Your thyroid is an essential part of the delicate hormonal balance that regulates your health and happiness. This small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits in the front of your neck is responsible for producing the hormones T3 and T4, which regulate a wide range of body functions — from your metabolism to your reproductive health.
And if you’ve been having unsolved health issues, maybe you’ve heard about hypothyroidism before, maybe you have been diagnosed with it, or told you have an “abnormal thyroid.” Chances are, you’ve also never seen a resolution for these issues.
There are many underlying reasons that your thyroid may not be functioning ideally; diagnosing and addressing those is the only way to effectively treat your thyroid.
How does your thyroid affect your overall health?
The thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, produced by the thyroid have many roles in the body. They are responsible for increasing your metabolism, therefore affecting how your body operates in many ways including:
Metabolism: Since thyroid hormones increase your metabolism, your weight, appetite, and energy are greatly influenced by your thyroid hormone levels. When levels are too low, it is very common to have a decreased appetite with an increase in weight, or trouble losing weight.
Hair, skin, and nails: Some of your most metabolically active tissues, such as your skin cells, hair, and nails, are also affected by thyroid hormones as they are replicate frequently. This explains why low thyroid can cause hair loss, dry skin, and brittle nails.
Mind and mood: Like the rest of your body, thyroid speeds up the processes in your brain as well. When thyroid hormones are too low, depression, brain fog, and forgetfulness are common complaints.
Reproduction: Your thyroid hormonal levels are indicators of whether or not your body has enough energy to reproduce or not. Ovaries are also very metabolically active, and therefore hypothyroidism can cause menstrual issues such as heavy periods and infertility.
Cholesterol: When your thyroid hormones are too low, it can cause an increase in your LDL cholesterol, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Riboflavin: Optimal thyroid hormones are needed to convert vitamin B2 (riboflavin), into its active form, NAD. NAD is required for numerous biochemical processes in the body, and thus if your thyroid is underperforming and affecting your NAD, there can be a substantial downstream effect in multiple systems of your body.
Evaluating Thyroid Function
This may sound familiar: You walk into your doctor’s office reporting some or all, of the following:
- Weight gain
- Puffiness and water retention
- Dry hair and brittle nails
- Heavy periods
- Feeling cold
- Sugar cravings
- Sleep disturbances
Your doctor says “Ok, that sounds like a thyroid issue – let’s run some blood tests” and you think “Yes! Finally, some answers!” You come back the following week, and your doctor says “Your thyroid test looks normal,” your jaw drops, and all you can do is look at your doctor with wide eyes and think “WHAT! That can’t be?! Well, then why do I feel like crap?”
This scenario is all too common and is undeniably frustrating. In conventional medicine’s standard of care, the thyroid is evaluated by TSH — a thyroid-stimulating hormone — and sometimes T4, a hormone produced by the thyroid, that is then converted to T3, which is the active hormone. T4 levels don’t reveal the whole truth about your thyroid health, especially if the conversion process to T3 isn’t functioning optimally. These standards also use reference ranges that are quite dated.
These standards miss half of the population who have suboptimal thyroid functioning. The truth is, there likely is something wrong, and thankfully there are additional tests to run and a different approach to evaluating them.
A naturopathic doctor understands the interplay between thyroid function, stress, adrenal function, environmental toxicities, and nutrient status, and can run more comprehensive tests to figure out your thyroid puzzle.
Treating Thyroid Dysfunction
There are numerous different reasons that people have hypothyroidism, as it truly is a puzzle with many working pieces. When the reason for thyroid dysfunction can be identified, the treatment can be tailored to address the underlying cause, rather than a one size fits all approach. Conventionally there is one treatment for hypothyroidism which is a prescription for synthetic thyroxine (T4). This will work for some people, but for others, it will not as it does not address the whole problem.
The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are often ignored when addressing thyroid dysfunction, which commonly results in an unsuccessful treatment with prescription thyroxine. The adrenal glands are two triangle-shaped glands that sit on either kidney. They have two sections: the cortex, and the medulla. The medulla creates epinephrine and norepinephrine which are released during immediate stressor – known as fight or flight hormones. The adrenal cortex responds to prolonged stress by producing cortisol. It is also responsible for creating sex hormones, along with aldosterone, which helps with salt and water balance.
When cortisol is released over an extended period, it signals to your body that you are over-stressed and need to slow down. Since your thyroid speeds your body’s processes up, high levels of cortisol will tell the thyroid to slow down. The body does this by turning T4 into reverse T3 which is inactive in the body. This is why it is important to measure more than just TSH when assessing the thyroid. It is important to also evaluate your cortisol levels, preferably at four points during the day to understand their role in your thyroid health.
T3 is the active form of the thyroid hormone, which the body makes from T4. Several nutrients are needed for this conversion, including iodine, zinc, and selenium. Some people cannot effectively convert T4 to T3 due to nutritional deficiencies or for other reasons. As a result, hypothyroid symptoms can occur. This group of people will not respond well to prescription thyroxine as they will be unable to complete the T4 to T3 conversion.
Many environmental exposures and chemicals, as well as some medications, are toxic to the thyroid. People living or working in areas with high pollutants, pesticides, herbicides or heavy metal exposures are at risk of damaging their thyroids, as well as other organs and tissues in the body. Specialized tests are available to assess your body’s chemical burden.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks the thyroid gland. Since this is an autoimmune condition, these cases have several other considerations and should be handled by a healthcare professional skilled in treating autoimmune cases.
The thyroid gland plays a critical role in your health and wellbeing. Even small changes can have a considerable impact on the way you feel and how your body operates. Everything in our bodies is connected, and it is essential to view the body as a whole. Thyroid health can be a puzzle at times, but properly identifying hypoactive thyroid function, as well as the underlying cause, is an essential first step in bringing the body back into balance.