Most of us have felt more than just a little tired at some point, have had an occasional irregular period, have felt sad or depressed for a few days, or have a few pounds that we wouldn't mind getting rid of. But if any of these things are a regular issue for you or happen more often than not, you likely have something else going on. While it could be any number of things, your thyroid is the most likely culprit (especially if you are a woman).
What is the thyroid?
Your thyroid gland is responsible for regulating your energy, metabolism, and plays a role in our moods, sleep, and our digestion. It is located at the front of your neck about halfway between the underside of your chin and the notch between your collarbones.
Your thyroid gland works by taking iodine and turning into the hormone T4, which is an inactive form of thyroid hormone, and then converts it into the activated hormone T3, which is often called the "master hormone" because it is responsible for so many things in your body.
what can go wrong with the thyroid?
Thyroid problems come in several different categories:
- Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid is under-functioning causing low energy and decreased metabolism
- Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid is over-functioning and metabolism is running too fast.
- Autoimmune thyroid problems can also cause the thyroid to be under or overactive (Hashimoto's and Graves disease), these can also occur due to nutritional deficiencies, infection, or inflammation (thyroiditis).
Hypothyroidism is the most common form and the most commonly diagnosed thyroid condition. Hashimoto's makes up almost 90% of all hypothyroidism cases in the United States. And of the estimated 25 million Americans with thyroid disease, estimates suggest that up to 50% of them are undiagnosed.
10 Things you need to know about your thyroid
1. Having the right amount of thyroid hormone is critical to your well-being.
Without enough thyroid hormone to support your individual needs you will likely experience symptoms such as fatigue, dry skin, brain fog, constipation, difficulty concentrating, mood issues, hair loss, joint pain, muscle aches, cold intolerance (where you always feel cold compared to those around you), and possibly even generalized swelling. If you have an overactive thyroid (and too much thyroid hormone), you will experience symptoms that are the opposite. You might have anxiety, a fast or pounding heartbeat, difficulty sleeping, always feel hungry, diarrhea, and weight loss.
2. An underactive thyroid can cause high cholesterol.
Hypothyroidism can cause elevated cholesterol because thyroid hormone has a regulatory effect on the production, absorption, and metabolism of lipids (fat). When thyroid hormone is low, there are fewer LDL receptors on the cells in the liver so there is more LDL circulating in your blood and causes a decreased amount of LDL to be cleared from your body via your liver. Thyroid hormone also has an effect on the intestinal absorption of cholesterol, so when thyroid hormone is low, there is a decreased rate of cholesterol absorption through the intestines.
So, before you start medication for high cholesterol consider having a full panel of thyroid labs checked. This is where working with someone who will look for the root cause of your symptoms rather than covering them up with medication can be helpful.
3. Weight loss resistance can be caused by an underactive thyroid.
If you have either been steadily gaining weight or have been unable to lose weight despite your best efforts, then you may want to have your thyroid checked. There are other factors that could be contributing to your weight loss resistance (such as other hormone imbalances), but hypothyroidism is a likely culprit.
4. Women are more likely than men to have a thyroid condition.
The postpartum period is an especially high risk time for women to develop or have a thyroid condition diagnosed. If you suffer from mild to moderate depression (or even just feeling unusually blue) in the year after the birth of your baby, or at any other time especially in the presence of some of the symptoms I've already listed, then you should definitely have a complete thyroid panel done. Just because you have had it tested previously does not mean that you are still fine, especially if new symptoms arise.
5. Most doctors under diagnose thyroid conditions.
As many as 10% of women in the US might have a thyroid problem, but most of these women remain undiagnosed because of the way most doctors test for the presence of a thyroid condition. This often turns into doctors and other healthcare professionals allowing women to think that the symptoms are made up or all in their head because their lab tests "are normal." In some cases this can even lead to unnecessary antidepressant prescriptions, when the issue truly lies in the thyroid.
The following labs are what I check in any of my patients who I suspect have a thyroid problem (or who come to me and tell me that they think they have a thyroid problem):
- Free T4
- Free T3
- Reverse T3
- Thyroglobulin Antibodies (TgAb)
- Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies (TPOAb)
6. Thyroid problems might be causing your fertility problems or your miscarriages.
Thyroid function controls menstrual regularity and is important in maintaining the balance of other hormones that are important in fertility. Proper thyroid function is also critical in pregnancy. A developing fetus relies completely on its mother's thyroid hormones until about 20 weeks. A normally functioning thyroid gland can more than rise to this challenge, but in cases where it is underperforming prior to a pregnancy, it may not be able to keep up during pregnancy resulting in both a more severe case of hypothyroidism for the mother and potentially a miscarriage. Having your complete thyroid labs checked prior to getting pregnant is a good idea.
7. Optimal thyroid levels are critical for the development of a baby's brain.
Because a developing fetus relies on its mother's thyroid hormones completely until about 20 weeks gestation, many pregnant women who are being treated for hypothyroidism need to have their medication increased in the first trimester. If you are on medication for your thyroid, make sure to talk to the provider who is caring for you during your pregnancy about this. Your labs should be checked every four weeks until you are in your second trimester.
8. Eating gluten-containing foods can cause Hashimoto's in some individuals.
Gluten-containing foods (wheat, barley, and rye) and some foods that are cross-reactive with gluten (such as chocolate) might be causing your autoimmune thyroid condition. If you have been diagnosed with Hashimoto's, I would recommend a 30-90 day trial without any gluten to see if you symptoms improve. I have even had patients who were able to stop their medication once they stopped eating gluten (do not try to stop your medication without the help of a medical professional).
9. Your thyroid needs vitamins and minerals to function properly.
Iodine, selenium, and zinc are the three essential nutrients needed by the thyroid for proper functioning. You can get all of these by eating a balanced diet and they are all better utilized by your body than when you supplement. Sea vegetables contain plenty of iodine, 1-2 Brazil nuts daily will give you the proper amount of selenium, and you can get your zinc from beef, oysters, dark meat chicken, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and cashews.
10. Environmental exposures can compete with the iodine your thyroid needs to function properly.
Fluoride, bromide, and chloride exposure can make it difficult for your thyroid to get enough iodine, even if you consume enough. These exposures come from fluoridated water, toothpaste, and other environmental exposures. If you are having a difficult time managing your thyroid condition, you might consider looking at areas where you may be getting exposed to these substances.
If you want to better understand how your thyroid hormones as well as other hormones in your body can affect your energy levels, check out my ebook, The 30 Day Energy Reset.
While it may seem like managing a thyroid condition is an uphill battle, they can be fixed. I have helped hundreds of women get to the bottom of the symptoms that they were starting to believe were all in their head and feel better with healthy thyroid function. If you would like to talk about how I can help you fix your thyroid, schedule a FREE consultation with me. If you see a conventional medical practitioner, you may need to advocate for yourself in order to get the tests you really need to diagnose your thyroid condition.
A functional medicine, integrative medicine, or naturopathic practitioner will almost always be willing to test the whole range of thyroid labs for you. It is also important not to get unnecessarily treated if you don't actually have a thyroid problem (which happens in some cases when medications are prescribed without lab testing first).
For some people, it is possible to restore and recover thyroid function with natural methods - stress reduction, diet, and supplements. However for many, medications are needed. Regardless of which category you fall into, it's first necessary to identify whether you have a thyroid problem so you can get the help and guidance you need to feel amazing again.