Are you feeling tired and moody? Is your weight-loss plan going nowhere fast — or worse, are you on a diet and gaining weight instead of losing? Or are you nervous, edgy, and having a tough time sleeping? Strange as it may seem, symptoms like these can have a common source — the thyroid gland. And although these difficulties may not sound serious, even seemingly minor thyroid disturbances can be life threatening. If you or someone you know has similar symptoms, please read on. What I’m about to share could make a tremendous difference in your health and possibly even save your life.
The best description I’ve heard of the thyroid is “a small gland that can cause big problems.” Of all the organs in the human body, the thyroid is one of the smallest and, at the same time, one of the most powerful. This tiny gland nestles in the space between the Adam’s apple and the windpipe, where it oversees the body’s metabolism.
As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid’s job is to manufacture a number of metabolism-related hormones. Simple, right? Unfortunately, for millions of Americans — most of them women — thyroid malfunctions have disastrous consequences for health and metabolism. Among the most common thyroid-related problems: weight management, sleep issues, mood variability, and libido disorders. Often, we blame these issues on aging, but as my patient Sonia discovered, that’s not always the case.
Identifying Thyroid Trouble
Among my patients, the most common thyroid problems are either too little or too much hormone production. There are two thyroid hormones that you should know: T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). When the thyroid gland fails to produce enough of these two hormones, the condition is known as hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid. The opposite condition, involving too much hormone production, is called hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid. There are a number of other thyroid-related conditions, including:
Goiter is characterized by a swollen thyroid gland that produces a noticeable lump in the front of the throat. Often caused by a lack of iodine in the diet, goiters are less frequent in the U.S., since most table salt contains added iodine. Goiters are normally painless and can be corrected fairly easily. They may occur with either hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
Sometimes tiny bumps, known as nodules, grow on the thyroid gland. The cause of nodules is not known, but the majority of them are benign. In fact, many people are not aware of the nodules until a physician discovers them during an examination. Often, nodules do not require treatment, but testing is the best way to determine a proper course of action.
Thyroid cancer is a malignant growth on the thyroid gland. Symptoms may include difficulty swallowing, coughing, hoarseness, and/or swelling of the neck. Fortunately, thyroid cancer has an excellent survival rate; nearly 97 percent of those diagnosed with it are alive five years later.
An autoimmune disease, Hashimoto thyroiditis is the most common form of hypothyroidism. It often appears after pregnancy. Individuals with existing autoimmune conditions are most vulnerable.
Graves’ disease is a common form of hyperthyroidism, especially found in individuals under the age of 40. The condition may cause the eyes to bulge or become swollen or teary.
The causes of thyroid disorders run the gamut, everything from aging to radiation and toxins, to too little iodine in the diet. Certain medical procedures, prescription medications, and an excess of soy products can interfere with thyroid functions, too.
Even a slight difference in thyroid hormone production can seriously affect health. For example, subclinical hyperthyroidism, a hormone disruption frequently found in older adults, has been linked to a 65 percent greater chance of dying! Even worse, this condition often occurs without symptoms.
Meanwhile, the opposite problem, subclinical hypothyroidism, can double the risk of congestive heart failure.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
- Unexplained weight gain
- Overwhelming fatigue
- Low heart rate
- Sensitivity to cold or heat
- Dry skin
- Frequent infections
- Low libido
- Achy joints or muscles
- Loss of appetite
- Hair loss
- High levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol
- Brain fog
- Elevated markers for hardening of the arteries
- Other signs of heart disease
- Weight loss
- Heart palpitations or rapid pulse
- Increased appetite
- Continually feeling too hot
- Hair loss
- Muscle cramps
- Protruding eyes
- Dry, scaly skin
- Difficulty sleeping
- Elevated blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Swelling in the neck area
Knowing Your Numbers
An under- or overactive thyroid can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes. Not doing so can result in a worsening of either condition. But first, the problem has to be diagnosed, and that’s where medical experts don’t always agree. Not all practitioners interpret test results the same way. So numbers that one physician believes are normal could be labeled problematic by another.
Thyroid testing usually begins with a blood test for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Results ranging between 0.5 and 5 mIU/L (milli-international units per liter) are often considered normal. But the American Academy of Clinical Endocrinologists, medical experts who specialize in thyroid and related issues, consider 0.3 to 3 as a more accurate benchmark because less-serious imbalances are included in that range. I always advise patients who have test results in the low-normal range to get additional tests, including free T3 and T4 or thyroid-releasing hormone (TRH) stimulation tests, as well as a thyroid ultrasound. In addition, I frequently find that patients can have normal thyroid tests, but elevations of their thyroid antibodies may indicate an autoimmune disorder. So a thyroid antibody test is a good way to double-check thyroid health.
