Thyroid Problems, Symptoms, and Treatment
By Dr. Mercola
Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in your throat area that contains thyroglobulin protein, which binds to iodine to form hormones, which in turn influence essentially every organ, tissue and cell in your body.
A thyroid condition occurs when too much or too little thyroglobulin protein in your thyroid binds to iodine, hence producing too many or too few hormones. Two key hormones produced by your thyroid are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones help oxygen get into cells, and make your thyroid the master gland of metabolism.
There are a number of different problems that can go wrong with your thyroid, but one of the most common is hypothyroidism; a condition where your thyroid is producing too few hormones. Hypothyroidism affects some 80 percent of people with thyroid disease.
Another common problem is nodules on your thyroid, or you may develop the opposite of hypothyroidism, known as hyperthyroidism, where your thyroid is overactive.
Thyroid disease, if left untreated, can lead to heart disease, infertility, muscle weakness, osteoporosis and, in extreme cases, coma or death -- yet it's estimated that half of the cases in the United States, about 15 million people, remain undiagnosed. So if you present certain symptoms, there's a good possibility -- especially if you are a woman - that you might be one of these individuals.
How Can You Tell if You Have Hypothyroidism?
The most sensitive way to answer this question is to listen to your body. Symptoms of an underactive thyroid include:
- Reduced energy levels - Fatigue and lack of enthusiasm and energy is a common symptom of a low-functioning thyroid. This is also a classic sign of depression, so if you've been diagnosed with depression, you'll want to make sure your physician checks your thyroid levels.
Not all fatigue or tiredness is due to thyroid malfunction however, so how do you tell the difference?
Thyroid-related fatigue begins to appear when you cannot sustain energy long enough, especially when compared to a past level of fitness or ability. If your thyroid foundation is weak, sustaining energy output is difficult. You will notice you just don't seem to have the energy to do the things you used to be able to do.
Some of the key symptoms of thyroid fatigue include:
- Feeling like you don't have the energy to exercise, and typically not exercising on a consistent basis.
- A heavy or tired head, especially in the afternoon, as your head is a very sensitive indicator of thyroid hormone status.
- Falling asleep as soon as you sit down and don't have to do anything
- Thyroid problems can include weight gain - Easy weight gain, or difficulty losing weight, despite an aggressive exercise program and watching your diet is another indicator.
- Dry, rough or scaly skin, and dry, tangled hair - In the winter months, many of us experience bouts of dry skin and hair, but if you have perpetually dry skin that doesn't respond well, then hypothyroidism is a consideration.
- Hair loss - Women especially will want to pay attention to their thyroid when unexplained hair loss occurs. Fortunately, if your hair loss is due to low thyroid function, your hair will come back with proper thyroid treatment.
- Sensitivity to cold - Feeling cold all the time is also an indicator of low thyroid function.
Any of these thyroid symptoms can be indicative of an underactive thyroid, but the more of these symptoms you experience, the higher the likelihood that you have hypothyroidism.
How to Diagnose Hypothyroidism
There are a number of different ways to diagnose hypothyroidism. One is to accurately measure your body temperature. Although there are a few different protocols, the most commonly used is the Broda Barnes system.
I prefer using laboratory diagnostic measures; however care must be taken when evaluating them as the lab reference ranges are not ideal.
Typically, a TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) blood test is done. TSH is a hormone produced by your pituitary, which becomes elevated when your thyroid gland is malfunctioning because your body produces TSH in response to decreased hormone levels in order to 'jump start' your thyroid.
The higher your level of TSH, the higher the likelihood that you have hypothyroidism.
Traditionally, the range for acceptable thyroid function is between 0.3 and 3.04, and anything above 5.0 is considered hypothyroidism. However that is simply not accurate.
In my experience, most adults with levels over 3 have hypothyroidism, and more than likely, if your level is above 1.5, there's a good possibility you have this condition and would benefit from thyroid support.
Fortunately, there are additional tests that can confirm whether or not you have an underactive thyroid, and it is vital you have these tests done.
