Your thyroid gland is one of the largest glands of the endocrine system and the hormones it releases affect virtually every cell in your body. The thyroid has been likened to a thermostat that affects how fast or slow processes happen in your body. The thyroid also plays a key role in growth and development in children. Your thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck, just below your voice box (larynx). The hormones made by the thyroid gland interact with all of the other hormones in your body including cortisol, insulin and your sex hormones. This helps to explain why there are such a variety of symptoms and systems affected when thyroid hormones are out of balance.
The thyroid produces several hormones including T4 and T3. The number labeled on each thyroid hormone represents the number of iodine atoms that are attached to each hormone. Around 80 percent of the thyroid output is T4 and the other 20 percent is T3. T4 is an inactive hormone, while T3 is the active form. The majority of T4 is converted to T3 in the liver and kidneys, while a lesser amount is converted by the micro biota (bacteria, fungi) in your digestive system. The amount of thyroid output is regulated by thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) which is released by the pituitary gland in the brain.
Symptoms of Thyroid Dysfunction
It is estimated that up to 40 percent of our population is affected by suboptimal thyroid function. The majority of dysfunction is low thyroid output (hypothyroidism) while an overactive thyroid is referred to as hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism causes an overall decrease in metabolic rate which in turn can cause a variety of symptoms including fatigue, depression, unexplained weight gain, intolerance to cold, constipation, low heart rate, decreased appetite, poor memory, hair loss, dry skin, coarse hair, stiff muscles and infertility. Hyperthyroidism leads to an increased metabolic rate creating symptoms such as intolerance to heat, tremors, anxiety, weight loss, increased appetite, hair loss, increased bowel movements, irregular menstrual cycles, rapid and irregular heartbeat, palpitations and retraction of eyelids resulting in a “staring” appearance.
Testing for Thyroid Dysfunction
The gold standard for diagnosing thyroid dysfunction is measuring blood levels of TSH. Many cases of thyroid dysfunction are missed or overlooked when this is the only test that is ordered. If you suspect your thyroid is not working properly, it is best to have a comprehensive thyroid panel performed including TSH, thyroid antibodies, free T4, free T3, and reverse T3.
Contributors and Causes of Thyroid Dysfunction
There are numerous causes and contributors that lead to thyroid dysfunction. Identifying and addressing these factors can help to improve the function of your thyroid gland.
Nutritional Deficiencies—Iodine and selenium are trace minerals that are essential to healthy thyroid function. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of the worldwide population is at risk for iodine deficiency. Highly processed and refined diets are stripped of these vital minerals.
Bromine—Bromine is in the same family as iodine, known as halogens. Bromine can displace iodine from the thyroid hormone, making the hormone inactive. Bromine is found in pesticides, some baked goods, flame retardant chemicals used in clothing, furniture and flooring, and brominated vegetable oil found in some citrus-flavored beverages such as Mountain Dew and Squirt.
Fluoride—Fluoride is another element in the halogen family and can displace iodine from the thyroid hormone, making the thyroid hormone inactive. Research studies have shown a correlation with increased fluoride exposure from tap water to increased incidence of hypothyroidism. It is interesting to note that fluoride was previously used to slow the thyroid down in cases of hyperthyroidism.
Heavy Metals—The most common heavy metal to cause thyroid dysfunction is mercury and can be found in a variety of places including dental amalgams, certain vaccines and polluted fish and seafood.
Estrogen Dominance—Excess estrogen floating around in your body interferes with your cells being able to bind with thyroid hormones creating a state of hypothyroidism. Some environmental sources that can increase estrogen in your body include eating or drinking from plastic containers, birth control pills, menopause drugs and consuming cattle injected with estrogen hormones.
Chronic Stress—Cortisol levels are elevated with chronic stress, which in turn decreases thyroid function. Chronic stress decreases thyroid hormone levels.
Leaky Gut—When the intestinal barrier becomes over-permeable, proteins leak into the blood stream triggering the immune system to mount a response and attack the proteins. This attack has been linked with triggering autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Inversely, healthy thyroid levels have been proven to help to protect the gut lining.
Natural Strategies to Improve Thyroid Function
Eat A Nutrient-Rich Diet—It is best to make sure you are getting adequate nutrients, including iodine and selenium for healthy thyroid function. Foods rich in iodine include dried seaweed, spirulina, shrimp, Himalayan sea salt, eggs, milk, turkey breast, navy beans and baked potatoes. Brazil nuts are the highest food source of selenium. Certain nutritional supplements can also be helpful to ensure healthy thyroid function.
Reduce or Eliminate Halogen Exposure—Limiting exposure to fluoride and bromide in the foods and beverages you consume will help to keep your thyroid functioning optimally.
Reduce Your Exposure to Toxins—Pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals can wreak havoc on your thyroid function because they often contain halogens and toxic heavy metals. Opting for organic foods and purified water whenever possible can help to limit exposure to these toxins.
Adopt Healthy Stress Reducing Activities—Everyone has preferences on what helps melt the stress away best. Some common practices include taking a walk, going to the beach, taking a vacation, getting a massage, laughter and meditation. Be open to try new experiences.
Get Regular Exercise—Exercise promotes healthy thyroid function which in turn is responsible for the various health benefits found with regular exercise.
Get Plenty of Sleep—Experts agree that 7-9 hours of sleep are necessary for the various processes that are involved with healing, regeneration and detoxification to take place throughout your body, including healthy hormone balance.