Got the blues or serious fatigue? Feeling weak and having difficulty losing weight? It could be a sign that your thyroid gland isn't functioning properly. Read on to learn more about hypothyroidism and how it could be affecting you.
What is the thyroid gland and why does it matter?
The thyroid is a small butterfly shaped gland that sits at the front of your neck (just below the voice box). It secretes hormones that regulate metabolism in virtually every cell in your body. Because of this, an out-of-balance thyroid can have negative effects on virtually all systems in the body.
Hypothyroid is the condition in which thyroid hormones under-function, or slow down metabolism; hyperthyroidism is characterized by increased levels of thyroid hormones. People can experience hypothyroidism to varying degrees, from mild deficiency states that go undetected in blood tests to severe deficiency that can be life threatening.
Hypothyroidism is a surprisingly common condition that often goes unrecognized. Approximately 5-10 percent of the adult population has some form of hypothyroidism, and the number is much higher in the elderly. Thyroid disease also is 2-8 times more common in women than in men.
What are the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism?
The most common first symptoms of hypothyroid are depression, weakness and fatigue. Low thyroid leads to a general decrease in the utilization of fat, carbohydrates and protein, which can lead to weight gain and sensitivity to cold weather (i.e. cold hands and feet). Hypothyroidism also affects other hormones in the body that can result in menstrual problems, low sex drive and infertility.
Here is a more comprehensive list of symptoms of hypothyroidism:
- Difficulty losing weight
- Dry skin
- High cholesterol
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Memory problems
- Menstrual problems
- Recurrent infections (low immunity)
- Sensitivity to cold (cold hands and feet)
- Brittle, thinning hair
- Muscle and joint pain, tenderness and slow reflexes
What causes low thyroid?
In the US, the most frequent cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks itself called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. In cases of Hashimoto’s, your body produces antibodies that work against your thyroid gland and prevent it from making sufficient levels of hormones.
Globally, the most common cause of hypothyroid is iodine deficiency. The thyroid gland combines iodine with the amino acid tyrosine (in the presence of other minerals) to make the necessary thyroid hormones. Insufficient iodine can result in goiters (unattractive swelling and enlargement of the thyroid gland) and impaired thyroid function.
In an effort to reduce this issue, in 1924 the FDA began adding iodine to table salt...and Americans began to shake their saltshaker! But when salt was later connected with increased blood pressure and fluid retention, American diets used less and less table salt.
Iodine deficiency has also increased for other reasons: more people are eating out and restaurants tend to not use iodized salts, commercial breads are no longer made with iodized compounds, and dairy products now have less iodine. Another reason can be the consumption of goitrogens, naturally occurring chemicals that are ingested in food or drugs. Goitrogens either induce production of antibodies that cross-react with the thyroid gland or they can interfere with the enzyme, TPO, that is responsible for adding iodine during production of thyroid hormones. The end result of excessive consumption of goitrogens is decreased thyroid function and possible goiters.
Examples of goitrogenic foods include turnips, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, mustard, kale, cauliflower, non-fermented soy, peanuts, pine nuts and millet (note: cooking goitrogenic foods can partially inactivate the goitrogens). Chemicals such as fluoride (commonly added to toothpaste) and mercury, as well as certain medications, can also act as goitrogens. Excessive iodine intake (more than 1,000 mcg per day) can also interfere with thyroid hormone production.
Am I hypothyroid? When and what to test
If you're experiencing symptoms of low thyroid function but have normal thyroid blood test results, you are probably experiencing hypothyroid syndrome. This could also mean the beginning of a more serious hypothyroidism such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
If you think you might have an under-functioning thyroid, it’s best to check in with your practitioner and ask for a blood test. And be sure to ask for a “full thyroid panel.” Here’s why.
Standard testing practice only measures a portion of variables that show the current health of your thyroid. Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) is the hormone secreted by the brain that stimulates the thyroid to make its hormones and has a rather broad "normal" range (0.2-5.5). Many natural practitioners perceive anything over 2 to be high and indicative of thyroid dysfunction. That's why the other thyroid hormones, T3, T4 and RT3 (including free T3 and free T4) should also be measured. And since iodine is crucial in thyroid function, it is also an important measurement—levels too low or too high will interfere with thyroid function.
A full thyroid blood panel would also look at Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO), an enzyme needed for the production of thyroid hormones and autoantibodies (anti-TPO and anti-TBG). While this panel can be used to diagnose Hashimoto’s, the treatment will be the same as what's used in all cases of hypothyroidism. Doctors will simply prescribe thyroid hormones and monitor blood levels, adjusting medication accordingly. As other hypothyroid symptoms evolve, doctors may add in other powerful medications (such as anti-depressants) or, in drastic cases, remove the thyroid all together.
Finally, measuring basal body temperature (i.e. when your body is at complete rest) is another method for checking for low thyroid function. Body temperature reflects your metabolic rate, which is largely determined by the hormones secreted by the thyroid gland, thus low basal body temperature is often a sign of hypothyroidism. Normal basal body temperature is between 97.6 and 98.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
How can I naturally support the thyroid gland?
Medical treatment of hypothyroid involves the use of desiccated thyroid (from an animal source) or synthetic thyroid. In most cases of hypothyroidism, thyroid hormone replacement is necessary to treat the disease, especially in the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In addition to thyroid replacement, there are several natural measures you can take to aid in healing an autoimmune disorder, including:
- Eating a clean diet including whole, unadulterated foods (stay away from factory-farmed and processed foods)
- Detoxifying your liver
- Eliminating food allergies and sensitivities
- Supplementing wisely (e.g. vitamin D, fish oil, multivitamin and DHEA)
- Addressing and eliminating stressors in your life
- Avoiding everyday chemical exposure (i.e. toxic cleaning and body care products)
- Treating dysbiosis in the digestive tract by eliminating detrimental intestinal flora and using probiotics to heal the gut
In addition, there are several key nutrients that are needed for the production of thyroid hormones: Zinc, selenium, iodine and vitamins A and E. Any deficiency of these nutrients can result in decreased thyroid hormone synthesis. You can prevent these deficiencies by taking a good multivitamin every day or finding a thyroid-specific supplement that contains these nutrients.
Here are some other recommended products that can help support thyroid function.
Enzymatic Therapy's Metabolic Advantage Thyroid Formula is an excellent comprehensive formula containing essential nutrients for the thyroid, including thyroid extract and a multi-glandular compound for added support. Green coffee bean extract is added to support metabolism. Highly recommended!
Emerald Labs' Thyroid Health is a gluten-free formula with thyroid glandular powder, ashwagandha, rosemary, trace minerals and a raw whole-food proprietary blend to naturally support the thyroid.
Natural Factors' Thyroid Health Formula provides nutritional support for the thyroid, including iodine, tyrosine, ashwagandha and guggul extract.
Gaia Herbs' Thyroid Support offers ultimate support for metabolic enhancement including trace minerals, ashwagandha, tyrosine, kelp and bladderwrack.
Pharmaca brand Iodine with Kelp features a good amount of iodine along with ethically harvested kelp.
Thorne Research's Iodine & Tyrosine offers essential mineral and amino acid support for making thyroid hormones.
DHEA has been found to be beneficial for a variety of autoimmune disease, including Hashimoto’s (caution: do not use DHEA if your are hyperthyroid). Try DHEA from Pure Encapsulations or Integrative Therapeutics. Be sure to speak with a health care practitioner before taking DHEA.