The thyroid is essential for nearly every system in our bodies, but most people don’t give that tiny, butterfly-shaped organ any thought unless it’s causing problems.
If your thyroid is off even slightly, you can feel fatigued, anxious, hungry, overweight, and just about everything else in between.
What Is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is an endocrine organ, which means that it produces hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers in the body that help control numerous body processes.
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In particular, the thyroid makes two hormones: T3 and T4. Together, these hormones run the metabolism, energize the cells, and help control other aspects of the body like appetite, digestion, body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and even mood.
T4 is the primary thyroid hormone that is produced, and the body requires nutrients to activate it into T3. If the thyroid produces either too much or too little hormone, the effects can feel extreme, leading to a host of unpleasant symptoms that are sometimes hard to diagnose. Read on for more information about your thyroid health.
When the Thyroid Goes Rogue: Thyroid Disorders
Thyroid disorders can range from mild to severe, often depending on how long they take to diagnose. The following are the possible ways the thyroid can experience dysfunction.
Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid is underactive and doesn’t produce enough hormone. This can happen for many reasons, but tends to affect women more than men, and often begins during or after menopause.
Hypothyroidism can also happen after pregnancy, as a result of some other hormonal imbalance in the body (such as in the adrenal glands), or after periods of stress. In cases of hypothyroidism, it will often resolve itself – unless there are underlying causes or triggers, which we will discuss below.
The opposite of hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. This can result in an overstimulated body that might experience heart palpitations, excessive sweating, high body temperature, and more.
Causes of short-term hyperthyroidism can range from excess dietary or supplemental intake of iodine, inflammation of the thyroid, or certain benign tumors in the thyroid or pituitary gland. Hyperthyroidism can also have underlying causes, as we will discuss below.
3. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
Also referred to as autoimmune hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s is an immune-driven suppression of the thyroid gland, leading to irreversible thyroid disease. When hypothyroidism is caused by Hashimoto’s, it must be treated differently than short-term, non-immune hypothyroidism.
The difference between hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s is that there are antibodies present in the latter. Whenever someone is diagnosed with hypothyroidism, it’s essential to rule out an autoimmune component to ensure that treatment is appropriate for the situation.
While there is no cure for Hashimoto’s, lifestyle and dietary factors, as well as proper medication, can put the disease into remission with no symptoms.
Hashimoto’s is the most common autoimmune disorder in the world and the most common cause of hypothyroidism, and impacts women eight times more than men. (1)
4. Graves’ Disease
Graves’ disease is autoimmune hyperthyroidism, and like Hashimoto’s, is an immune-driven attack against the thyroid. Graves’ is an autoimmune disease for which there is no cure, but there are treatments that can lead to remission. Graves’ is the most common reason for hyperthyroidism, and impacts women seven to eight times more than men. (2)
Graves’ disease often needs more medical intervention than Hashimoto’s, and may be treated with antithyroid drugs, radioactive iodine, or even thyroid surgery. However, lifestyle factors that calm autoimmunity can also be effective for people who have Graves’ disease.
5. Postpartum Thyroiditis
Following pregnancy, the postpartum period can be volatile when it comes to hormones. Some women can develop a postpartum form of Hashimoto’s, which in some cases can morph into actual Hashimoto’s. Women who have a family history of thyroid disorders, or who already have hypothyroid problems, are most susceptible to developing this postpartum disorder.
6. Thyroid Cancer
While autoimmune disorders of the thyroid are common, thyroid cancer is not nearly as prevalent. The most recent statistics for thyroid cancer show that over 48,000 were diagnosed, and around 1,800 people died from it. (3) Again, women are three times more likely to get diagnosed than men. (4)
There are five types of thyroid cancer:
- Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common type, and is slow-spreading and extremely treatable.
- Medullary thyroid cancer is the second most common type of thyroid cancer, and has a genetic component. It is typically associated with endocrine system cancer and is not just thyroid specific.
- Thyroid lymphoma is the rarest form of thyroid cancer, and begins in immune cells located within the gland itself.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the most aggressive form of thyroid cancer and most difficult to treat, but is also rare.
- Follicular thyroid cancer is the most likely to recur type of thyroid cancer, and it can also spread.
Most cases of thyroid cancer are treated by surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid gland, along with other potential treatments that include radioactive iodine, radiation, or chemotherapy.
Symptoms of Thyroid Dysfunction
When the thyroid isn’t functioning as it should, the symptoms are widespread and life-altering. While some symptoms overlap for underactive or overactive thyroid, there are many that are distinctly different.
Overactive Thyroid Symptoms
- Rapid weight loss
- Graves’ dermopathy, or reddened skin around the shins
- Chronic diarrhea or frequent and loose bowel movements
- Irritability and mood swings
- Excess body heat
- Goiter (swelling of the thyroid gland, often seen as a neck protrusion)
- Hand tremors
- Quickened heart rate
- Insomnia or difficult staying asleep
- Bulging eyes
Underactive Thyroid Symptoms
- Rapid weight gain
- Dry, itchy, or pale skin
- Feeling cold all the time, especially in the extremities
- Sore throat or hoarse voice
- High LDL cholesterol
- Infertility or recurrent pregnancy loss
- Irregular or extremely heavy periods
- Loss of sex drive
Overlapping Symptoms of Either Condition
- Hair loss
- Muscle weakness
3 Ways to Support Your Thyroid Health
Regardless of whether you have hyperthyroid or hypothyroid issues, there are some basic thyroid wellness protocols that can help you feel your best.
