This great guest post was written by Dr. Serena Goldstein, a naturopathic doctor specializing in natural hormone balance! I encourage you to go check out her website!
Thyroid disease affects millions of people all over the world, and while the American Thyroid Association says 20 million Americans have thyroid conditions, the amount of people ‘not feeling good’ has motivated doctors to narrow the lab ranges of healthy thyroid function. As a result, more people are now diagnosed with thyroid disease, especially as professionals are also ordering additional thyroid and non-thyroid related blood work with the understanding that we really are interconnected on a mind-body level. People are also looking for options to either complement or in place of pharmaceutical interventions and understand the nutritional and lifestyle strategies that need to take place in order to truly change their health status and double as preventative care.
What Is The Role of the Thyroid?
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck around the trachea, and responsible for brain and body development in infants, metabolic activity (e.g. weight, how fast physiological systems move) of nearly every organ system, and to a lesser extent, it helps decrease levels of blood calcium.
Types of Thyroid Issues
Common variations include hypothyroid (high TSH because of poor response by thyroid to make adequate hormones), hyperthyroid (very low TSH as overactive thyroid gland inhibits hypothalamus and pituitary release of thyrotropin-releasing hormone and thyroid stimulating hormone, respectively), both commonly caused by autoimmune Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease, respectively.
Other prevalent concerns can include nodules (usually not noticeable unless larger growth or cause hyperthyroidism), thyroiditis (goiter; swelling of gland such as from post partum or infection), or thyroid cancer.
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There’s also now ‘subclinical hyper- and hypothyroid’, where the person still doesn’t feel quite right, may not exhibit every single symptom, and have normal or slightly abnormal lab tests. However, when lab ranges are narrowed in even more, they may actually be abnormal (Cooper and Biondi, 2012). People also have their own version of normal labs too, so it’s imperative to also address the many other potential causes and listen to your patient/client.
Thyroid issues in women are far more common than thyroid issues in men, due to hormonal fluctuations, such as the flux of reproductive hormones every month, during or after pregnancy, and after menopause, compared to the more ‘stable’ hormone levels in men.
Symptoms of Thyroid Issues
Insufficient thyroid hormone slows down metabolic processes so hypothyroid type symptoms can include:
- Dry, coarse hair,
- Thinning or loss of eyebrows
- Slow heartbeat
- Weight gain
- Brittle nails
- Cold intolerance
- Heavy menses
On the contrary, hyperthyroid related symptoms can include:
- Bulging eyes
- Rapid heartbeat
- Weight loss
- Frequent/irregular bowel movements
- Scant menses
How To Accurately Diagnose Thyroid Issues
Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is usually the only marker utilized in conventional medicine to diagnose thyroid disease, and usually people feel good when their TSH is 0.8-2.0 IU/L.
Unfortunately, this test is only a fraction of your thyroid story. Free T3 and free T4 indicate how much hormone your thyroid is actually producing. Our thyroid produces mostly T4, which is inactive, and a small amount of T3, active, though T4 gets converted to T3 predominantly in the liver, to a lesser extent in the gut, and then throughout our body (for our body to function!).
However, in times of stress, T4 becomes (reverse)T3, an inactive form developed to slow metabolism in case we’re in a famine, or to prevent hyperthyroidism.
Antibodies can also show an autoimmune component (when the body attacks itself), as Hashimoto’s is the most common cause of hypothyroidism (TPO and TG antibodies), and Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism (TSI and TRAb antibodies). An autoimmune disease places someone at risk for more, so given their incidence and potential root cause to thyroid issues, best to get them checked too.
As the thyroid gland does not act alone in affecting our health (and our health affects the thyroid), other blood tests to prioritize that could have symptom overlap include:
- Vitamin D (25-OH)
- iron panel.
- red and white blood cells (CBC) can determine concerns like infections or anemia
- electrolytes (CMP) can reflect adrenal/stress health and liver enzymes to ensure its functioning optimally
- hemoglobin A1c as a more accurate measure of blood sugar, which could also be contributing to a myriad of similar symptoms.
How To Prevent and Manage Thyroid Issues
Healthful daily living habits are incredibly important as a foundation for optimal thyroid health, and serve to also address potential reasons/causes for thyroid maladies.
Stress and lifestyle
Managing stress response is critical to thyroid, hormone, and overall health such as through deep breathing and gentle exercises like yoga (some positions like fish pose benefit our throat chakra), and proper sleep allows our body to renew and regenerate. In addition, energetically the thyroid represents the throat chakra, where imbalances stem from the inability to ‘speak our truth’ and communicate (both to, and receiving from, others). Many times thyroid conditions can stem from not being or living as our authentic self.
Our thyroid, liver, and hormones are negatively impacted by exogenous chemicals such as from beauty and cleaning products, like increased estrogen burdens our liver, disrupts gut health, and can inhibit thyroid production.
Nutritionally, foods like seaweed and cranberries are rich in iodine, while brazil nuts and mushrooms are high in selenium, both important nutrients for thyroid health. Dark green leafy (e.g. spinach, kale) and cruciferous (e.g. broccoli, Brussels sprouts) vegetables are extremely nutrient dense, but best cooked (even for a few minutes) as they contain goitrogenic compounds that can inhibit thyroid hormone when consumed raw in large amounts.
Lastly, supplements are meant to supplement, not replace, an unhealthy lifestyle, so it’s best to work with a knowledgeable practitioner to guide between herb/drug/nutrient interaction, and to create an individualized plan based on your lifestyle and health goals that not only treat, but address the root cause of disease.
- Cooper, D.S. & Biondi, B. (2012). Subclincal thyroid disease. Lancet. 379:1142-54.
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