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Does Soy Protein Impact Thyroid Function?

The topic of soy protein tends to bring up lots of argument and debate and certainly there is some good reason for this.   Depending on a huge number of factors, soy protein can be good, bad or neutral.  In general, the extreme stances are just that and the reality lies in the middle.  But the topic of today is not soy protein in general (discussed in detail in The Women’s Book Vol 1).  Rather, I want to examine if soy protein impacts thyroid function.

To examine the topic, I want to look at the following recent review:

Messina M, Redmond G. Effects of soy protein and soybean isoflavones on thyroid function in healthy adults and hypothyroid patients: a review of the relevant literature. Thyroid. (2006) 16:249-58.

A Primer on Thyroid Hormone Production

To give readers a brief background on the topic, the thyroid gland releases two primary hormones T4 and T3 (thyroxine and trio-iodothyronine respectively) in a ratio of roughly 80:20 in response to the signal sent by TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone).  That is to say, most of the thyroid released from the thyroid gland itself is the relatively inactive T4.  Most T3 is actually made in other tissues (especially the liver but also in many other cells) from the metabolism of T4 via an enzyme called 5′-deiodinase.

Now, I imagine most readers think of T3 in terms of its effects on body weight or body fat and it’s certainly true that T3, along with the catecholamines (adrenaline/noradrenaline or epinephrine/norepinephrine depending on which side of the pond you’re on) are two of the primary regulators of human metabolic rate.  Of course, thyroid controls about a billion other things in the body too and, as one example, low T3 status can cause depression.

I should mention that iodine intake plays a crucial role in thyroid metabolism with inadequate intake of iodine causing thyroid problems.  There are many other micronutrients that are involved in this conversion process as well; these include selenium and iron (iron deficiency can impair thyroid conversion, yet another reason to eat red meat while dieting).

Soy Protein and Phytoestrogens

Now soy proteins are known to contain hormonal mimics called phytoestrogens. This include genistien, daidzein and others.  A great deal of controversy exists over the impact of soy phytoestrogens in the human diet.  While phytoestrogens may have some beneficial effects (especially in post-menopausal women for whom low estrogen can predispose towards heart disease and bone loss) other research shows negative impacts.  A lot of whether positive or negative impacts are seen depends on what is being looked at, what population is being examined, and what dose is being given.

The effect of phytoestrogens in men is far less studied and understood.  While many are concerned that the phytoestrogens present in soy may negatively impact on testosterone levels the reality is that the studies done to date, using moderate doses of soy/phytoestrogens, have found little to no impact (higher doses are often seen to cause issues).

There is likely to be a sex and population specific response to these compounds and whether or not soy has an impact on anything at all depends heavily on the amount being consumed.  Small amounts of soy protein tend to have minimal or no effects on most things studied (such as testosterone levels) while large daily amounts are often seen to have an effect.

There’s an old saw in medicine that the dose makes the poison and this is certainly one of those situations.

Invariably backlash against soy protein occurs for the same reason it occurs for other nutrients.  Human nature dictates that whenever something is declared healthy that some people will interpret that as “consume as much as humanly possible.”  And soy is no different in this regard.

As soon as soy became a hot nutrient, consumption went up to enormous levels.  Now, as I’ll discuss below, the actual intake of soy foods among Asian cultures is actually not very high.  As well, when intakes of soy protein and phytoestrogens get above a certain point, they can cause problems.  And that’s what happened: people started overconsuming soy, got into problems and decided it was evil.

But the problem was never with the soy protein, it was with their mistaken overconsumption of it.

Effects of Soy Protein on Thyroid Status

So with that background out of the way, on to today’s research review, a review paper on the impact of soy protein on thyroid hormone status and metabolism.  As I noted above, there are two primary thyroid hormones, T4 and T3 and it appears that soy may have an impact on both.

Early work in animals had supported the idea that soy proteins could actually increase thyroid (mainly T4) output and this is likely where a lot of the pro-soy claims come from in terms of thyroid status (e.g. some will claim that soy will help fat loss by raising thyroid hormones).  But results in animals frequently don’t translate to humans and this is no exception.

However, as the paper points out,  studies suggests a very different effect in humans with soy protein having little to no direct impact on thyroid hormone output.  This is yet another place where extrapolating from animal research just doesn’t pan out.  Of course, there is also animal research suggesting a negative impact of soy protein, primarily the phytoestrogens, on animal thyroid status, something the pro-soy folks seem to ignore when they claim that soy will increase thyroid output.

Beyond that, for individuals with normal thyroid function, soy protein appears to have little to no impact on overall thyroid status.  The review examined 14 different studies (8 in women, 4 in men and 2 in both) and, with one exception, found little to no impact of soy intake on any measure of thyroid hormone status.  I’ll spare you all of the details, only the punchline is of any real importance.

In individuals with normal thyroid status, soy protein has no impact.

