Support Your Thyroid For Better Health
Most people have heard that their thyroid is important for controlling their metabolism and body weight. But did you know that depression, heart disease, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, PMS, menopausal symptoms, muscle and joint pains, irritable bowel syndrome, or autoimmune disease could actually indicate a problem with your thyroid?
The classic signs of a sluggish thyroid gland include weight gain, lethargy, poor quality hair and nails, hair loss, dry skin, fatigue, cold hands and feet, and constipation -- and these symptoms are relatively well known. However, some of the conditions you might not associate with your thyroid include high cholesterol, irregular menstruation, low libido and infertility, fluid retention, poor stamina, gum disease, skin conditions such as acne and eczema, and memory problems. This is because your thyroid plays a part in nearly every physiological process. When it is out of balance, so are you. If you are interested in improving your health, you really need to understand how your thyroid gland works and what can cause it to not function properly.
Understanding How Your Thyroid Works
The thyroid gland is in the front of your neck and is part of your endocrine, or hormonal, system. It produces the master metabolism hormones that control every function in your body. Thyroid hormones interact with all your other hormones including insulin, cortisol, and sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The fact that these hormones are all tied together and in constant communication explains why an unhappy thyroid is associated with so many widespread symptoms and diseases.
This small gland produces two major thyroid hormones: T4 and T3. About 90 percent of the hormone produced by the gland is in the form of T4, the inactive form. Your liver converts this T4 into T3, the active form, with the help of an enzyme. Thyroid hormones work in a feedback loop with your brain -- particularly your pituitary and hypothalamus -- in regulating the release of thyroid hormone. Your pituitary makes TRH (thyroid releasing hormone), and your hypothalamus makes TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone). If everything is working properly, you will make what you need and you'll have the proper amounts of T3 and T4. Those two hormones are what control the metabolism of every cell in your body. But their delicate balance can be disrupted by nutritional imbalances, toxins, allergens, infections and stress. If your T3 is inadequate, either by insufficient production or not converting properly from T4, your whole system suffers. You see, T3 is critically important because it tells the nucleus of your cells to send messages to your DNA to crank up your metabolism by burning fat. That is why T3 lowers cholesterol levels, regrows hair, and helps keep you lean.
The Hidden Epidemic of Hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism simply means you have a sluggish or underactive thyroid, which is producing less than adequate amounts of thyroid hormone. "Subclinical" hypothyroidism means you have no obvious symptoms and only slightly abnormal lab tests. Many of these tests are a source of great confusion for patients, as well as for many health practitioners. Thyroid problems have unfortunately become quite common. Not surprisingly, the same lifestyle factors contributing to high rates of obesity, cancer and diabetes are wreaking havoc on your thyroid: sugar, processed foods, stress, environmental toxins, and lack of exercise are all heavy contributors. More than 10 percent of the general population in the United States, and 20 percent of women over the age of 60, have subclinical hypothyroidism. But only a small percentage of these people are being treated.
How to Know if You are Hypothyroid
Identifying hypothyroidism and its cause is tricky business. Many of the symptoms overlap with other disorders, and many are vague. Physicians often miss a thyroid problem since they rely on just a few traditional tests, so other clues to the problem go undetected. But you can provide the missing clues! The more vigilant you can be in assessing your own symptoms and risk factors and presenting the complete picture to your physician in an organized way, the easier it will be for your physician to help you.
Sometimes people with hypothyroidism have significant fatigue or sluggishness, especially in the morning. You may have hoarseness for no apparent reason. Often hypothyroid people are slow to warm up, even in a sauna, and don't sweat with mild exercise. Low mood and depression are common. Sluggish bowels and constipation are major clues, especially if you already get adequate water and fiber. Are the upper outer third of your eyebrows thin or missing? This is sometimes an indication of low thyroid. Chronic recurrent infections are also seen because thyroid function is important for your immune system. How about your family history? Some of the family history that suggests you could have a higher risk for hypothyroidism includes: High or low thyroid function, Goiter, Prematurely gray hair, Left-handedness, Diabetes, Autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, sarcoidosis, Sjogren's, etc.), Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, and Multiple sclerosis.
Once you have confirmed that a sluggish thyroid is contributing to your symptoms, the good news is that there are many, many, many things you can do to help correct, and prevent, thyroid problems.
Your lifestyle choices dictate, to a great degree, how well your thyroid will function. The most important thing you can do for your thyroid is to eliminate junk food, processed food, artificial sweeteners, trans fats, and anything with chemical ingredients. Eat whole, unprocessed foods, and choose as many organics as possible. Eat plenty of sea vegetables such as seaweed, which are rich in minerals and iodine (hijiki, wakame, arame, dulse, nori, and kombu). This is probably the most ideal form of iodine supplementation as it is also loaded with many other beneficial nutrients. Eat foods rich in vitamin A, such as dandelion greens, carrots, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. Eat Brazil nuts, which are rich in selenium. Taking chlorella is another excellent detoxification aid and many suffering with hormonal imbalances report significant benefits from the South American herb maca.
