What is the Thyroid Gland?
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck. It weighs only approximately 20 grams, but the hormones it secretes control growth and metabolism. The primary circulating thyroid hormones - thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) - are essential regulators of crucial body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. Adequate level of T4, and its efficient conversion to T3, also ensures that we have energy and burn carbohydrates and fats at an optimal rate.
How Prevalent are Thyroid Diseases?
According to the Thyroid Foundation of Canada, about 200 million people in the world have some form of thyroid disease. Thyroid disorders are found in 0.8-5% of the population and they are 4 to 7 times more common in women.
What are the Types of Thyroid Diseases?
There are many types of thyroid diseases. The main conditions present in most thyroid illnesses are hypothyroidism (the thyroid is under active) and hyperthyroidism (the thyroid is over active). The thyroid can also be affected by nodules and cancers.
Are Thyroid Diseases Treatable?
For the most part, thyroid disorders are treatable and if left untreated, thyroid diseases can produce serious consequences in other parts of the body.
What is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland isn't producing enough hormones, and the symptoms occur because all metabolic processes in the body “slow down” as a consequence.
How Prevalent is it?
By in large, hypothyroidism is the most common form of thyroid disorder, affecting approximately 2 individuals in 100. According to another source and based on my clinical experience, as many as 10% of women may be suffering from some degree of thyroid hormone deficiency. Although the problem can usually be identified with a simple blood test, millions of women still remain undiagnosed.
Signs & Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
If you experience some of these symptoms, you need to discuss them with your clinician.
Signs & symptoms of Hypothyroidism
What are the Causes of Hypothyroidism?
There are two main causes of hypothyroidism. The first one results from an inflammation of the thyroid gland, affecting its cells’ capacity to produce sufficient hormone. The most common form of thyroid inflammation - Hashimoto's thyroiditis – is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, with the resulting inflammation leading to an underactive thyroid gland. Grave’s disease is another type of auto-immune thyroid diseases (AITD) but in this case, the thyroid gland becomes overactive.
What Can I do to Support My Thyroid’s Health?
Even if you are currently taking thyroid medication such as Synthroid, you can bolster thyroid function with a well-balanced diet that includes lots of protein and healthy foods, certain supplements and a good lifestyle. Let’s explore some of these natural allies.
Diet: The Gluten Connection
Several studies have shown a strong connection between AITD and gluten intolerance. The explanation behind this process seems to be one of ‘mistaken identity’ in which the person’s antibodies to gliadin – the protein portion of gluten - cause the body to attack the thyroid tissue when gliadin breaches the protective barrier of the gut to enter the bloodstream. The confusion occurs due to gliadin’s molecular resemblance to the thyroid gland. Since standard lab tests aren’t very accurate in diagnosing gluten intolerance, it’s usually better to remove gluten from the diet. Cutting gluten off may appear scary at first due to its prevalence, but the truth is it usually results in a wider variety in our diet and there are no nutrients in gluten-containing foods that you can’t get from foods that don’t contain it. Certain clinicians even recommend eliminating all grains, soy and dairy as well in order to prevent cross-reactivity and reduce antibodies.
On a side note, white bread often contains bromine which can cause iodine deficiency and interfere with thyroid gland function.
The Stress Connection
Whether we’re talking about the usual emotional stressors or the ones that disturb the body’s natural balance (homeostasis) such as food intolerances, gut dysfunction, chronic infections and inflammation or blood sugar swings, stress has a major impact on thyroid health. When we experience stress, our adrenals glands secrete the hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine that regulate the stress response and play other key roles, some of which directly related to thyroid health. Moreover, ‘exhausted’ adrenal glands can mimic or cause hypothyroid symptoms even in the absence of a problem in the thyroid gland itself.
Chronic stress disrupts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, generating inflammation and reducing thyroid function. It reduces the conversion of T4 to T3 - the active form of thyroid hormone that can be used by the cells – and causes thyroid hormone resistance. In addition, chronically elevated cortisol levels promote autoimmunity by weakening immune barriers and the immune system in general. Regular and efficient stress-management techniques along with the use of adaptogenic botanicals like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Panax or Siberian ginseng, and Holy basil leaf extract are proven helpful in modulating the stress response and supporting the adrenals glands.
- Ashwagandha - In addition to normalizing stressed adrenal glands and improving energy level, Ashwagandha helps supporting mental clarity, concentration and alertness. This ancient herb from the Ayurvedic tradition has also been shown to stimulate T4 production in animal studies.
- Bacopa monnieri - In the Ayurvedic tradition, Bacopa is mostly valued for its neuroprotective activity and its ability to enhance cognitive function. Recent clinical trials reveal that it enhances T4 hormone concentration by 41% in animal models.
- Coleus forskohlii - Coleus - another herb from the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia has been shown to increases thyroid hormone production and release in animal and in-vitro studies.
Numerous studies have made it clear that normal thyroid status is dependent on the presence of tyrosine and of many trace elements for both the synthesis and metabolism of thyroid hormones.
- L-Tyrosine - This amino acid is an essential precursor in the production of T4 and T3 hormones.
- Copper (malate) - Copper and zinc are both needed in sufficient levels to prevent thyroid problems and to correct existing thyroid disorders. These two trace elements have a complex relationship and an imbalance in either direction of the zinc to copper ratio can result into hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
- Iodine- One-quarter of the body’s entire iodine supply is found in the thyroid gland where this critical trace element forms part of the atomic composition of both T4 and T3 hormones. It is necessary for the formation and activation of thyroid hormones.
- Selenium (Selenomethionine) - Selenium is essential for normal thyroid hormone metabolism being involved with selenium-containing enzyme iodothyronine de-iodinases that control the synthesis and degradation of T3. Selenium is also helpful in reducing autoantibodies against the thyroid gland in In AITD. When supplementing with selenium, it’s better to opt for selenomethionine, the natural and more bioavailable form of selenium found in food.
- Zinc - Zinc is present in every cell of the body and it is responsible for converting T4 into the more biologically active T3.
- Iron - When addressing thyroid health, it’s important to evaluate iron level and correct deficiencies since sufficient levels of this important mineral are needed to make thyroid hormone and to get it into the cells.