The Thyroid Gland
Perhaps of all the endocrine glands in the body, the thyroid gets the most attention. And it well should. Many of us know someone who has been told they are “hypothyroid” or are on medications for low thyroid. Why is the thyroid so important? Its main function is to control metabolism. Since all cells need this information, all cells in the body have receptor sites for thyroid hormones, thus it affects the operation of all body processes and internal organs.
The thyroid gland helps control body temperature. People who are experiencing cold hands and feet may have low thyroid function. In children it helps control of the body’s rate of growth. It also greatly influences mood and emotion through its action on brain chemistry. One of its lesser known functions is to work in conjunction with the parathyroid gland to balance blood calcium levels and regulate the breakdown of bone tissue.
The thyroid receives the most extensive blood supply of all the endocrine glands. In fact, all your blood goes through the thyroid every 17 minutes!
The main hormones produced by the thyroid gland are thyroxine (better known as T4) and triiodothyroxine (T3). These hormones are based on iodine. T3 is the active form, yet the body produces more T4. Therefore, T4 needs to be converted into T3. Seventy five percent of this conversion is done in the liver and kidneys. Selenium, Zinc, Vitamin C, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin E are required for this process. So, from a nutritional perspective the thyroid is dependent upon the trace minerals iodine, zinc, and selenium; Vitamins C, B12, and E; and having healthy livers and kidneys.
Many of us know people who have been told they have low thyroid function. Following is a simple quiz to help you self-assess the state of your thyroid. Please note these are only some of the symptoms of low thyroid function (hypothyroidism). If you have answered yes to 3 or more of these questions, consider having your thyroid function tested. This is often done with a blood test.
· Do you have severe fatigue and find it hard to get up in the mornings?
· Do you have generalized low energy?
· Do you need caffeine and/or other stimulants to get you going?
· Do you have family history of thyroid disease?
· Is it easy for you to gain weight?
· Do you have difficulty losing weight?
· Do you have dry skin?
· Do you have constipation?
· For women, are your menstrual cycles irregular?
· Do you suffer from mood swings?
· Is your hair thinning?
· Is the outer third of your eyebrows missing or thinning?
· Is your hair dry/brittle?
· Do you have low sex drive?
· Do you note any forgetfulness?
· Do you have high cholesterol?
· Do you have low blood pressure?
· Do you suffer from depression?
· Is your skin yellow?
Of course the big question is what may be the underlying cause of the above conditions. There are four common types of hypothyroid problems. One or more of these may apply.
The first is functional hypothyroidism from weakened adrenal glands due to prolonged stress. Our adrenal glands are very important and the stress response is critical to our survival. When the body is under constant stress the adrenal glands are over working. In order to protect the adrenal glands (and our survival) the pituitary gland directs the thyroid to slow down all processes. In this case it is actually the adrenal glands that need support rather than the thyroid.
Second is functional hypothyroidism caused by Estrogen Dominance – an imbalance of levels of estrogen and progesterone. We will go into this in more detail when we discuss these hormones. For purposes here it is suffice to say that estrogen and progesterone work together and are most effective when within a specific ratio to each other. When this ratio is out of balance (which can occur in a variety of ways) in favor of estrogen this is estrogen dominance. This is a common condition today and it is just not women, it occurs in men too. The high levels of estrogen cause a reaction in the body where thyroid hormones are reduced. So, as with the adrenal glands above, the solution here is to figure out why estrogen and progesterone are out of balance.
Third is a deficiency of nutrients required for normal thyroid hormone synthesis, release, and function. This is generally an iodine deficiency, but can be other nutrients as well. Without sufficient iodine the thyroid will not function optimally. This too is a common condition in today’s world given prevailing diets.
Fourth is thyroid disease (primary hypothyroidism). There are several different thyroid diseases, such as goiter, nodules, Grave’s Disease or Hashimoto’s Disease (an autoimmune disease). In many cases thyroid disease is an outcome of not resolving the first three underlying causes discussed above.
While thyroid function is often tested via the blood there are two self-tests that can be performed. When thyroid malfunction is suspected these tests can assist in early identification. Often it takes longer for signs to show in the blood. These tests show a gland under stress. A blood test shows when it has impacted the hormones.
The first is the Barnes Thyroid Test which measures body temperature. You need a basal thermometer (goes from 96 to 100 degrees) to perform the test. The basal thermometer is also called an ovulation thermometer. To perform the test you take your temperature every morning before getting out of bed. Keep the thermometer by your bed. When you wake up put the thermometer under your armpit for 10 minutes (skin to skin). This should be done for five days. Take the average of the five days. Normal is between 97.8 and 98.2 degrees. Hyperthyroid is greater than 98.2 degrees. Hypothyroid is less than 97.8 degrees. For women it is best to do this test early in their menstrual cycle and not near ovulation as temperature is naturally higher.
The second test is the Iodine Patch Test. This is based on the fact that the thyroid needs iodine to function correctly. To do this test you will need colored iodine tincture which is available in any drugstore. You will paint 3” x 3” spot on your inner thigh, inner arm, or stomach. It is best to paint during the evening and go to sleep. When you wake up record any color changes. With normal thyroid function you should see no color change. A deficient thyroid gland body will absorb the iodine and you will no color left on the spot you painted. If the spot fades completely within 12 hours that is indicative of low thyroid function. Ideally the spot will remain for at least 24 hours. The quicker the spot fades, the more thyroid support is likely needed.
Many people are treated with the medication Synthroid or Levothyroxine for hypothyroidism. It is important to know that this and many similar medications are only T4. Therefore, they still need to be converted into T3 for your body to use them. If long standing nutritional deficiencies are at the root of the low functioning thyroid this may continue to contribute to the body not being able to make this important conversion. Some practitioners will prescribe Armour Thyroid, a product containing both T4 and T3 which has been found to be more effective for some people.
Natural solutions for low thyroid function include dietary changes, animal glandular extracts without hormones, specific nutrients, and herbal remedies. The nutrients will be targeted at the specific underlying cause. For example, where iodine is deficient it will be supplemented.
The purpose of the natural solution is to provide the nutrition the thyroid gland needs to resume and support proper function. Just providing hormones does not address the underlying deficiencies and ultimately the health of the gland. In the long run it may make things worse. The negative feedback loop employed by the body tells it there is sufficient hormone in the blood stream so the thyroid does not receive any signals to make hormone. As the thyroid is not utilized further deterioration may occur and the person becomes completely dependent on external sources of the hormone. This deterioration may also lead to autoimmune diseases of the thyroid.
It is important to know that some people also suffer from an over-active thyroid or hyperthyroidism. Often times this precedes hypothyroidism. Typical symptoms include: insomnia, nervousness, cannot gain weight, intolerance to heat, highly emotional, flush easily, night sweats, heart palpitations, increased appetite without weight gain, pulse fast at rest, eyelids and face twitch, irritable and restless, or cannot work under pressure.