The thyroid is a very important part of your body – but do you know why?
Most people have heard that the thyroid plays a role in controlling body weight and metabolism. Unexplainable weight gain or weight loss is often blamed on a sluggish thyroid.
But did you know that your thyroid is concerned with a LOT more than just your weight? The thyroid is a major player in hormone function. And your hormones are a BIG DEAL.
When the thyroid is distressed, you may experience symptoms like depression, chronic fatigue, PMS, unexplainable joint and muscle pain, IBS, heart disease and autoimmune disease.
It’s true – this little butterfly-shaped gland has a major impact on a large variety of bodily functions. It is important to understand how it works, why it does what it does and perhaps most importantly, HOW to take good care of it.
What Is The Thyroid Gland?
The thyroid gland sits in the middle of your neck and is one of the largest endocrine glands in the body. It is primarily responsible for hormone creation and secretion. Although it is relatively small, the thyroid has an influence on many of the most important organs in the body including the brain, liver, kidney, heart and skin.
Your Thyroid Plays A Major Role In:
- How fast or slow the metabolism works (metabolism turns food into energy)
- The body’s sensitivity to hormones
- Growth and rate of function for many systems in the body
- Electrolyte transportation
- Cellular protein synthesis
- Cardiac and muscle activity
- Bone repair
- Turning beta-carotene into vitamin A
- Growth during childhood
- Mental processes
- Libido (for both men and women)
- Menstrual cycles
An easy way to understand how the thyroid works is to think of it like a car engine that decides how fast or slow your body operates. Similar to how a car engine produces energy for a car to move at a specific speed, your thyroid gland stimulates cells to perform bodily functions at a specific rate.
What Fuels The Thyroid?
The thyroid is fueled by IODINE, a chemical element found in certain foods you eat.
Iodine can be found in:
- Sea vegetables
- Navy beans
- Raw, organic cheese
- Iodine supplements
Once digested, your thyroid pulls iodine from your bloodstream and uses it to make two kinds of thyroid hormones called triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). T3 is the more bioactive version of the hormone, while T4 is considered the less active, storage form. Surprisingly, the thyroid outputs roughly 20 times more T4 than T3.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) released from the pituitary gland helps regulate the hormonal output and balance of the thyroid, regulating how much of the primary T3 and T4 hormones are manufactured and released. Before all of that happens, the TSH release is first stimulated by the area of the brain that controls neuroendocrine and central nervous system function. The hypothalamus then sends out its own stimulatory hormone called thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH).
What Happens When The Thyroid Isn’t Functioning Properly
If your thyroid isn’t working properly it can feel like you’re driving a car with a gas pedal that is either really hard to push down, or pushes down much too easily.
When your thyroid isn’t functioning properly, it releases too little or too many hormones. This can lead to a number of symptoms or, if left untreated, serious disease.
The most common forms of thyroid disease are:
- Graves Disease (the autoimmune form of Hyperthyroidism)
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (the autoimmune form of Hypothyroidism)
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Let’s dig into those a bit.
Grave’s disease is an autoimmune disorder, wherein the immune system has an abnormal response that causes the thyroid gland to produce an overabundance of thyroid hormone. If left untreated, this disease can lead to over activity of the thyroid gland, otherwise known as hyperthyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism is defined as an overactive thyroid gland, which produces an overabundance of T3/T4 hormones.
Hashimoto’s is a form of chronic inflammation that can damage the thyroid, inhibiting its ability to produce hormones. Roughly 90% of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) begins with Hashimoto’s.
Hashimoto’s affects 1-2% of people in the United States, with the majority being women. It’s thought to be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Hashimoto’s often appears in adulthood, with signs and symptoms developing gradually over time. What many don’t realize is that this is an autoimmune condition, whereas the immune system begins attacking itself. In the case of “hashi’s”, your immune system begins attacking your thyroid specifically. If left untreated, it can become full blown hypothyroidism, which can pose greater problems long-term.
Hypothyroidism occurs with an underactive thyroid, which produces inadequate amounts of T3/T4 thyroid hormones. Common causes include a congenital abnormality (thyroid deficiency from birth), autoimmune inflammation of the thyroid, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, nutritional iodine deficiency, TSH hormone deficiency via pituitary gland abnormality, heavy metal toxicity and dysbiosis (imbalance of good vs. bad bacteria).
How Many People Are Suffering From A Thyroid Disorder/Disease?
According to The American Thyroid Association (ATA), more than 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime.
- An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease.
- Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.
- Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.
- One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
- Most thyroid cancers respond to treatment, although a small percentage can be very aggressive.
