You may have heard of your thyroid gland before, however you’re not alone if you don’t know what it does - or even where it is in your body.
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the throat (located near your vocal cords). Your thyroid gland has many functions in the body. Its two major roles are that it controls growth in the body and it controls metabolism – i.e. the rate at which all chemical reactions happen within us. When the thyroid gland is under-performing it can be diagnosed as hypothyroidism. This basically means that reactions slow-down in the body and can make you feel as though your whole body is asleep. The symptoms of an under-functioning thyroid are 1 of the top 3 reasons people seek alternative or complementary medicine help. However, too much thyroid hormone isn’t good either and this can make you feel anxious, panicky and generally over-stimulated….. not in a good way.
What does the thyroid do?
Your thyroid secretes hormones that regulate pretty much everything your body does, such as;
- Regulates metabolism for energy
- Regulates body temperature and fluid balance
- Regulates your immune system
- Important in processing vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, electrolytes and water correctly in the body.
- Important in the proper functioning of the heart
When you have hypothyroidism, or an under active thyroid, your thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) needed to carry out its many functions. What can make hypothyroidism very difficult to diagnose is that the symptoms it creates mirror the symptoms of many other conditions.
Fatigue - Your mitochondria (your bodies’ internal battery) need thyroid hormone to make energy in your body.
Weight gain - When metabolism slows down in the body, it’s much easier to gain weight
Chronic pain - E.g. carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, headaches, nerve pain, joint pain, leg and foot cramps, restless legs, arthritis, fibromyalgia
Dry hair and hair loss - One common symptom is that you lose the outer third of your eyebrows
Mental health challenges - anxiety, mood swings, depression, panic attacks, fear
Digestion problems - indigestion, acid reflux, heart burn, constipation, stomach pain, IBS
Skin conditions - dry skin, acne, brittle nails that break easily, itchy skin, eczema, psoriasis, skin rashes
Frequent infections - frequent colds, flu, bronchitis and sinus infections
Heart disease - high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, low heart rate
Reproductive challenges - recurrent miscarriage, infertility, irregular periods, PMS symptoms
Insomnia, brain fog, memory problems
Always feeling cold, cold hands & feet
Breathing challenges - difficulty swallowing, frequent sighing, difficulty taking a deep breath, pain in throat
Inability to concentrate, dizziness, tinnitus,
Sexual health - low libido
The list goes on and on and on…..
What Causes Hypothyroidism
Stress is a major factor contributing factor to lowered thyroid function. This is because the adrenal glands (also called the stress glands) are the anchor to the whole endocrine/hormonal system. Therefore, if we are under stress, it can impact the thyroid gland and the hormones it secretes considerably.
In addition, stress depletes essential nutrients required for optimal thyroid function – B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc and selenium.
Autoimmune disease – Hashimotos Thyroiditis
You may have hypothyroid because you have been diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis. This is an autoimmune condition that attacks the thyroid gland. If this is the case, you may want to consider a gluten free diet, as gluten (the protein found in wheat and many other grains) may increase your autoimmune reaction. If you have 1 autoimmune condition such as Hashimotos, unfortunately you are at a higher risk for more autoimmune conditions. Many people with Hashimotos, may also have celiac disease, which results in the body being unable to process gluten, the protein found in wheat and many other grains.
Research has found that when some people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis follow a strict gluten-free diet, a percentage of them will see their thyroid antibodies and other thyroid markers drop towards more normal levels. However, this is not a guaranteed way to lower or reverse your condition. It depends on many factors, including the extent that your thyroid has already been damaged by autoimmune antibodies, and if you have any underlying conditions that may be triggering your Hashimoto's.
If you are hypothyroid because you have had thyroid surgery to remove your thyroid gland, or radioactive iodine (RAI) to ablate your thyroid, you will require a prescription thyroid hormone replacement for life.
The likes of mercury, cadmium and lead can disrupt the body producing optimal levels of thyroid hormones. Therefore, if there is no other obvious cause of your hypothyroidism, it may be worth investigating this further.
Iodine deficiency or excess
If you are sub-clinically or mildly hypothyroid because of iodine deficiency, iodine supplementation may help restore you to normal thyroid function without medication.
Thyroid Function Testing
Most conventional practitioners test only TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels as a first port of call when assessing thyroid function. However, did you know that TSH can be normal on a blood test, but you can still have low thyroid function? TSH will outline what is happening with central thyroid regulation, however many thyroid problems occur with the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone to active thyroid hormone (T3).
The reason for this is the reference ranges on standard blood tests are quite broad, so it can be challenging to pick up a sub-clinical condition.
If you’re suffering from a number of the thyroid symptoms I listed above, here are the thyroid tests I would recommend to discuss with your health care practitioner.
- Free T4
- Free T3
- Reverse T3
- Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies (TPOAb)
- Thyroglobulin Antibodies (TgAb)
Conventional treatment - Thyroxine
Whatever the cause, hypothyroidism is generally treated with the same approach in conventional medicine – i.e. with a prescription thyroxine; a synthetic hormone. However, this doesn’t address the cause, or the ‘why’ poor thyroid function is there to begin with, and it can allow the condition to worsen. This is why patients often need an increased dose of thyroxine over time. Plus there are risks and side effects associated with taking long-term pharmaceutical drugs. Therefore, it's essential to know what the other options are.
Natural Thyroid Supplements that work
Treating hypothyroidism shouldn’t be a DIY project. If you have been prescribed thyroxine (thyroid hormone), DON’T stop taking it unless directed by your health care practitioner. However, many people have found benefit in using specific vitamins, minerals and supplements, along with dietary changes to support their thyroid health. One more thing…..if you have been diagnosed as hypothyroid and your symptoms have gone away, it’s still important to have regular thyroid tests completed to ensure levels are where they need to be.
This amino acid is necessary to make thyroid hormone.
Kelp is a concentrated source of bioavailable iodine; an essential component of thyroid hormones. Iodine is an essential mineral needed to produce thyroid hormones, however; supplementation is only recommended when iodine levels have been tested in the body and a deficiency has been identified.
B vitamins provide essential co-factors in the metabolism of tyrosine in the body. Tyrosine is critical to make thyroid hormones.
Selenium is required to convert inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to active thyroid hormone (T3). Stress can inhibit this enzyme’s ability to produce and convert thyroid hormones throughout the body.
This herb supports healthy adrenal function in the body; which has a knock-on effect to supporting the thyroid gland too.