The thyroid is known as the master gland of the metabolism. Not only does it regulate metabolism by controlling the rate at which the body converts calories into energy, but it also controls the release of oxygen. Aside from producing these necessary hormones, the thyroid is also important for the growth and development in children, as well as nearly every physiological process in the body.
The most common thyroid problems involve abnormal production of the thyroid hormones. Thyroid disease is mostly found in women and usually after a hormone shift in the body; for example after a pregnancy or during menopause.
When your thyroid levels are out of balance, so are you. Too much (hyperthyroidism) or too little (hypothyroidism) hormone secretion can spell trouble for your overall health.
The Thyroid Gland: Understanding How It Works
The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland found inside your neck, right under your larynx or voice box. It has two lobes on either side of the windpipe that are connected by a band of tissue called the isthmus.
The thyroid normally produces two types of hormones:
- Triiodothyronine (T3)
- Thyroxine (T4)
If everything is working properly, the body will produce enough of the required hormones to ensure that the correct amount of thyroid hormones are in the bloodstream to allow the body to function properly. The whole body suffers if T3 is inadequate, either because not enough is being produced or because it is not converted properly from T4. T3 increases the basal metabolic rate and, thus, increases the body’s oxygen and energy consumption.
Almost 90% of the hormones produced by the thyroid is in the form of T4, the inactive form. The liver converts T4 into T3, the active form, through de-iodination. This pathway is part of a closed-loop feedback process. Elevated concentrations of T3, and T4 in the blood plasma inhibit the production of thyroid stimulatory hormone (TSH) in the anterior pituitary gland. As concentrations of these hormones decrease, the anterior pituitary gland increases production of TSH, stimulating the thyroid to produce hormones. These processes constitute a feedback control system, stabilizing the amount of thyroid hormones that are in the bloodstream.
Hypothyroidism: The Sluggish Thyroid Syndrome
Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone, a condition often linked to iodine deficiency.
Identifying hypothyroidism and its cause can be tricky. Many symptoms of hypothyroidism are vague and may be confused with other disorders. Physicians often miss a thyroid problem since they rely on just a few traditional tests, leaving other clues undetected.
The slower the metabolism gets the more obvious the signs and symptoms become. Hypothyroidism can also be misdiagnosed for depression or “normal aging”, so it is important to find a medical practitioner who knows how to test for thyroid disease.
In addition to blood tests, signals from your body can be very helpful in diagnosing hypothyroidism. Do you suffer from anxiety, constipation, cold hands and feet, concentration difficulties, depression, insomnia, dry hair and skin, fatigue, weakness, hair-loss, water retention, weight gain or difficulty losing weight? Then you should consider having your thyroid checked out.
The more vigilant you are in assessing your own symptoms and risk factors to present a complete picture to your physician, the easier it will be for you to get the proper treatment.
What Happens If You Have A Hyperactive Thyroid?
An overactive thyroid secretes too much T4 or T3 (sometimes both) causing some of your body functions to accelerate. This condition is hyperthyroidism, wherein your thyroid overproduces hormones. Women are often more likely to suffer from hyperthyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism may manifest in different ways:
- Disturbed sleep
- Weight loss
- Heat intolerance
- Polydipsia (excessive thirst)
Some of these symptoms may be unnoticeable, depending on factors such as your age and underlying causes, or once again, be associated with normal aging. Untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to heart problems like atrial fibrillation, cardiomyopathy, angina and heart failure.
Simple Steps That You Can Do To Improve Your Thyroid Health
Nutrients that support thyroid health:
- Vitamin A: Retinoic acid, including retinol and beta-carotene, is important for thyroid health.
- Iodine: The nutrients iodine and tyrosine provide the building blocks of thyroid hormones.
- Selenium: A selenium deficiency decreases the synthesis of thyroid hormones and is a necessary component of the enzyme that converts T4 into T3. Selenium can also help reduce thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibodies, which when elevated, cause damage to the thyroid.
- Iron: Iron deficiency can hamper the production of thyroid hormone. The minerals selenium, iron, and zinc help convert T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (active thyroid hormone).
- Zinc: Zinc is needed to help your body gauge thyroid hormone levels and tells it to increase production when levels are low.
Foods that can heal your thyroid:
Nutrition is often overlooked as a viable therapy to support healthy thyroid function. Even with good intentions, many people struggle to maintain a healthy diet (time constraints, lack of cooking skills), making nutritional deficiencies more common than you might think.
Poor nutritional status is one of the primary root causes for thyroid dysfunction because the thyroid gland is highly nutrient dependent. Many people eating a diet low in nutrient-dense, plant-based whole foods and loaded with refined flours, processed sugars, and poor quality fats and oils may become deficient in key nutrients that drive thyroid hormone production.
“Whole foods” nutrition provides essential nutrients and compounds needed by the body to drive thyroid function and metabolic health. Here are just some of the ways nutrition plays a role:
- Salt: The thyroid needs iodine to work well. Make sure that you use iodised table salt.
- Leafy Greens: Spinach, lettuce and most other green vegetables are great sources of magnesium, an all-star mineral that plays a beneficial role in most of the body processes.
- Nuts: Almonds, cashew and pumpkin seeds are excellent sources of iron. Brazil nuts is a great source of iron and selenium.
- Seafood: Is a great source of iodine.
- Vegetables: Butternut, sweet potato and butternut squash contain vitamin A which make your thyroid work well. Zinc also works in cooperation with vitamin A, and both support thyroid health and normal vision.
Foods that can make your thyroid “sick”:
People with hypothyroidism should avoid an excess of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, and mustard greens). It is acceptable in moderation as long as you are not having them more than 5 times a week. Excessive amounts of cruciferous vegetables may cause a problem because they are considered goitrogens, which means they interfere with the uptake of iodine by the thyroid. This can cause enlargement of the thyroid and a disease called “goitre”.
Goitrogen foods include kale, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussel sprouts. Of course we need green vegetables in our diet, but too much of a good thing can also be bad.
“Food has the power to heal us all. It is the most potent tool we have to help prevent and treat chronic diseases”. Mark Hyman MD
Most of us eat at least three meals per day – each time we sit down to eat we are presented with an opportunity to choose foods that heal and nourish the body or foods that harm the body and deplete our health and vitality. Eat consciously and make the correct choice.
Minimize your stress levels — Take a break, meditate, soak in the tub, go on vacation — do whatever works for you! Abnormal hormone secretion due to excessive stress can influence the overall hormone balance in the body.
Get adequate amounts of sleep — Inadequate or low-quality sleep can put your health at risk. Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep. Remember, even one sleepless night can have a harmful effect on your body, your looks and your mental state. It can potentially trigger inflammatory pathways and aggravate a hormonal imbalance.
Exercise is a great way to alleviate some of the symptoms of hypothyroidism — Walk your dog in the park, jog in the morning and incorporate some strength training and other core-building exercises into your daily routine. Exercising will help boost your mood, help you lose weight and increase your energy levels.
Identify and Treat the Underlying Causes
Find out what’s really triggering your thyroid problems — whether it’s an iodine deficiency, hormonal imbalance, environmental toxicity or inflammation. For best results, consult an integrative medical practitioner.