- The causes of thyroid problems are largely unknown.
- Undiagnosed thyroid disease may put patients at risk for certain serious conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and infertility.
- Pregnant women with undiagnosed or inadequately treated hypothyroidism have an increased risk of miscarriage, preterm delivery, and severe developmental problems in their children.
- Most thyroid diseases are lifelong conditions that can be managed with medical attention.
Signs Your Thyroid Isn’t Working Well
Because your thyroid is involved in so many bodily functions, there are a lot of symptoms that potentially point to thyroid distress. Some of the most common are:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin
- Unexplainable weight gain
- Swollen face
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood cholesterol level
- Muscle aches
- Thinning hair
- Impaired memory
Depending on a lot of things, your thyroid could either be in EXPRESS MODE (hyper) or in SLUG MODE (hypo).
What is causing so many people to suffer with a thyroid disorder?
This occurs when the immune system produces antibodies that attack your own tissues, possibly due to chronic inflammation. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder, is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.
Celiac Disease, Gluten and Wheat
Gluten and other food sensitivities are considered one of the most common causes of thyroid dysfunction. Meaning, many people’s thyroid issues are caused by dietary-triggered inflammation and autoimmunity to wheat and gluten.
The trace mineral iodine (found in seafood and salt) is vital to the production of thyroid hormones. When people get TOO MUCH or NOT ENOUGH it can cause hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
Unfortunately, soy is NOT the health food that it has been made out to be by agricultural companies. Soy is a goitrogen and may inhibit thyroid hormone absorption. There are countless studies now about soy’s connection to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune system weakness, cognitive decline and more.
The Role of Vitamin Deficiency and Thyroid Disorders
We all know that we should eat the right foods in order to obtain all the necessary vitamins, minerals and nutrients to achieve and maintain optimal health and well-being. But did you know…
Lack of certain vitamins and minerals can actually lead to thyroid deficiency and if you have thyroid deficiency, the vitamins you are consuming aren’t being absorbed and utilized properly.
It’s important that we all make sure to get adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, either by eating plenty of nutrient-dense foods containing or by using quality supplements in addition to a healthy diet.
Let’s face it, most people these days lead very busy lives. While eating healthy all the time can prove challenging, by committing to an 80/20 philosophy (80% clean / 20% less clean), you’re setting yourself up for a healthier mind, body (internally and externally) and spirit. Your mood has the potential to literally shift with simple upgrades to your plate – go figure! 🙂
I see it often – people skip meals to lose weight without realizing that this can cause problems for their entire endocrine system (hormones, thyroid, adrenal glands). Unfortunately, this also often leads to weight-gain because your body begins to store fat to use for energy and since it doesn’t know when it will get it’s next “fix” of healthy and nutritious food, it holds on to whatever it can to keep you going with your everyday life.
Lack of protein in a vegetarian or vegan diet of a thyroid deficient person may also cause problems. That’s not to say that these ways of eating are bad – not at all! But often people do vegetarian or vegan incorrectly and because of this, lack the proper amount of protein to support the needs of the thyroid and other body systems.
Checking for vitamin and mineral deficiencies is not common in Western Medicine, but it’s a really easy tool to determine what your individual needs are. You might be surprised to find that you are deficient in quite a few important vitamins!
Here are some common vitamin (mineral) deficiencies. *Seek testing from a Functional Medicine Practitioner or Naturopath that understands the importance of having these in balance for overall health and optimal body functions.
Vitamin A (not carotene)
Vitamin A deficiency can stop T3 from activating your cells to increase metabolic rate and energy levels. Your thyroid can not function effectively without adequate amounts of this vitamin.
A little know fact about vitamin A is that it must be accompanied by protein for better absorption. So if your diet is low in protein than you most likely will also have a vitamin A deficiency.
Vitamin B Complex
All the B vitamins are vital for good thyroid function, but each plays their own important role in the body. Check out this post for a detailed description of the role of each of the 8 B vitamins – B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12.
A note regarding B vitamins: Testing for the MTHFR gene is a good idea, as it’s estimated that upwards of 50% of the population have at least 1 of the genetic mutations present, making absorption of certain vitamins – including B’s – nearly impossible without taking the proper form and combination.
The thyroid needs this vital vitamin to stay healthy. Long-term deficiency causes the thyroid gland to secrete too much hormone. People with an overactive thyroid often need extra Vitamin C, as this is actually drained from the tissues in their bodies.
