep on hand for fermenting fun!
Many people bust out the food processor when prepping a large amount of veggies. As I said above, I prefer hand tools, but with a mega large batch of kraut, it would probably be smart to use a food processor to save you some time. More "power" to you! If you have arthritis or another level of ability that makes chopping difficult, a food processor would certainly make fermentation more accesible to you. making this an essential tool in that case.
This can also be handy for making fermented herb pastes if you don't have a mortar and pestle or to puree beans for a lacto-fermented hummus.
Kraut Pounder (aka a "pickle packer")
This item has come back into popularity over the past few years as a tool for packing sauerkraut into crocks. It is really nice for packing kraut or kim chi into a bigger vessel, but since I tend to use glass jars for my ferments, I tend to use a wooden spoon for my packing. I do have one around for when I need or want to use it, but you can get along fine without it. A wooden cocktail muddler would also work for smaller-mouthed vessels like mason jars.
Airlocks, which allow CO2 to escape your jars but no air to come in, can make fermenting much easier and fool-proof. If you are new to making ferments, it may be helpful to use one of these on your jar to help prevent mold or yeast from forming. I have used them before with success, but don't use them on a regular basis. People fermented veggies almost forever without using airlocks, but they can be a useful tool for newbies or those nervous to ferment.
Earthenware crocks are a very traditional way of making sauerkraut and other fermented foods, as glass is pretty new compared to pottery and ceramics. Kim chi is traditionally made in a special type of crock called an onggi, so you could search those out for an every more authentic kim chi method. Crocks are also great to use if you want to explore more advanced fermentation such as making miso.
Crocks come in larger sizes, from one gallon to over ten or more gallons, so you can make a very big batch of pickles and store them in your root cellar for the whole year. Many even come with a ceramic weight to fit inside and even some with lids. Just be sure your crock is lead-free, especially if it is a vintage crock.
I started out making sauerkraut in a gallon crock and have since moved to the glass jars, but that is purely preference. Even when making ferments in a crock, I transfer them to a glass jar for storage in the fridge, which is why the jars made the essential list and the crock didn't. They both are awesome to have around! Plus, having a big crock on your counter will give you major homesteader points.
I very frequently find myself wearing gloves when making my ferments. Not for sanitary reasons, but for whenI am chopping and massing spicy peppers or hand-staining turmeric in batches of kraut or kim chi. Also, if you have a cut with a bandage on it, gloving up is usually a good idea. If you only ever make sauerkraut with cabbage and salt and no other ferments, perhaps you won't ever use these, but I hope you get wild and need gloves sometime.
Now that you have stocked your kitchen properly, you are ready to ferment almost anything. Be prepared to heal your gut, nourish your family and impress your friends!
Have all the gear but need to learn some skills? I got you covered!
If you want to learn how to ferment with me, check my website for upcoming fermentation workshops, both in-person and virtual! I teach classes on fermenting vegetables, beverages, cultured dairy, sourdough bread and more, so keep any eye on my website for classes that can help you reach your fermentation potentials...let's do this!
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.