However, in individuals with pre-existing low-thyroid (hypothyroid) symptoms, soy proteins can cause problems. Research has shown that soy protein intake may increase the dose of thyroid medication needed (the soy appears to impair uptake of thyroid medication) and individuals who are on thyroid hormones may need to avoid soy protein immediately around the intake of their medication.

Another review (Doerge DR. Goitrogenic and estrogenic activity of soy isoflavones. Environ Health Perspect. (2002) 110 Suppl 3:349-53.2002) has shown, using mainly animal work, that the phytoestrogens in soy can impair the enzyme (thyroid peroxidase) responsible for proper thyroid hormone production. That same review found that while soy protein itself could not induce a hypothyroid state, a high phytoestrogen intake coupled with a low iodine intake could.

Again let me note that animal research often does not carry over to humans.  In my experience, it usually doesn’t.

Soy Protein Intake and Iodine Status

I bring up this last point because one of the main providers of iodine in the modern diet is iodized salt and even there, diet surveys have shown a downward trend in overall iodine intake (due to a reliance on processed food and less iodinization of salt).

It’s worth noting that seaweed (another staple in Asian culture) is another good source of iodine. Even if Asian cuisine did contain a tremendous amount of soy, it would seem that the intake of seaweed, by providing iodine, would help to prevent problems from occurring.

In contrast, many “health conscious” people who consume a lot of soy are often found to be minimizing their sodium intake.   A consequence being that they put themselves at potential risk for consuming insufficient iodine.  That combination of an increased soy protein intake and decreased sodium/iodine intake could very well cause problems with thyroid status and metabolism.

But, and this goes to my comments earlier in the article, this is only an issue with people insistent on taking aspects of their diet to extremes.  People who are really consuming a massive amount of soy protein on a daily basis (that intake level not being seen in the Asian cultures in the first place) who also are trying to minimize sodium intake could be putting themselves at potential risk. And this is moreso the case if there is a pre-existing problem.

Does Soy Protein Impact on Thyroid Function?

So we have several different issues at stake here in terms of how soy protein might impact on thyroid hormone status.

Clearly individuals with no pre-existing thyroid problems don’t need to worry much about soy.  And, no, I’m not saying that folks should therefore eat as much of it as possible.  Just that they needn’t go out of their way to avoid any and all source of soy in their diet.

But what about people who do have a pre-existing thyroid problem?

First and foremost, anybody who is on thyroid medication should avoid consuming soy immediately before or after taking their medication as soy protein appears to impair absorption of thyroid medication.  Quite in fact most things seem to impair thyroid medication uptake and it’s probably best to take it on an empty stomach to begin with.    Individuals insistent (for whatever reason) on consuming soy near to the intake of their thyroid medication will need to increase their thyroid dose to compensate.  This, of course, should be dealt with through your medical provider/health professional.

As well, individuals with pre-existing thyroid problems may need to limit their soy intake on a day to day basis.  This is especially the case for individuals intent on reducing their sodium intake.  I’d mention that women are far more likely to have thyroid problems than men which makes them at a higher risk for the particularly bad combination of too much soy and too little sodium/iodine.

My Recommendations for Soy Protein and Phytoestrogen Intake

So what do I recommend so far as soy intake?  Well, mainly avoid the extremes.  Trying to avoid every last bit of soy intake (for example, a typical soy protein fortified cereal may contain a few grams at most of soy) seems misguided to me.

Most studies examining a variety of endpoints find that it’s only when soy protein intake is excessive that any sorts of problems start.  Even in the case of hypothyroid individuals, soy only appears to be a problem when iodine intake is insufficient in the first place.   Either eat some seaweed or make sure you get enough iodized salt.

Clearly, living on nothing but soy foods and soy fortified products is misguided as well.  As I mentioned above, the soy intake among most Asian cultures isn’t actually that massive in the first place and I suspect that much of the backlash against soy is primarily to do with people taking a little of a good thing, assuming a lot was better, and causing themselves problems because of it.

To me a happy medium seems the best; assuming no pre-existing thyroid problems, soy products are probably safe in moderation.  What’s moderation?  In The Protein Book, I suggested a daily maximum of perhaps 20-25 grams of soy protein on a daily basis.   I echoed this suggestion in The Women’s Book Vol 1.

Based on the average phytoestrogen content of most soy proteins (generally 2-3 mg phytoestrogen per  gram of soy protein), that will provide 40-75 mg of phytoestrogens which is right in the sweet spot of what’s been found to have benefits without negatives.

I should mention that many foods are currently being fortified with soy protein (check the labels) and people may already be consuming soy protein in some amounts without knowing it.  Adding more (e.g. through a soy protein powder) may very well take people above the level I suggested above.

Frankly, unless someone is a fairly strict vegetarian or vegan, there are enough other high quality protein sources (such as meat, dairy products, whey, etc.) that I don’t see the need to consume massive amounts of soy in the first place.  But neither do I think it’s a horrible protein that no-one should ever eat because it will make their testosterone drop and give men boobs.