1. Medical Support
Having the right doctor is the most important step in managing your thyroid health. Unfortunately, not all doctors are thyroid experts, and many still approach thyroid treatment from the most basic approach. As such, people with hypothyroid or hyperthyroid issues can often go years without realizing that their problems are caused by autoimmune antibodies. By understanding how to ask the right questions, you can ensure that you are being treated by a doctor who is proactive and thorough.
It is crucial that your doctor runs the right tests to assess thyroid health. When assessing hormone levels, Free T3 and Free T4 need to be checked to provide a snapshot of the actual hormone available for your body to use. If the non-free versions are run, you may receive normal results that aren’t indicative of your actual thyroid performance.
If you haven’t been diagnosed with autoimmunity, but you are having hypo- or hyperthyroid problems that persist, it’s essential to rule out the autoimmune component by asking your doctor to test for thyroid antibodies.
For Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s
In many cases, thyroid medication is required in some form. If you have Hashimoto’s or hypothyroidism, you may need thyroid hormone replacement to bring balance to your body. There are several forms of synthetic and natural thyroid hormones that you can take. If one medication isn’t making you feel well, it’s time to ask for another option. People are unique in how their bodies respond to thyroid hormone replacement, and the best gauge is feeling good. If your lab tests look good, but you don’t feel good, it’s time to dig deeper.
For Hyperthyroidism and Grave’s Disease
If you have hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease, you may be treated with antithyroid medication or other methods to calm your thyroid’s overstimulated response. If these treatments don’t make you feel well, it’s important to communicate that with your doctor and explore other options.
While a thyroid diet can differ from person to person, there are some basic principles that apply to all forms of thyroid dysfunction and autoimmunity.
When you’re fighting an uphill battle against thyroid and hormone imbalance, quality of nutrition and food intake is step one.
Battling a Leaky Gut
If autoimmunity is the root cause of your thyroid issues, gut health is the first place to look. Leaky gut can often be the initial trigger for an overeager immune system. When undigested food particles, toxins, and chemicals enter the bloodstream via the gut, the immune system gets alerted that there are “foreign” invaders attempting to hijack the body. Certain food particles and chemicals can look similar to thyroid tissue, which is why it becomes a target for the immune system’s antibody attack.
When leaky gut is present, replenishing nutrients is vital. High quality supplements can help bring balance back to the body, along with nutrients that heal leaky gut, like collagen, glutamine, and other amino acids. Because of bio-individuality, it’s important to consult a qualified practitioner for supplement and nutrient support. Iodine, for example, can benefit straight hypothyroidism, but can worsen autoimmune hypothyroidism, so it’s essential not to assume that you know which nutrients your body needs without a practitioner’s expert support.
What to Eat and Avoid
A Paleo diet that is not carb-restricted is a therapeutic diet for thyroid health. The thyroid needs a steady amount of glucose to be able to produce hormones, so in cases of hypothyroidism, low-carb or keto diets are not recommended. Avoiding processed foods, trans fats, and refined sugars is essential.
For people suffering from Graves’ disease or hyperthyroidism, cutting off the thyroid’s glucose supply might have a therapeutic effect, reducing the thyroid’s overreaction without excessive medical intervention.
Food allergies and sensitivity, along with autoimmune conditions like Celiac disease, can often go hand in hand with thyroid problems, so if you’re having issues recovering from thyroid problems, getting food allergy testing or avoiding foods that you know cause digestive or other problems is also an important step in creating a healing environment in the body.
The thyroid is an organ that responds dramatically to outside interference, and when our bodies are subjected to toxin or chemical exposure, or get run down from lack of sleep, little or no movement, or other lifestyle factors, it can be one of the first organs in the body to show signs of stress or imbalance.
Get Quality Sleep
Establishing a healthy sleep routine is step one. Even if it’s difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, it’s essential that you still guard your rest time or your thyroid will be even more difficult to heal.
Toss Household Chemicals
Cutting chemical and toxin exposure from lifestyle and household sources can also help balance the thyroid. From cosmetics to household cleaners to laundry products and perfumes, chemicals that can have endocrine disrupting components are everywhere. Opting for fragrance-free and natural versions of body products and household items is a good place to start.
Engage in Gentle Exercise
While it can be difficult to exercise when you are fatigued or rundown from a thyroid imbalance, the body needs gentle movement to find balance. Walking, yoga, or tai chi can be healing exercises for hormone and thyroid balance. Intense exercise, distance running, or heavy weight lifting can add a burden to the thyroid and overall body, so avoiding these until thyroid balance has been restored will help to encourage a speedier path to recovery.
The thyroid is a hormone-producing organ that can easily get off kilter when environmental, dietary, genetic, or autoimmune components come into play. Even though thyroid conditions are common, it affects individuals differently. Understanding your thyroid condition, having a qualified practitioner, and focusing on dietary and lifestyle factors that can promote healing are all essentials for thyroid wellness.
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