Your thyroid is your body’s gas pedal. It regulates the speed and performance of the rest of your system. Your energy levels, metabolism, and heart rate are all controlled by this small but vital, butterfly-shaped gland. Thyroid hormones are essential for growth, brain development, fertility and the production of energy. Thyroid hormones stimulate the production of new mitochondria. Mitochondria are the energy-generators in each of your cells. Without enough thyroid hormone, your mitochondria aren’t able to produce as much energy as they should. Having a slow or underactive thyroid is called hypothyroidism. At the other end of the spectrum, your body can go into “overdrive” if it produces too much thyroid hormone. This is called hyperthyroidism.
Thyroid Problems are Often Un-diagnosed
With so much impact on your overall health and well-being, maintaining healthy thyroid hormone levels is important. Did you know that one in eight women produce either too much or not enough thyroid hormone? Women are at higher risk for thyroid issues than men. Hormonal changes like pregnancy or menopause make women more vulnerable to thyroid issues. The risk for both genders increases with age. In fact, the stats for those with undiagnosed thyroid disease are shocking. One study found that 6.71% of the population has an undiagnosed thyroid problem. Of course, as naturopathic doctors, we dig deep to find the root of thyroid concerns rather than just attribute your symptoms to age or menopause.
TSH, The Thyroid Regulating Hormone
To understand how your thyroid can wreak havoc on your health, you need to understand how it works. Your thyroid sits in your neck. There it performs the vital task of secreting thyroid hormone. This in turn triggers a cascade of other hormones and processes throughout your body. The key point about thyroid hormone is that your body is very sensitive to the amounts it receives. Any imbalances can have far reaching repercussions.
The amount of hormone your thyroid secretes is controlled by the amount of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood. In other words, TSH is the “master” hormone that directs your thyroid. It’s produced by your pituitary gland in your brain.
Lab ranges for TSH are notoriously broad. You can have signs and symptoms of an underactive thyroid BEFORE your TSH falls outside this wide lab range. This is called subclinical hypothyroidism.
When Your Immune System Attacks Your Thyroid
Further complicating the health of your thyroid is the fact that it is vulnerable to immune system attacks. This causes autoimmunity or autoimmune thyroid problems. The autoimmune disorder Grave’s disease causes too much thyroid hormone to be produced. In contrast, the autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s causes your immune system to attack your thyroid, slowing down thyroid hormone production.
What causes auto-immune thyroid problems?
That’s a great question and one that doesn’t yet have a conclusive answer. Your immune system is programmed to recognize your body and to know NOT to attack it. In autoimmunity, the immune system appears to have gone rogue.
Researchers hypothesize that it may be that a virus gained access to your thyroid at some point when your immune system was low. Maybe you didn’t sleep well, you were super-stressed or you were not eating well, all things that can lower your immune function. This allowed an infectious agent, like a virus to enter your thyroid. Now that there is a virus inside your thyroid, your immune system attacks the thyroid tissue to get at the virus. There is extensive research showing that individuals with auto-immune thyroid often have Epstein-Barr virus in their thyroids.
Your thyroid can also become inflamed. This is called thyroiditis. Tackling this type of thyroid problem means addressing the source of the inflammation. Your thyroid may also develop nodules or small abnormal growths. Sometimes this is associated with thyroid auto-immunity. It is also associated with iodine excess and iodine deficiency.
Hypothyroidism: When Your Thyroid Slows Down
If your thyroid isn’t producing enough thyroid hormone, your body slows down. This results in a condition called hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism causes many troublesome symptoms.The symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Feeling cold all the time
- Dry skin
- Dry hair
- Depression – low thyroid function means low serotonin levels
- Unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- Hoarseness or feeling of a lump in your throat
- High cholesterol
- Muscle weakness
- Low libido
- Memory problems
- Mental sluggishness
- Headaches or Migraines
- Hair loss
Could You be Experiencing Hypothyroid Symptoms?
