Understanding Hypothyroidism

Protect your thyroid

Understanding Hypothyroidism

If your thyroid isn't functioning properly, neither are you! Here's how to ensure yours is in tip-top shape.

Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, affects more women than men, especially over age 60. The thyroid is the master gland of metabolism and energy, and affects almost every cell in the body—so if our thyroid gland isn’t working optimally, neither are we!

What is the thyroid gland?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck. Thyroid hormone production is controlled by a feedback loop from your hypothalamus, pituitary, and thyroid gland.

This feedback system acts like a thermostat: when the body needs more heat, this system will stimulate the thyroid gland to produce and excrete thyroid hormones (T3 and T4). Conversely, when the body has enough thyroid hormone and needs to cool down, it signals the hypothalamus and pituitary to stop further production of thyroid hormone.

What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism?

Have you been feeling sluggish, gaining weight, and dealing with dry skin? An underactive thyroid could be to blame. Other symptoms of hypothyroidism may include

  • constipation
  • depression
  • poor memory
  • cool body temperature
  • dry hair, brittle nails, hair loss
  • low libido
  • muscle aches
  • fluid retention
  • menstrual irregularities

What causes it?

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid tissue, resulting in decreased production of thyroid hormone. Often Hashimoto’s has a genetic component, and may be triggered by one or more of the following factors:

  • chronic stress
  • celiac disease and food sensitivities
  • digestive issues, such as an imbalance of gut flora
  • deficiencies in nutrients, especially vitamin D and selenium
  • exposure to toxins such as heavy metals, perhaps through dental amalgam fillings

In addition, excessive iodine intake can make matters worse for Hashimoto’s patients. Although iodine is an essential micronutrient required for thyroid hormone synthesis and function, too much iodine can actually trigger immune reactivity.

Adrenal insufficiency

This disorder occurs when the adrenal glands produce unnaturally low levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps the body respond to stress. In some studies, adrenal insufficiency has been associated with mild subclinical hypothyroidism.

Pituitary disorder

This is a relatively rare cause of hypothyroidism in which a benign pituitary tumour suppresses the secretion of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).

Severe iodine deficiency

In areas of the world where there is a severe iodine deficiency, hypothyroidism is seen in 5 to 15 percent of the population. Since the addition of iodine to salt in North America, iodine-deficient hypothyroidism has become less common. To a lesser extent, deficiencies in iron, selenium, zinc, and vitamin A have also been linked with impaired thyroid function.

Destruction of the thyroid gland

Certain medications, such as those used to treat hyperthyroidism, may result in a permanently underactive thyroid. Thyroid surgery and radiation treatment may also prevent this gland from functioning properly.

How is it diagnosed?

Your health care practitioner may suggest a TSH blood test to help determine how your thyroid is functioning. The following tests may also be used to measure the amount of thyroid hormones and enzymes in your blood:

  • fT3
  • fT4
  • TPO
  • rT3

What’s the natural approach to treatment?

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in Canada, followed by problems such as adrenal exhaustion. A general, naturopathic approach to hypothyroid care might include the following steps.

Determine the underlying cause

The first step in treating hypothyroidism is to determine what’s causing your thyroid dysfunction. After appropriate blood tests, your health care practitioner may recommend removing any aggravating factors, such as food sensitivities, heavy metals, or excessive iodine. It may also be advisable to correct deficiencies in nutrients such as iodine, iron, selenium, zinc, and vitamin A.

Boost the body’s defences

Hypothyroid treatment may also include taking steps to optimize immune and digestive function. As such, your health care practitioner may suggest supplementing with probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D.

Some studies also support the use of herbs to help boost thyroid function. Herbs that may be particularly useful include ashwagandha, coleus, guggul, bladderwrack, and curcumin.

In addition, thyroid hormone supplements may be required to normalize thyroid functioning. Hormone treatment options include natural desiccated thyroid, which is made from animal thyroid, or compounded T3 and T4.

Before beginning any treatment for hypothyroidism, be sure to check with your health care practitioner for specific recommendations.

Hypo versus hyper

With hypothyroidism, the body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone to maintain normal metabolism, and the body becomes sluggish. Conversely, in hyperthyroidism, the body makes too much thyroid hormone and the metabolism becomes overactive. This results in a wide range of health concerns including anxiety, feelings of heat, weight loss, and heart palpitations and flutters.

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