For years thyroid problems have been downplayed, misunderstood and portrayed as unimportant. But thyroid disease can affect almost every aspect of health, causing exhaustion, nervous tremors, excessive weight loss/gain, muscle and joint aches, depression and memory difficulties.

While thyroid impairment can affect men, it is particularly common among women. Experts agree that about 10 to 15 percent of women are affected, and some researchers believe that up to 50 percent of women may have thyroid problems.

Understanding more about your thyroid, and the symptoms that occur when something goes wrong with this small gland, can help you regain and maintain your health.

What Does Your Thyroid Do?

Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that wraps around the windpipe behind and below the Adam’s apple area. The thyroid produces several hormones, of which two are key: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones help oxygen enter cells and make your thyroid the master gland of metabolism.

Is Your Thyroid Working?

The best way to answer this question is to listen to your body. Most of the symptoms associated with thyroid dysfunction are listed in tables one and two. Enlarged thyroid, or goiter, is another symptom of both over- and underactive thryoid. If you want more objective laboratory testing, the American Thyroid Association recommends everyone should be screened, at a minimum, for thyroid problems beginning at age 35 and at five-year intervals thereafter. Those with symptoms potentially associated with thyroid dysfunction should be checked even more frequently.

Lab Diagnosis

Because thyroid function tests are often difficult for doctors to interpret, many people are not treated properly.

For underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) for example, the pituitary gland will normally secrete thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in response to a low thyroid hormone level. This means an elevated TSH level typically suggests hypothyroidism. Physicians traditionally diagnose hypothyroidism when TSH levels are about 4.0 to 4.5. However, most doctors are not aware of the British Medical Journal article published two years ago that discusses a 20-year follow-up study showing TSH concentrations above two are associated with increased risk of hypothyroidism. Based on these TSH levels, it appears that half the population has an underactive thyroid and needs to be concerned about optimal thyroid functioning.

Regain Optimum Functioning

For the last 20 years I have been helping individuals restore thyroid health with natural methods, which have generally been very successful.

The first and most basic step is to improve the quality of the fluids you drink and the foods you eat. Drink one quart (one litre) of purified water per day for every 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of body weight, and eliminate pop, fruit juices and coffee.

Also eliminate as many refined and processed foods and sugars as possible. Omitting refined grains, rice, corn and potatoes also seems to help most people with thyroid troubles, since they are converted to sugar very quickly and cause the body to make far too much insulin, which distresses the thyroid and adrenal glands.

Fortunately, we are coming out of the "fear of fat" era that has caused major health problems, and there has been a resurgence of interest in the connection between omega-3 oils and health. Some compelling studies and a variety of sound physiological principles suggest that fish oil supplements in doses of three to five grams per day are helpful in restoring thyroid function.

Iodine is an essential mineral for the treatment of underactive thryoid because it assists in the formation of thyroid hormone. The best sources of dietary iodine are sea vegetables such as dulse or nori. Seafood also provides iodine, as well zinc and vitamin A, which are required for the production of thyroid hormone. People in coastal regions can obtain iodine from these foods as well as from the fresh sea air. People who live in the central areas of North America are particularly prone to iodine deficiency because fewer of these options are available. If you have hypothyroidism and live in the midwest, take kelp supplements for iodine (see sidebox), as well as eggs, whole-milk dairy products and raw wheat germ, which have thryroid-nourishing zinc and vitamin E.

Sleep And Exercise

These two lifestyles factors are intimately related, as it is difficult to sleep well without enough aerobic-type exercise. Most all of us benefit from seven to eight hours of solid uninterrupted sleep in complete darkness to help restore our hormone balance.

Emotional Health

My experience with extensive hormone evaluation suggests that the vast majority of people’s thyroid glands become impaired as a result of weak adrenal glands (two small glands that sit atop the kidneys and produce stress hormones). When the adrenals are overburdened from stress and inadequate nutrition, the thyroid gland tries to compensate and eventually just gives up and stops working.

When sophisticated hormone analyses are performed, they frequently show that the adrenal impairment is due to emotional stress. Generally, unless people resolve their emotional challenges, there is little likelihood of recovering their thyroid function naturally.

Symptoms Of Underactive Thyroid (Hypothyroidism)

  • Fatigue and exhaustion, as though unable to get enough sleep; need to take daytime naps
  • Depression, sadness
  • Sensitivity to cold; feel chilly in rooms of normal temperature when others do not
  • Difficulty losing weight despite rigid adherence to a low-grain diet (especially common for women)
  • Inappropriate weight gain; difficulty losing weight despite proper diet and exercise
  • Impaired memory
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty sweating; perspiration may be decreased or absent even during heavy exercise and hot weather
  • Hair is dry or tangly
  • Hair loss, particularly from outer part of eyebrows
  • Brittle nails that split or break easily
  • Skin is dry, cold, rough and scaly
Symptoms Of Overactive Thyroid (Hyperthyroidism)
  • Heart feels like it’s pounding out of your chest (very common)
  • Feel hot and sweaty
  • Fine tremor
  • Nervousness
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Clammy skin

Daily Nutritional Supplements for Hyperthyroidism

  • multivitamin with minerals

  • evening primrose oil, two 500 mg tablets three times daily

  • vitamin C with bioflavonoids, 1,000 mg

  • vitamin B complex, 50 mg twice daily
Daily Nutritional Supplements for Hypothyroidism
  • kelp, 1 Tbsp

  • vitamin E with mixed tocopherols, 400 IU

  • vitamin A, 25,000 IU (avoid during pregnancy)

  • vitamin C with bioflavonoids, 1,000 mg

  • zinc, 15 mg with 3 mg copper

Source: alive Encyclopedia of Natural Healing (alive Books, 1998).

What is Graves' Disease?

Graves’ disease (GD) is an autoimmune disorder that causes overactive thyroid. The immune system produces antibodies against certain proteins on the surface of the thyroid, causing it to overproduce hormones.

While about 10 percent of the population may be genetically predisposed to GD, only about one in 10 actually develop it–and women are especially susceptible. Severe emotional stress is a common trigger, as is a diet high in iodine, sugar and saturated fat.

Symptoms vary with each individual, but the most common are nervousness, anxiety, hypertension, irregular heart beat, muscle weakness, enlarged thyroid, delicate skin, tremor, apathy, depression and dry, inflamed or protruding eyes.

Many people with GD have trouble absorbing the nutrients from food because their increased metabolism from hyperthyroidism causes the food to pass through the body too quickly. The most common nutrient deficiencies are lack of vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C, D, E and K, as well as minerals such as potassium, copper, magnesium, calcium and manganese.

If you are concerned you may have GD, see your natural health-care practitioner for a simple diagnostic blood test and wholistic therapies. Those who have GD can visit a support group online: groups.yahoo.com/group/graves_support.

About the Author

Dr. Mercola is board certified in family medicine. He has been interviewed on CNN, CBS, NBC, and on ABCâ??s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. For more information on thyroid and other health issues, sign up for Dr. Mercolaâ??s free biweekl