If you have a normally functioning thyroid, you may be a bit sceptical when you hear a woman with some extra weight blaming it on her thyroid.
But thyroid conditions are absolutely real and becoming much more common, especially in women over 35. And if you have low levels of thyroid hormone it is extremely difficult to lose any weight – believe me I’ve been there!
You see, our thyroid hormones are a bit like a thermostat for our cells. So they either turn us up (increase our metabolism, energy, temperature, alertness) or they turn us down (slow down our metabolism, conserve energy, decrease temperature, shut down non-essential functions), depending on how much hormone we have available.
Hypothyroidism is a lot more common than hyperthryoidism, and mainly affects women over 35, due to genetic inheritance, the demands of pregnancy and the hormone imbalances we go through during our peri-menopausal years.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
As thyroid hormones deal with every cell in our bodies, symptoms of low thyroid can be wide ranging. The most common ones are;
Fatigue, weight gain, brain fog, memory loss, depression, hair loss, cold hands/feet, dry skin, brittle nails, PMS, anxiety, mood swings, puffy face, aching joints, sex drive, constipation.
As we age our thyroid gets less efficient (just like the rest of us!) and is also affected by other stuff going on in the body (eg illness, stress, digestive health, organ reserve, toxins, menopause), and because this is a gradual process, symptoms can slowly get worse and if left untreated can increase the risk of more serious conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
CAUSES OF HYPOTHYROIDISM
1. Hashimoto’s disease
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an auto-immune condition called Hashimoto’s Disease. This is where your immune system produces antibodies to your own thyroid gland, preventing it from functioning properly. Presence of a variety of antibodies will confirm this, however, testing is not 100% reliable.
2. Nutrient deficiency (including low-calorie diets)
Production of thyroid hormones depends on many nutrients. If our diets are lacking in them, we may not be able to produce enough hormones. These include iodine, tyrosine, selenium, copper, zinc, iron, essential fatty acids, Vitamin A and Vitamin D.
3. Stress and Insulin
Cortisol can be helpful or harmful. Too much or too little cortisol can interfere with the T4 to T3 conversion. Cortisol can increase insulin which has also been linked to low thyroid, so the circle is indeed vicious!
4. Low progesterone/high oestrogen
High levels of oestrogen can increase thyroid-binding proteins which decreases the levels of free thyroid hormone. Progesterone is needed for the conversion of T4 to T3.
5. Food intolerances
One of the causes of Hashimoto’s disease can be food intolerances. The most common foods to cause an auto-immune reaction are wheat (gluten) and dairy (casein). Gluten sensitivity or full-blown Celiac disease has been linked to Hashimoto’s. If you are sensitive to gluten or casein you can develop a ‘leaky gut’ or intestinal permeability where the lining of the gut lets in undigested food particles, bacteria or toxins that travel in our blood causing damage to organs and tissues. The thyroid gland is particularly vulnerable to attack as it closely resembles the gluten molecule that the immune system is attacking.
A wide range of environmental agents have been found to interfere with thyroid hormone (and hormones in general – see Chapter 3). Plastics, pollutants, pesticides, heavy metals and many other chemicals can block the uptake of iodine, and increase the risk of autoimmune attack.
Some women develop hypothyroidism during or after pregnancy. The demand for thyroid hormones from the growing baby increases throughout pregnancy. Antibodies can also be produced and impair thyroid function.
As we age, our hormone production and function decreases. Our metabolism slows as we lose muscle mass which burns more energy than fat.
Family history – genetic factors can have a big impact.
WHAT ARE THYROID HORMONES?
TSH – Thyroid Stimulating Hormone is manufactured in the pituitary gland in the brain. Its job is to stimulate the thyroid to produce thryroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). When the levels of T4 and T3 in the body drop too low, the hypothalamus in the brain gets the message that we need more and signals to the pituitary gland to produce thyroid hormones. So TSH is the first marker to look at when assessing thyroid function (high levels mean the body is trying to respond to low levels of thyroid in the body = potential hypothyroidism).
T4 (thyroxine) is a pro-hormone, i.e., it converts into either T3 or RT3.
T3 (triiodothyronine) is the active thyroid hormone. Total T3 is typically elevated in hyperthyroidism and lowered in hypothyroidism.
RT3 (Reverse T3) is made by the body to tone down energy. If T3 is the accelerator, then RT3 is the handbrake. It stops the T3 hormone from signalling the cell to make energy. It allows the body to turn down the energy when it needs to. Elevated RT3 can result in hypothyroid symptoms.
Mainstream testing can be a little hit and miss, as it’s important to test 4 or 5 different markers for thyroid health (TSH, freeT4, freeT3, RT3 and thyroid antibodies), and often only 2 are considered (TSH, freeT4). Also, the reference range can be huge, so your results can appear within the normal range even though you feel far from normal!
It is clear that each of us is unique when it comes to thyroid function. We each have our own optimum levels and the strict adherence to reference ranges may not recognize any imbalance.
If you have symptoms and are not feeling right, then you need to challenge your doctor to investigate further, or if that fails, see a new doctor until one takes your symptoms seriously. Or see a health practitioner who can get you tested privately. If sub-clinical hypothyroidism goes untreated, it can lead to overt hypothyroidism and more chronic health conditions. Never mind that you are feeling tired, constipated, moody, cold and have no sex life!
Private tests include a full thyroid hormone panel. I regularly arrange these tests for clients as it enables me to identify which area of the thyroid pathway is not functioning properly.
