What's Going On With My Thyroid? - Part 1
My next few blogs are going to focus on the thyroid. Why? Because thyroid problems are becoming increasingly common and, worryingly, in a significant percentage of the population an underactive thyroid is remaining undiagnosed. In fact, one-in-twenty people in the U.K. are living with a thyroid disorder, with 50% of those unaware they have it. Most sufferers are women.
What is the thyroid?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is found in the front, centre-most part of the neck. It serves as the body's thermostat and regulates temperature, energy and metabolism (the rate at which all reactions take place in the body). It is also responsible for controlling everything from your menstrual cycles to your moods. Thyroid disorders are divided into 3 categories: hyperthyroidism (over-active), hypothyroidism (under-active) and autoimmune thyroid diseases.
Symptoms of an over-functioning thyroid (hyperthyroidism) include:
- Nervousness, anxiety, irritability
- Mood swings
- Difficulty sleeping
- Persistent tiredness and weakness
- Sensitivity to heat
- Swelling in your neck from an enlarged thyroid gland (goitre)
- An irregular and / or unusually fast heart rate (palpitations)
- Twitching or trembling
- Weight loss
- Protruding eyes
- Frequent bowel movements
Symptoms of an under-functioning thyroid (hypothyroidism) include:
- Weight gain / difficulty losing weight
- Dry hair
- Poor skin
- Anxiety / panic attacks
- Decreased memory and concentration
- Hair loss
- Sensitivity to cold
- Muscle and joint pain
- Low libido
- Water retention
Test, don’t guess
As with most chronic health problems, many of the symptoms of a thyroid problem overlap with symptoms of other health conditions. The best way to find out if you have a problem is to test. Many GPs, however, do not test much further than TSH and T4 blood levels. Here is a checklist of tests you should make sure your GP carries out in order to get an exact thyroid dysfunction panel:
· Free T4.
· Free T3
· TG-AB, TPO
· Reverse T3
Hormones act as chemical messengers, binding to cell receptors and activating and regulating numerous functions in the body. The thyroid hormones regulate almost every process in the body from energy, to weight loss, to temperature and metabolism. T4 is made up of one tyrosine and 4 iodine molecules. It is only 20% active and converts to T3 (by losing an iodine molecule in the liver), which is the more important active thyroid hormone. TSH stands for thyroid stimulating hormone and is like the body’s regulating thermostat. When the body has enough T4, TSH levels will be low. When the body needs more T4, TSH stimulate the thyroid to produce more T4. Therefore, the higher your TSH levels, the lower your T4 and the greater the need for your thyroid to increase production.
Reference ranges relied on by most doctors today are too wide. This means that many patients are told by their doctors that the level of their thyroid is normal, yet they are experiencing symptoms of thyroid dysfunction.
TG-AB and TPO test results look to see if you have thyroid antibodies and thus an autoimmune condition. This means the immune system of the body is attacking your thyroid which may cause it to either under produce or overproduce. Many doctors do not carry out this test and it is important to find a specialist or doctor who can give you the information if the dysfunction you have is primarily caused by autoimmunity, since this will affect your treatment plans.
Possible causes of thyroid autoimmunity
A further blog will consider in more detail the many possible underlying root causes of autoimmune thyroid disease, such as gut health, diet, toxins, stress and infections, often not addressed by your GP.
For your thyroid to function properly, your body needs a certain amount of nutrients. It makes sense, therefore, if you are deficient in certain nutrients, this will have an impact on your thyroid. As mentioned above, T4 is made up of tyrosine and iodine and a deficiency in these nutrients may result in low levels of T4. Selenium is a nutrient which supports the enzyme that converts T4 to T3 and again, a deficiency in selenium will affect this conversion. Other important nutrients for thyroid health include vitamins A and D, and the B vitamins.
Stress and sex hormones
The thyroid does not exist in isolation but is an essential component of the complex endocrine system that controls all hormones. Many doctors tend to look at each endocrine system separately rather than looking at them from an integrated standpoint, despite the fact that estrogen levels and stress hormones have a significant impact on your thyroid.
Cortisol, which is a primary stress hormone, causes your body to under-produce thyroid hormones. For many patients suffering from adrenal fatigue, the condition is primarily caused by serious stress and the dysfunction of their thyroid hormones.
The root cause of thyroid dysfunction
Once thyroid test results indicate low T4 and/or T3, the common practice in conventional medicine is to supplement the deficiency with thyroid medication that gives your body the extra hormones it needs. More often than not a thyroid dysfunction is a symptom of something going on in your body such as nutrient deficiencies (diet), leaky gut, infections, stress and toxins. Unfortunately, due to fact that doctors have very limited time with each patient, they generally do not have the time to consider diet and lifestyle factors that may help in properly addressing the underlying root cause of thyroid dysfunction. In functional medicine, doctors spend a great deal of time learning about the health history of each patient, often ordering comprehensive laboratory tests to identify changes to your diet and lifestyle which will optimise your thyroid health.
Over the next month I will be posting blogs aimed at empowering you with a greater understanding of thyroid health. If you are concerned that you may have a thyroid issue and wish to consider how your diet and lifestyle habits may be impacting it, please get in touch to arrange a free half-hour consultation with me, where we can discuss your concerns in detail.