YOUR THYROID: Not too Cold or Hot, Thin or Fat; Energetic but Calm?
…then thank your thyroid.
No matter how you dress, there is a small bowtie at your throat that is critical to your appearance and joie de vivre. Your thyroid gland lies wrapped around the windpipe in a butterfly shape, just behind and below the Adam’s apple or larynx. It weighs less than a tablespoon of butter yet is responsible for enabling energy and activity throughout the brain and body.
When thyroid function is impaired then body temperature goes up or down; skin and hair can become coarse, dry and fragile; weight soars or plummets despite the best of diets; vitamins and minerals are poorly utilised; menses are painful, heavy or disturbed in frequency, and fertility is compromised. Without thyroid hormones regulating these functions and more, you are no longer with us.
It is estimated that about 10% of the population has a thyroid disease and many of these are undiagnosed. This rate increases with age and by your 70s the likelihood more than doubles. Some people suffer from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or from Graves Disease – autoimmune conditions where immune forces target the thyroid like an enemy (see HEALTH STORE for my report: How To Thwart Invaders…and Build Strong Immunity). There can be benign or cancerous lumps on the thyroid (in part linked with increased exposure to x-rays and other radiation treatments). Certain diseases produce anti-thyroid antibodies and decrease function: diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis, Sjogren’s syndrome and others.
There Is More To Heaven and Earth Than Blood Tests Can Reveal
Thyroid diseases can be recognised by a blood test showing abnormal pathology. But what blood tests do not indicate is suboptimal function. Your tests may show hormonal activity within the normal range – although ranges vary by laboratory. Yet you may still experience many of the symptoms of the most common type of disorder, which is under-activity or hypothyroidism.
Science rightly is focussed on evidence before it acts. Most medical practitioners wait for published research as confirmation (often funded by pharmaceutical companies), while holistic practitioners additionally employ what neuroscience terms “pattern recognition systems”. In the course of seeing thousands of clients over decades, confirming patterns can be observed regarding a range of symptoms, supportive treatments, and positive outcomes. Thyroid problems have been linked with Gluten intolerance (contact this office for an allergy test) and Coeliac Disease. This gland’s hormones control the metabolism of Sugars and Fats, regulate Gut and Kidney function (see website TIPS’ articles). So with hypothyroidism look for several of the following characteristics:
• Depression, muddled thinking, poor memory and concentration (TIPS: Brain; Moods and Foods)
• Fatigue, shortness of breath, and unrefreshing Sleep no matter how long (TIPS)
• Cold body temperature, especially hands and/or feet
• Inappropriate Weight gain (TIPS) despite sensible diet and exercise
• Sluggish Digestion (TIPS) and constipation
• Coarse, dry and fragile hair; hair loss possibly including outer eyebrows
• Dry and brittle nails; coarse, thick, dry or scaly Skin (TIPS)
• Aches and Pains (TIPS) in muscles and joints
• Menses become heavier, longer or more frequent
• Dry and gritty Eyes (TIPS); or swollen or puffy eyes, face, arms or legs
• Heart palpitations and raised cholesterol levels
• Low sex drive; unexplained Infertility (TIPS) or miscarriages
• Worsening Allergies (TIPS) or infections
People with an excessively active or hyperthyroid suffer from mostly opposite symptoms. Their energy races (which also leads to exhaustion); there is hair loss; skin is moist, fragile and thin; they feel too hot; needed nutrients are burned too quickly and depleted; they lose too much weight – and if female have light, infrequent or no menstruation. When either hypo- or hyper- a condition called goitre can result. The thyroid may swell due to its coping demands. There may be discomfort with snug necklines; tenderness; hoarseness; frequent cough; difficulty swallowing, or breathing at night.
Some parts of the world – including New Zealand – have had a high incidence of goitre. This is likely when the soil is low in an important trace mineral: iodine. The top source is seaweed such as our native karengo (from health stores; see Pacific Harvest) and it is high in fish and seafood. A foetus deficient in iodine will suffer permanent intellectual impairment. Thyroid cells are the only cells that can absorb iodine. They must have iodine and the amino acid tyrosine to create the hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). The numbers refer to the amount of iodine molecules in each hormone.