It’s fairly easy to self-test, too. Simply purchase a basal body thermometer (these are glass, not digital, and are available at most drug stores). As soon as you awaken in the morning, place the thermometer under your arm for ten minutes, and be as still as possible. Record your temperature, repeat the process on two or three more consecutive mornings, and average the results. If your average score is below 97.6, you may have an underactive thyroid. Be aware that self-testing is not 100 percent accurate, so please don’t panic if your score looks as though you may have a problem. Instead, I urge you to talk with your physician about additional testing.
Treating Thyroid Trouble
Diagnosing thyroid disease is not just tricky, it’s also only part of the solution, for two reasons. First, boosting an underactive thyroid requires an entirely different approach from slowing one that’s stuck in high gear. Second, thyroid symptoms may be linked to a larger issue, like complications in the endocrine system. Either way, seeing a physician is essential. Thyroid treatment is not a do-it-yourself project, although I encourage my patients to play an active role once the diagnosis is made.
Medication, in the form of synthetic or natural hormones, is available for both under- and overactive thyroids. But treatment doesn’t end there. I encourage my patients to make dietary changes and follow my guidelines for healthy weight, exercise, sleep, and water intake.
Understanding Your Diet
That said, there is one dietary issue you should understand — goitrogenic foods. In past issues, I’ve recommended eating more cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts. All these foods are goitrogenic, meaning they may interfere with normal thyroid activity. Although not a member of this plant family, soy is also considered goitrogenic.
These normally healthy foods actually can help reduce symptoms of an overactive thyroid. But at the same time, they may backfire for individuals with underactive thyroids because they contain substances that can dampen already sluggish thyroid activity, especially when eaten raw. My advice: Eat these foods cooked — or fermented, in the case of soy — and in moderation.
Taking Supplements for Thyroid
As always, I recommend a quality, daily multivitamin, as well as a good multimineral product for overall health. In addition, individuals with under- or overactive thyroids should consider taking the following supplements:
Supplements for an Underactive Thyroid
Vitamin B complex
This family of vitamins should be taken in a balanced formula that includes appropriate amounts of each. The contents of various B vitamin complex supplements vary widely. I suggest a product containing 100 mg each of the most important Bs (thiamin or B1, riboflavin or B2, pantothenic acid or B5, and pyridoxine or B6) and lesser amounts of the others.
As we age, our ability to absorb B vitamins diminishes, so supplements are recommended, especially since B vitamins are water-soluble and therefore cannot be stored in the body. Ideally, they should be taken two or three times daily for maximum effectiveness.
This plays an important role in metabolism, as well as overall mood improvement. This amino acid combines with iodine to produce thyroid hormones, so if too little is available in the body, the result could be an underactive thyroid. I recommend taking 500 mg twice daily on an empty stomach.
This iodine-rich sea vegetable is an excellent source of B vitamins and essential minerals, including iodine, iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Iodine is important because it helps make thyroid hormones that maintain a healthy metabolism. Look for a product that contains 150 mcg (micrograms) of iodine, and take no more than one daily
Fish oil is rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs are vital for good health. They are involved in producing new cells and repairing damaged ones. They also support health of the cardiovascular system, brain, skin, and joints.
Look for a product that has about twice as much EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and has been molecularly distilled to remove toxins. These essential fatty acids cannot be produced in the body, so supplements are recommended.Try 2,000 to 3,000 mg, taken in two or three 1,000 mg doses during the day.
Supplements for an Overactive Thyroid
Vitamin B complex
Look for a balanced formula containing 50 mg each of the important Bs, and take one dose two times per day.
I recommend a daily total of 2,000 to 3,000 mg divided into two or three 1,000 mg doses and taken throughout the day.
A powerful antioxidant, melatonin is produced by the pineal gland. Melatonin production decreases as we age, setting the stage for long-term health complications, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, poor immune response, and certain types of cancer. Since melatonin is involved in sleep regulation, it can be very helpful for dealing with insomnia and other sleep issues.
If sleep is a problem, I suggest women take 2 mg of melatonin (men can take 3 mg) just before bedtime.
If you’re concerned about the possibility of thyroid disease, please see your doctor immediately. In my practice, I’ve found that natural thyroid hormone can be a safe and effective remedy. Combine proper medication with lifestyle changes that support good health overall, and you can reverse symptoms and enjoy a healthy, functioning thyroid once again.