Most people have heard of the thyroid gland, but often what comes to mind are images of a sluggish metabolism, or an internal thermostat gone haywire.
While it’s true that the thyroid plays a role in metabolism and the regulation of temperature, this little gland is so much more than that. In fact, the thyroid is one of the most essential glands for regulating overall health.
The bad news? It’s also easily damaged by toxins, nutrient deficiencies, and stress.
What is the Thyroid, and how does it work?
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland found in the neck behind the Adam’s apple.It is controlled primarily from the pituitary gland (via the hormone TSH) to product the thyroid hormones T4 (thyroxine) and T3(triiodthyronine).
T4 is found in the largest quantities and then our body converts T4 into the more biologically active T3 hormone. While T4 is found in the largest quantities in our bodies, it’s really T3 that does the heavy lifting when it comes to metabolism.
Still, you can see how T4, T3 and TSH would be crucially important to thyroid health.
Suboptimal thyroid health, and how to spot it
I see a ton of patients with thyroid conditions in my practice, many of which have not been diagnosed previously. The following symptoms are often clues that your thyroid gland is not performing optimally:
- Fatigue - Low energy can be caused by many things, however if you are constantly dragging and can’t function without coffee, it could be a sign of an underactive thyroid. Also, if you need to sleep more than 9 hours a night to feel refreshed, it could be an indication of an underlying thyroid imbalance.
- Weight Gain - Unexplained weight changes and issues can be signs of both hypo- orhyper-thyroidism (under- or over-active thyroid conditions). If you’re exercising vigorously and eating healthy but failing to shed a pound (or even gaining weight), it could be another sign that there’s something off with your thyroid.
- Dry Skin and/or Hair Loss - With hypothyroid (low thyroid), hair often becomes brittle, coarse and dry, while breaking off and falling out easily. Skin can become coarse, thick, dry and scaly. In hypothyroidism there is often an unusual loss of hair in the outer edge of the eyebrow.
- Depression/Anxiety - Depression or anxiety can be a symptom of thyroid disease. While there are often other underlying factors involved, the thyroid and adrenal function should be the first areas of assessment when treating anxiety or depression.
- Menstrual Problems and Infertility - Our hormones work synergistically together: when one hormone is out of balance, often another hormone pathways need to be investigated. Heavier, more frequent and painful periods are sometimes associated with hypothyroidism. Infertility can also be associated with undiagnosed thyroid conditions.
Testing your thyroid - the missing piece of the puzzle
Current research shows that an untreated thyroid disorder can increase our risk for many chronic health concerns. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people have a suboptimal thyroid not detected through proper evaluation and testing.
This is because often only TSH and T4 are checked, which only provides part of the picture. Remember that it’s actually the T3 hormone that does the work of regulating our metabolism, so if we’re not checking for it we could be missing a huge gap in our hormone health.
When doing a thorough workup on the thyroid, Naturopathic Physicians always run the following tests:
- Free T3 and Free T4
Restoring Your Thyroid
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and suspect your thyroid is to blame, you may want to supplement your diet with nutrients that support healthy thyroid function.
Some key nutrients that can help boost an underactive thyroid include:
- Iodine and Tyrosine - Thyroid hormones are made from iodine and the amino acid tyrosine. Include food sources from the diet such as seaweeds (kelp, dulse), eggs, nuts and seeds, turkey, chicken and fish.
- Selenium (in the form of selenomethionine) - A deficiency in selenium reduces the conversion of T4 into active T3. Selenium also helps the body recycle its stores of iodine. Shiitake mushrooms, salmon, Brazil nuts and garlic are all good sources of selenium.
- Ashwagandha (Withaniasomnifera) - Ashwagandha is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine. It serves as an adaptogen, helping the adrenal glands combat stress but also supports healthy thyroid function by supporting the synthesis of thyroid hormones.