Typically tests for T3 and T4 are used, but even more important are what's called the 'free-T3' and the 'free-T4.' If those hormones are out of the normal reference ranges then you have a problem.
Foods That Heal or Harm Your Thyroid
One of the commonly consumed foods that worsen your thyroid is unfermented soy. It contains isoflavones that are clearly associated with reduced thyroid function.
If you've bought into the deceptive hype that soy is a health food, I urge you to read Dr. Kaayla Daniel's book, The Whole Soy Story, which covers the health aspects of soy in depth.
One food that can improve your thyroid function, on the other hand, is coconut oil. It contains medium chain triglycerides and saturated fat, and is, I believe, one of the healthiest fats you can use as a regular part of your diet.
Iodine Deficiency - A Common Cause for Hypothyroidism
The number after the 'T', such as T3 or T4, stands for the number of iodine molecules the hormone contains. In fact, iodine deficiency -- which is one of the three most common nutritional deficiencies, along with vitamin D and magnesium deficiencies -- is an easily remedied cause of hypothyroidism.
One simple test to check for iodine deficiency entails applying iodine to your skin to see how rapidly it is absorbed.
A simple way to ensure you're getting enough iodine is to get an inexpensive prescription from your physician for SSKI, which is a super-saturated potassium iodine. You simply apply three drops to your skin and rub it in, once a day.
How can you tell if you have enough iodine in your body?
If when you touch something with slightly wet fingertips and it leaves a yellowish stain, then the iodine is coming out of your skin, indicating your body is saturated.
It's important to realize that early intervention can successfully restore your thyroid function. If you've had your thyroid gland surgically removed, however, you have no choice but to keep taking thyroid hormones for the rest of your life.
When it comes to thyroid hormones, you have two major options: synthetic or natural.
One of the most commonly used is Synthroid, a synthetic hormone. Another common T4 hormone preparation is Levothroid. I rarely recommend using those, as most people cannot effectively convert the T4 in synthetic thyroid preparations to T3. About the only time I find it helpful is for people who are sensitive to Armour Thyroid or for those who have been on synthetic hormones for many years when the benefit for shifting appears to be minimal.
I also do not recommend Cytomell, which is a T3 hormone preparation, although it can be used in conjunction with the others to help balance out your hormones.
If you've been on synthetic hormones for an extended period of time, say 10 to 20 years, the likelihood of you being able to wean yourself off the hormones is limited and challenging.
But if you're newly diagnosed, or have not been on synthetic hormones for very long, I strongly recommend Armour Thyroid - a natural porcine thyroid extract, which provides not only T3 and T4, but also T1 and T2, which will help normalize your hormone response.
As a side note, it's rare for a conventional physician to prescribe natural hormones, and one of the ways you can distinguish a naturally oriented physician from a more conventionally oriented one is by finding out what type of hormone they would prescribe for their patients.
Hyperthyroidism Natural Treatment
Additional All-Natural Methods to Restore Thyroid Function
In order to address the root cause of an under-functioning thyroid, I strongly recommend you also implement the following lifestyle changes:
- Eat a healthy diet, following a nutrition plan that is right for your nutritional type, and avoid processed and refined foods.
- Make sure you're getting enough selenium and iodine, which provide the raw materials for your thyroid gland to work better.
- Get plenty of omega-3 fats from high quality sources like krill oil. A variety of studies and physiological principles suggest that omega-3 fat in doses of 3-5 grams per day would be helpful in restoring thyroid function.
- Get a sound night's sleep, in complete darkness.
- Address your emotional stress. The vast majority of people's thyroid glands become impaired as a result of weak adrenal glands. The thyroid gland tries to compensate for this and eventually just gives up and stops working.
Well, adrenal impairment is frequently due to emotional stress, and unless you have these previous emotional challenges resolved, there is little likelihood of recovering your thyroid function without hormonal replacement.
Thyroid function is a complex topic, and if you need more information and support, one of the leaders in the field is Mary Shomon, the about.com thyroid expert.