In good health about 20% of production will be T3, which is 4 times more biologically active. About 80% will be T4, which is mostly inactive but ready to be converted into T3 primarily by the liver and thyroid. This process particularly requires the minerals Zinc (TIPS) and selenium – also low in New Zealand soils. Thyroid hormones travel through your bloodstream, attach and enter cells via receptor sites on the cellular membrane – every cell depends on them for regulation. A healthy balance of fats is needed for membrane and receptor health. Omega 3, Vitamin A and zinc all help T3 binding to cells. Once inside cells T3 regulates metabolism (the conversion of oxygen and kilojoules into energy), body temperature, and carbon dioxide (waste) levels. It also stimulates production of other hormones, enzymes, muscle tissue and more.
How Can It All Go So Wrong?
The thyroid is part of your hormone-producing, emotion and environment-responsive endocrine system. It keeps in intimate communication with the even more speedily alert nervous system. They constantly relay information to each other, from and to the brain, every organ and tiniest toe. The hypothalamus in the middle of the brain is the central train station for conveying these systems’ messages. It produces thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH). This stimulates the nearby, peanut-sized office manager the pituitary gland to produce thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH – this along with T3 and T4 blood levels are what labs measure). TSH is the messenger that instructs your thyroid to get to work, make and issue T3 and T4. If these levels are high then the pituitary will decrease TSH and vice versa.
The hypothalamus and pituitary engage in another critical loop with the adrenal glands (termed the HPA axis). Your stress-managing adrenals respond acutely to nervous system directives, produce hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, cortisol (regulating blood sugar and Inflammation-TIPS), and aldosterone (regulating water and mineral balance). Stress of any kind (psychological, allergic, infectious, or toxic) can over-stimulate the HPA axis leading to high cortisol levels. This then inhibits the production of TSH and the conversion of T4 to T3. The thyroid’s problem is that it is caught literally in the middle of proceedings that are highly responsive to and thus easily impaired by chronic or excessive stress. What feeds and supports the adrenals will also nourish the thyroid. See TIPS: Adrenals and incorporate the bullet point suggestions. In contrast, taking drugs to help a flagging thyroid can diminish its ability to produce T4, and will not address any underlying adrenal health issues.
The Dangers of High Estrogen For Both Men and Women
Some researchers see a link between estrogen dominance and lowered thyroid function. Perhaps this is why women are 7 times more likely to be sufferers. Too much estrogen compared to too little progesterone is common among women with menstrual, fertility and Menopausal problems (TIPS; also Sex Hormones). This status may block the action of thyroid hormones and lead to lowered function despite normal looking test results. High estrogen levels – due to hormone mimics in food, agrochemicals, plastics and other outside or xenoestrogens (TIPS: Chemicals) – are also common among men leading to lowered vitality, increased belly fat, higher risk for prostate and other hormone-sensitive cancers (see TIPS for: Male Health and Male Power).
Iodine is a member of a group of elements called halogens, which includes fluorine and chlorine such as added to the water supply. Unfortunately these elements share a similar size and shape and compete with iodine for receptors sites on the thyroid, thus compromising function. Environmental toxins such as xenoestrogens and heavy metals (lead, aluminium, cadmium, mercury and others) disrupt thyroid function as well as the liver’s ability to convert T4 to T3 (TIPS: Love Your Liver).
Some people worry about foods which contain compounds called goitrogens. In excess these can inhibit the function of an enzyme – thyroid peroxidase – which helps make thyroid hormones. But the action of goitrogens alone has shown no impact on thyroid health except when already impaired function is accompanied by low iodine levels. Many common foods contain these compounds including a classification of vegetables called crucifers or brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard and turnip). These are sources of a type of goitrogen called isothiocyanates: an antioxidant that can also protect the thyroid. Additional goitrogens come from Soy products (TIPS), spinach, radish, strawberry, peach, millet and peanuts.
Be wary of categorising any one food – made up of thousands of constituents – by just one quality. In this case it is better to praise the seaweed than to blame the broccoli.