Iodine is a key component of thyroid hormone. In fact, the names of the different forms of thyroid hormone reflect the number of iodine molecules attached -- T4 has four attached iodine molecules, and T3 has three -- showing what an important part iodine plays in thyroid biochemistry. If you aren't getting enough iodine in your diet (and most Americans don't), no matter how healthy your thyroid gland is, it won't have the raw materials to make enough thyroid hormone.
Use pure, unrefined organic coconut oil in your cooking -- it's great for stir fries and sautéing many different meats and vegetables. Coconut oil is one of the best foods you can eat for your thyroid. Coconut oil is a saturated fat comprised of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are known to increase metabolism and promote weight loss. Coconut oil is very stable, so your body is much less burdened with oxidative stress than it is from many other vegetable oils. And coconut oil does not interfere with T4 to T3 conversion the way other oils can. Make sure you are eating enough omega-3 fatty acids.
Gluten and Other Food Sensitivities
Gluten and food sensitivities are among the most common causes of thyroid dysfunction because they cause inflammation. Gluten causes autoimmune responses in many people and can be responsible for Hashimoto's thyroiditis, a common autoimmune thyroid condition. Approximately 30 percent of the people with Hashimoto's thyroiditis have an autoimmune reaction to gluten, and it usually goes unrecognized.
Soy is NOT the health food the agricultural and food companies would have you believe. Soy is high in isoflavones (or goitrogens), which are damaging to your thyroid gland. Thousands of studies now link soy foods to malnutrition, digestive stress, immune system weakness, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, infertility and a host of other problems -- in addition to damaging your thyroid. Properly fermented organic soy products such as natto, miso, and tempeh are fine -- it's the unfermented soy products that you should stay away from.
Reduce Exposure to Toxins
Chlorine, fluorine and bromine are known culprits in thyroid function, and since they are halides like iodine, they compete for your iodine receptors. If you are exposed to a lot of bromine, you will not hold on to the iodine you need. Bromine is present in many places in your everyday world -- plastics, pesticides, hot tub treatments, fire retardants, some flours and bakery goods, and even some soft drinks. Also make sure the water you drink is filtered. Fluoride is particularly damaging to your thyroid gland. Not all water filters remove fluoride, so make sure the one you have does. Environmental toxins place additional stress on your body. Pollutants such as petrochemicals, organochlorines, pesticides and chemical food additives negatively affect thyroid function- a quality air filter can help reduce your exposure to these toxins.
Stress and Adrenal Function
Stress is one of the worst thyroid offenders. Your thyroid function is intimately tied to your adrenal function, which is intimately affected by how you handle stress. Many of us are under chronic stress, which results in increased adrenalin and cortisol levels, and elevated cortisol has a negative impact on thyroid function. Thyroid hormone levels drop during stress, while you actually need more thyroid hormones during stressful times. When stress becomes chronic, the flood of stress chemicals (adrenalin and cortisol) produced by your adrenal glands interferes with thyroid hormones and can contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, unstable blood sugar, and more. A prolonged stress response can lead to adrenal exhaustion (also known as adrenal fatigue), which is often found alongside thyroid disease. Take active steps to minimize your stress ... relaxation, meditation, hot soaks, EFT, whatever works for you.
Daily Exercise, Adequate Sleep, Sunshine and Saunas
One of the best destressors is exercise, which is why it is so beneficial for your thyroid.
Exercise directly stimulates your thyroid gland to secrete more thyroid hormone. Exercise also increases the sensitivity of all your tissues to thyroid hormone. It is even thought that many of the health benefits of exercise stem directly from improved thyroid function. Even something as simple as a 30-minute walk is a great form of exercise, and all you need is a good pair of walking shoes. Don't forget to add strength training to your exercise routine, because increasing your muscle mass helps raise your metabolic rate. Also make sure you are getting enough sleep. Inadequate sleep contributes to stress and prevents your body from regenerating fully. Get plenty of sunlight to optimize your vitamin D levels; if you live where sunlight is limited, use vitamin D3 supplementation. Use an infrared sauna to help your body combat infections and detoxify from petrochemicals, metals, PCBs, pesticides and mercury.
The Path to Lasting Wellness
Ultimately, a thyroid problem is no different than any other chronic illness -- you must address the underlying issues if you hope to correct the problem. The path to wellness may involve a variety of twists and turns before you find what works for you. If you approach it from a comprehensive, holistic perspective, you will find in time that all of the little steps you take will ultimately result in your feeling much better than you could have ever imagined.
Mary Shomon, "Thyroid Disease 101," June 19, 2006
"Major Revision of Hypothyroid Diagnosis Guidelines" March 1, 2003
Mark Hyman M.D., The Ultra Thyroid Solution: A 7-Step Plan to Reverse Hypothyroidsim Permanently, 2008, copyright UltraWellness L.L.C. (ebook)