How Healthy is Your Thyroid and Why Does it Matter?
Did you know that a tiny, butterfly-shaped gland nestled in your neck is responsible for producing some of the most important hormones in your body? This small but mighty gland is called the thyroid. While it’s relatively small in size, it plays a huge role in our endocrine (hormone) system.
This gland produces hormones that interact with many other hormones (like insulin, cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone). Looking at how intimately all hormones communicate with each other, it’s no wonder so many symptoms are connected to a poorly performing thyroid!
How does this gland work?
Most of what the thyroid produces is an inactive hormone called thyroxine, or T4. Most of the active thyroid hormone, triiodothyronine (or T3), comes from the conversion of T4 to T3 in different areas of your body, including your liver, gut, brain and muscles.
This “active” T3 is then able to regulate many functions in your body including energy production and regulation of your metabolism. Think of the thyroid as the “gas pedal” for your body. Constantly regulating the speed that everything else runs. When all of the systems in your body are working well, the right amounts of T4 and T3 are produced. But if something is negatively affecting the thyroid or other organ systems in the body, this hormone balance gets disrupted and we start to experience various symptoms.
Some of the factors that impact a healthy functioning thyroid are nutritional imbalances, toxins, allergens, infections, and stress. All of these can all be problematic, leading to dysfunction of the gland, and potentially to wider spread systemic disease.
What happens when the thyroid can’t function normally?
When the thyroid is compromised, the body is unable to produce or convert the right amounts of thyroid hormone. Consequently, we experience disorders such as hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and thyroid cancer. In fact, these diseases are highly prevalent in North America. An estimated 20 million Americans and 1 in every 10 Canadians have some form of thyroid disease. Over 12% of all Americans will develop such a condition during their lifetime. Because thyroid conditions are tied to so many varying symptoms, up to 60% of people with disease are unaware of their condition. Women are 5-8x more likely to be affected than men. It is estimated that one in eight women will suffer from such a disorder during her lifetime.
Thyroid disease is tied to many less obvious disorders including acne, autoimmune diseases, eczema, fibromyalgia, gum disease, constipation or irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and infertility. Because the thyroid is like your gas pedal for all of your cells, it can be linked to almost every bodily function. Symptoms of an underlying thyroid problem are wide and varied which can make diagnosis difficult. As a result, many people are misdiagnosed and treated for other conditions before looking at their thyroid.
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid
- Lethargy or fatigue
- Foggy thinking
- Weight gain even if you’ve been exercising and eating well consistently
- Persistently rough/scaly skin
- Dry/tangled hair
- Hair loss (particularly in women)
- Sensitivity to cold
- An inability to warm up in a sauna or to sweat during exercise
- Consistently low basal (resting, first morning) body temperature
Symptoms of an overactive thyroid
- Feeling restless, nervous, or emotional
- Poor sleep quality or insomnia
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent bowel movements
- The disappearance of or irregular menstruation
- Weight loss
- Rapid, forceful, or irregular heartbeat
- Eye problems (associated with Graves’ disease)
- Swelling in your neck or having a goitre
Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune condition where your immune system is creating antibodies that are attacking your thyroid. Over time, this autoimmune attack can damage the gland and cause it to cease working properly. Autoimmune disorders are complicated, but they can be improved through natural medicine. Factors like food sensitivities, latent infections, and adrenal fatigue all need to be considered to reverse Hashimoto’s.
Euthyroid Sick Syndrome
This is a condition where blood tests for the thyroid may show normal levels of TSH or thyroid stimulating hormone. Yet, levels of T3 are low. When T3 drops, your pituitary ought to respond by producing more TSH to stimulate more production of T4 and then conversion to T3. Euthyroid refers to the fact that thyroid itself appears to be in working order as TSH is normal. Treatment of Euthyroid Sick Syndrome often entails looking at the person as a whole and supporting the entire endocrine system as well as resolving stressors.
Simple blood tests can identify a potential problem. We prefer to do comprehensive thyroid blood work that includes TSH, free T3, free T4, anti-TPO (or anti-thyroperoxidase) and anti-thyroglobulin. It’s a common misconception that if TSH is normal, then all of the remaining tests will also be normal. This is not true. I have reviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of thyroid test results and found that patients can have a normal level of TSH, and even normal levels of free T3 and free T4, but thyroid antibody levels are not normal. If you suspect a problem, I would highly recommend having complete testing done.
Whether you have an obvious problem or not, it’s important to understand how the thyroid works so that you can keep your body functioning optimally.
Tips to Improve Your Thyroid Function
When it comes to managing the optimal function of your glands, the building blocks are almost always found in nutrition first and foremost.
6 Tips to maintain a healthy thyroid through diet
- Go gluten and dairy free: Most people go gluten and dairy free only when there is an obvious sensitivity like a gut problem to either type of food. Sensitivity to gluten and dairy can be much more subtle when it comes to the thyroid. These foods trigger inflammation, disordered immune system function and are associated with autoimmune thyroid issues.
- Focus on your iodine level: Iodine is present in almost every organ and tissue and has a direct effect on the thyroid. Iodine is just one of the most important nutrients for this gland. Chemical agents in commercial food ingredients have the side effect of decreasing your iodine level. Daily exposure to chemicals found in water such as bromine, fluorine, and chlorine all negatively impact iodine levels by competing with iodine for absorption. You do not need to take iodine supplements, however, and too much iodine can also damage your thyroid. Using a little bit of good iodized sea salt each day will meet your iodine needs.
- Look for “no bromine” or “bromine-free” labels on organic whole-grain bread and flours if you eat grains
- Increase your dietary intake of wild-caught seafood and ocean fish
- Seek out foods containing zinc and selenium: Zinc and selenium are two micronutrients that play critical roles in thyroid health. Because they can be toxic in very high doses, it’s best to achieve healthy levels through diet. Zinc-rich foods include oysters, beef, pork, egg yolks, shellfish and chicken while selenium-rich foods include Brazil nuts, fish, and liver.
- Manage stress: Stress and overall health are inextricably linked. Make sure you’re taking time to meditate, relieve stress, and get your mindset on track so that you can enjoy the benefits of overall health.
You can gain control over your health by learning how to manage and maintain your thyroid through nutrition, lifestyle, and naturopathic medicine support. If you’re dealing with, or suspect you have this or other health issues, please take time to book an appointment to visit us at our clinic. We want to help you take control of your health! Comprehensive testing and hormone assessments are available.
Call or email us at 416-481-0222 or Info@ForcesofNature.ca
To your best health!
Authored by Dr Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), ND for the team at Forces of Nature Wellness Clinic
J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015 Aug 25:jc20152222. Epub 2015 Aug 25. PMID: 26305620