The standard treatment for hypothyroidism is synthetic T4 (Thyroxine), which can be very effective, but not for everyone. It is relying on your body to convert T4 to T3 however, and some people can't do that very well. So if you're not responding well to Thyroxine, this may be why. You may need to seek further medical advice on whether you need a form of T3 hormone to resolve your symptoms.
13 WAYS TO SUPPORT YOUR THYROID NATURALLY
Whether or not you need medication, there are lots of ways to support your thyroid so that you can increase your metabolism and lose weight more easily. Here are my top 12;
- Fat is your friend – fats are the building blocks of hormones and cell membranes, so really important to include plenty of healthy fats in your diet – olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, organic meat, fish, butter, organic dairy.
- Ditch the processed foods – anything in a packet with a long label of unpronounceable ingredients is not real food, it’s just a bunch of chemicals. Many processed foods are made with cheap industrial vegetable oils, which are definitely the wrong kind of fat! Ready meals, salad dressings, pasta sauces, margarines and spreads are some of the worst offenders. Cook from scratch wherever possible – sometimes it’s just as quick as putting something in the microwave.
- Up your protein – protein breaks down to amino acids, one of which is tyrosine, needed to make thyroid hormone. Protein also transports hormones around the body and helps to balance blood sugar. Good sources are; organic eggs, grass-fed organic meat, wild-caught fish, nuts and nut butters, seeds, quinoa, whey protein, organic dairy, beans and legumes.
- Check your sugar intake – blood sugar balance is key as too much insulin can suppress your thyroid. Avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar, and always try to eat protein and healthy fat with your food to slow the sugar release. Check the sugar content on the label, you’d be surprised how much is in a lot of ‘healthy’ products (watch this video).
- Avoid stimulants and artificial sweeteners – caffeine, sugar and alcohol increase insulin and cortisol and are not helping your thyroid. Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that can interfere with metabolism and damage your brain cells (and by the way have now been proved to make you GAIN weight!).
- Get your nutrients in – thyroid hormones need good nutrient intake to function well. These include Vitamin D (from the sun), Vitamin A (liver, grass fed butter, animal products), iron (meat, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, dried fruits, whole grains), selenium (brazil nuts, sesame and sunflower seeds, brown rice, meat, fish , eggs), zinc (oysters, lamb, nuts, ginger, whole grains, sardines), iodine (fish and shellfish, sea vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat, sea salt), tyrosine (chicken, turkey, fish, avocado, seeds, nuts, dairy, whey protein), omega 3 fats (oily fish, flaxseeds, walnuts) and the B vitamins (whole grains, oats, meat, dairy, green veg, nuts, seeds). Get your levels tested to make sure you are not deficient (especially iron, iodine, Vitamin D and minerals).
- Address food sensitivities – common ones are gluten, dairy and soy. Gluten, in particular, has been linked with autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s) as the molecular composition of thyroid tissue is almost identical to that of gluten – which is why your immune system attacks your thyroid as well as the gluten – a case of mistaken identity.
- Eat coconut oil – a saturated fat made of medium-chain triglycerides, coconut oil helps to boost metabolism, helping your thyroid to do its job.
- Look out for goitrogens – soy, peanuts, pine nuts, mustard, millet, raw brassica vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc). There is some research to show that these foods in large amounts can interfere with thyroid, although in cooked form they seem to be OK and fermented soy doesn’t have the same effect as processed soy.
- Support your gut – an imbalance in gut flora or an infection can interfere with thyroid function and stimulate an immune response against the thyroid gland. Make sure you are dealing with any food sensitivities and eating regular amounts of prebiotic and probiotic foods such as live natural organic yoghurt, garlic, onions, leeks, fermented veg (eg sauerkraut) and fermented drinks (eg kefir, kombucha). Eat slowly, chew your food and don’t overdo the indigestion tablets (these can make digestion WORSE!). Get yourself tested if you suspect you have digestive issues, and supplement with good quality probiotics for extra support.
- Check your environment – chemicals in our environment, food, water, home and personal products can interfere with our hormones. Minimise your exposure to thyroid disrupting chemicals by drinking filtered water, avoiding plastic food containers and bottles, eating organic food and swapping household and personal products to safe non-toxic brands. Check out biggreensmile.com for natural organic alternatives.
- Look after your adrenals – too much stress on the body increases cortisol levels which can suppress thyroid hormones. Make sure you are getting regular down time, even if it’s just some deep breathing every day. Supplement with adrenal adaptogens, Vitamin C, B vitamins and Magnesium if you need extra support (but always check with your Dr or health practitioner before trying any new supplements).
- Do some exercise – activity increases your metabolism, helps to get nutrients to your cells and endocrine glands, and helps to eliminate toxins. If you are lacking in energy, then walking is great, and practising yoga is not only stress-relieving, but some of the inversions like shoulder stands can help to stimulate the thyroid gland.
If you do suspect your thyroid may be an issue, it’s important to get help. Contact us for a free Discovery Call to see if we can help.
Rakowski R, New Strategies for Improving Adrenal and Thyroid Function 2002 syllabus
Metso et al., 2012, Gluten-free diet and autoimmune thyroiditis in patients with celiac disease
Brent GA. 2010; Environmental exposures and autoimmune thyroid disease. Thyroid. 20(7):755-61
Bland J, Nutritional Endocrinology- Breakthrough Approaches for Improving Adrenal and Thyroid Function 2002 syllabus p.82-117, p.165-167
Pizzorno, L. and Ferril, F. (2005) ‘Thyroid.’ In D. S. Jones and S. Quinn (eds) Textbook of Functional Medicine. WA: Gig Harbour.[/accordion-item]