It has been found that when people with an overactive thyroid take this vitamin, it counteracts the usual rapid excretion of calcium and osteoporosis can be avoided. A large majority of the population tend to be deficient in this vitamin, even in sunny climates! Supplementation is a great idea for many people and testing to see where your levels are is as simple as a vial of blood from your GP.
Did you know that vitamin D is best absorbed through your eyes? And very rarely do people stare into the bright sun to gain the benefits. I know I don’t – the mighty sun is far too powerful for my blue eyes!
Again, lack of this vitamin encourages the thyroid gland to secrete too much hormone, as well as too little TSH by the pituitary gland.
A higher intake of this vitamin is often needed by people with an overactive thyroid to counteract the large amounts of the vitamin depleted from the system. As with anything, consult your doctor as some believe that supplementing with vitamin E should be avoided in cases of autoimmunity.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. This mineral also helps the body maintain healthy blood vessels, regulate blood pressure, and even prevent insulin resistance (which could lead to Type 2 diabetes). Most people consume too little calcium.
Contrary to old beliefs, dairy products are not necessarily the best source either. White beans, sardines, dried figs, bok choy, blackstrap molasses, kale, almonds, oranges and sesame seeds are all great NON-DAIRY options.
It’s estimated that 80% of the population are deficient in this mineral, which is so important to numerous functions in your body, including sleep, stress and you guessed it, optimal thyroid function.
This is a crucial component of the enzyme that converts T4 to T3 in the body. Without it, T3 cannot be produced in the right amounts and organs will function as if they were hypothyroid (underactive) even though blood test levels are normal.
Did you know that just 1 brazil nut provides the adequate amount of your daily needs for selenium?
Research has shown that both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism result in zinc deficiency. It also plays a role in the functioning of the immune system. Low zinc levels have been found in obese people. Zinc is needed to convert T4 into T3, so this mineral is a must.
Addressing Thyroid Disorders
Conventional approaches to hyperthyroidism include beta-blockers and anti-thyroid medications, radioactive iodine and surgery. Natural approaches are numerous and often boil down to one thing: diet.
Eat more organic foods, unprocessed foods and plenty of whole foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Reduce (or preferably eliminate completely) junk food, artificial sweeteners and colors, trans fats and chemical ingredients.
Eliminating or decreasing goitrogenic foods may be helpful, as would removing fluoride, bromine and chlorine from water via a high-quality filtration system.
Note that lightly cooking these foods removes goitrogens!
Here are some examples of goitrogenic foods:
- Brussels Sprouts
- Mustard Greens
- Soy-Based Foods
Reducing dietary gluten and dairy casein may also help protect the thyroid gland in sensitive individuals. Nascent iodine, lithium orotate, probiotics, vitamin D3, omega-3 fats, L-dopa (mucuna pruriens) and L-tyrosine are possible helpful supplements that can be taken for supporting thyroid health. Make sure to get plenty of sleep to recharge the thyroid and avoid synthetic chemicals whenever possible. Deep breathing meditation and general relaxation may also be helpful for reducing stress associated with the thyroid.
Superfood For Your Thyroid Gland
Like I mentioned before: diet is the number one thing you can do to preserve and support your thyroid. One of the superfoods that is excellent for thyroid health is:
I am kind of a geek about herbs and this one is one of my favorites! Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that has been studied extensively for its healing influence on the human body – particularly the thyroid gland.
What is ashwagandha?
The Ashwagandha plant is a tonic and an adaptogen, which means it restores the brain and body to homeostasis after physical and psychological stress. It is one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic medicine and use of the root can be traced back over 3000 years.
How can ashwagandha help support and protect the thyroid?
Adaptogens (like ashwagandha) help to modulate the endocrine system. In other words, they bring your body back into BALANCE from one extreme or another.
You can take adaptogens for a hyperactive thyroid (one that is working too quickly) OR a hypothyroid (one that is working too slow). Cool right?
STUDIES ON ASHWAGANDHA AND THYROID
Animal studies have shown that Ashwagandha has a thyroid hormone balancing effect.
In a 20 day study, mice were given Ashwagandha and their T4 and T3 (hormones created by the thyroid) levels were measured along with lipid peroxidation.
T4 levels increased significantly, making it beneficial for the sluggish thyroid.
Lipid peroxidation was reduced because of antioxidant activity, thus making it beneficial for the hyperactive thyroid.
How To Use Ashwagandha
You can find ashwagandha most commonly in supplement form.
If you think you’ve got some symptoms pointing to a thyroid disorder, it would be good to chat with a doctor and look into getting tested. Your thyroid is crucial to proper body function and should not be ignored.
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