Soy, like all proteins has a variety of pros and cons and, in moderation, can make up part of a healthy or sports oriented diet.  Thinking that it is evil and must be eliminated is as silly as thinking it’s the best protein ever and people should consume tons of it.

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9 thoughts on “Does Soy Protein Impact Thyroid Function?

  1. Thank you for balanced posts of moderation and reasonable guidelines.

  2. Lyle, I’ve been supplementing with interactive nutrition’s complete vegetarian protein for a couple years now. I also get protein from fish, beef, milk, etc. and I have a whey and casein based weight gainer (mammoth 2500) which I use heavily.

    I have 5 scoops of the vegetarian protein a day – that’s about 130 grams worth. It’s hard to say how much of it comes from soy protein vs. other components, but would you say that’s a bit on the excessive side in terms of isoflavones?

    Here is the link for the product in question – notice that isolated soy protein is one of the first ingredients, suggesting a larger relative proportion.

    thanks for the review.

  3. This is interesting, but I had hoped that the study would look at all pre-existing thyroid problems – hyperthyroidism in particular, since this is on the rise in both humans and animals (cats).

    Would the use of soy in individuals with Grave’s disease help to slow down the conversion of T4 to T3, thereby decreasing the most troublesome symptoms such as increased heart-rate and high systolic BP?

  4. Issy

    The topic wasn’t mentioned at all in the review and a quick search on Medline turns up the reason why: absolutely nobody seems to have looked at the topic. I can’t begin to speculate if the effects of soy would be beneficial with something like Graves.


  5. thanks Lyle for your balanced view. I have hypothyroidism, female, post menopausal @ 50yrs. I had been following a diet for several months no sugar, no wheat, no dairy, to correct gut flora alongside supplementation , and to improve over all health. I can’t explain this but my thyroid function improved, medication has been moderately reduced and I have been drinking soy milk as a substitute for dairy. This research changes things I will be back to dairy or maybe rice milk. Prior to this dietary program I have never had so much soy.
    M. .

  6. I had a low thyroid and was on synthroid. I went to a naturopathic M.D. and took herbs/supplements to get off synthroid-which worked. Several months later, I have a high thyroid by symptoms of my left eye enlargement, higher pulse rate, increased anxiety, heat intolerance.
    I stopped all supplements as there is b vitamins and selenium, and I bought soy milk that provides 46 mg of isoflavones per serving, and am avoiding meat protein to decrease tyrosine.
    I read that lemonbalm tea will also help decrease my thyroid. Broccoli and veggies in this category can also help with my issue as I understand it…

    How much of these and for how long to correct overt symptoms of my left eye (and other symptoms)?
    I plan to get labs in the next week or two, but know that they will be “way off’ if I get them done now. What do you recommend?

  7. Thank you for a clearly outlined and defined article. I have been a vegetarian for more than half my life and a vegan for about 20 years.
    i consume soy, vegies, oats, grains , fruit , seeds, almonds and occasionally whey protein for strenuous intense workout.. I am 58 and most people guess I am in early 40’s even 30’s now I do realize there are genes involved..I feel absolutely wonderful pretty much everyday..I rarely get sick..I rarely catch the annual cold. and am chronic disease free. I don’t feel good if I have consumed too many martini’s or wine..I indulge in dark chocalate and eat pretzels ..I work in the natural product industry and often encounter the same pro and cons..its usually the medical community against these foods..moderation in all aspects of life is essential, as you noted..
    Thank you.

  8. I am hypothyroid and on Armour. I do take kelp too. I got my thyroid levels correct first and then I did a few iodine patch tests to see if it picked up a deficiency. It showed I was deficient, so I started the kelp. Many people do fine with a little bit of iodine, then there are others that don’t. I started out by taking powdered kelp, but the problem with powdered kelp is that there are no dosages. Plus, iodine deficiency is a symptom, not a cause. There are other, more pressing headaches associated with hypothyroidism. Metabolism, for starters, which can play hell with your immune system, and also your mental health. If you look at a nurses’ guide, you’ll see that thyroid issues can lead to some chemical difficulties in brain/body day-to-day functioning.

  9. One interesting thing I found with soy was that its effect on my body was a good indicator of my hypothyroidism to come. Twice I attempted to go vegetarian and started consuming soy products and each time, I gained 10lbs in two weeks (10% of my body weight). I quit both times and went back to meat. A couple years after, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and now I have no thyroid gland. I am on natural thyroid and I will be dependent on this for the rest of my life. I recently started drinking coffee with soymilk in it, and within two weeks I had developed hives that were peeling and bleeding… all over my body. I gave up the soymilk and my hives are healing. So if you have a thyroid condition, or if you don’t and have a severe reaction to soy, you should take a close look at your health. (as an aside, I also have the same reaction to peanuts since developing my problem)

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