Despite this long list of issues, about 60 percent of people with hypothyroidism aren’t aware that they have it. One reason for this is that it’s easy to blame thyroid symptoms on other factors like lack of sleep, a poor diet or growing older. As well, thyroid symptoms tend to develop slowly. We often blame ourselves for weight gain when there is actually a medical explanation for it.
If you experience any of the symptoms above, it’s a good idea to dig deeper and figure out the root cause. Our naturopathic doctors can assist you with thorough thyroid testing. We do much more than just testing your TSH. These uncomfortable symptoms do not have to be part of your life.
Hyperthyroidism: The Consequences of an Overactive Thyroid
In contrast, when your body produces too much thyroid hormone, this condition is called hyperthyroidism. With hyperthyroidism, your body’s functions accelerate. Although this might sound appealing, many of the symptoms are debilitating. Some signs of hyperthyroidism include:
- Feeling hot all the time
- A rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
- Weight loss
- Excessive sweating
- Missed periods
- Hair loss
- Osteopenia or osteoporosis
As with hypothyroidism, the symptoms of hyperthyroidism are often blamed on other issues, such as stress or anxiety.
Why Are Thyroid Problems Hard to Diagnose?
With so many symptoms, you would think that thyroid dysfunction would be easy to pick up. Not so. One challenging problem with identifying thyroid issues is that most doctors only run one test for your thyroid. They only test the amount of TSH in your blood. However, testing this one hormone doesn’t give the complete picture of your thyroid health. A more holistic approach which tests various hormone levels yields more information and leads to more effective treatment. This is what our ND’s do.
Prevention: How can you Prevent Thyroid Problems?
Unfortunately, the prevention of thyroid disease isn’t always possible. Sometimes genetics
Addressing the lifestyle factors that inflame your body helps to stabilize thyroid hormones whatever the cause of your imbalance.
6 DIY strategies for improving your thyroid health
Eat to protect your gut health
Maintaining enough good bacteria in your gut, keeps it healthy, protects your immune system and reduces your risk of autoimmune problems. Include lots of high-fiber foods in your diet every day. Broccoli, kale, and whole grains like quinoa make excellent high fiber options.
Reduce your stress
Stress interferes with thyroid function by slowing the production of TSH. It also increases the production of an inactive form of thyroid hormone, called reverse T3. Addressing your stress levels is important. If you can’t get rid of stress, exercise is a good way to both reduce its effects and improve your metabolism.
Cut your sugar intake
Your thyroid is a crucial component of your endocrine (hormonal) system. Sugar is managed by another vital organ in this interconnected system, your pancreas. The endocrine organs work together to keep your body working optimally. There is a complex relationship between diabetes and thyroid disease. One study identified thyroid dysfunction in 48% of diabetic patients. Clearly, better managing your glucose levels can help stabilize your thyroid.
Watch your iodine intake
Iodine is essential for good thyroid function, but too much also leads to thyroid problems. Iodized salt, seaweed, and some seafood contain high levels of iodine. Be careful not to overdo the seaweed snacks. I have seen at least one person who did and overdosed on iodine as a result.
Pay attention to how gluten makes you feel
People with Celiac disease are three times more likely to have a thyroid problem. Celiac disease interferes with the absorption of nutrients such as iodine. If you have trouble digesting gluten, consider eliminating it or get tested for Celiac disease. If it is negative, you may still have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity that our food allergy test will identify.
Look for high-fiber foods
High fiber foods are especially helpful if you’re hypothyroid. Having hypothyroidism can slow your digestive system and lead to constipation, so you want to focus on keeping things moving. As mentioned above, high-fiber foods help your good gut bacteria thrive. Fibrous foods fill you up so you eat less, which helps weight management. Fiber also slows down the rise in blood sugar that happens after a meal.
In general, the key is to focus on a whole-foods diet that will reduce inflammation. Avoiding artificial ingredients and regulating your blood sugar will reduce dietary stress and help maintain your thyroid health.
I’m Concerned About My Thyroid. What’s the Next Step?
When it comes to resolving thyroid issues, early detection is the key. It is much easier to deal with a thyroid problem when it is caught early. It’s also important to complete thorough thyroid testing. Evaluating thyroid hormone levels
Authored by Dr Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), ND