You and Your Thyroid
Your body is a complex system and wonderful system. Your hypothalamus produces TSH releasing hormone (TRH). This hormone controls your pituitary gland and causes it to release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). This stimulating hormone determines how much of the hormones T3 and T4 your thyroid produces. The T3 and T4 hormones affect your metabolic rate, meaning the rate at which your cells convert fuel to energy.
As an analogy, think of a driver on the highway. The driver (hypothalamus) determines what speed he wants to travel and sets the cruise control. The cruise control (pituitary) compares the current speed against the desired rate. If the speed isn’t correct, it informs the fuel pump (thyroid) to increase or decrease the gas flow (T3 / T4) to the engine. The amount of gas affects the energy (metabolism) produced by the engine, and pretty soon you’re traveling at the desired rate!
Because every cell in your body uses fuel, every cell in your body is affected by the thyroid. If your thyroid produces too little or too much of T3 and T4, you will have problems, known respectively as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Both conditions create problems, and both are easily detectible.
According to the American Thyroid Association, approximately 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid problem, with a greater percentage of women than men. So let’s do some simple checks on symptoms for hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
Your thyroid is producing too much T3 and T4, so your metabolic rate is too high as compared to the amount of food you eat and energy you need. Common symptoms include the following:
- inability to gain weight or weight loss – your body is using up all the fuel and more
- fatigue – your cells don’t have enough fuel because it has all been used up
- rapid and irregular heartbeat
- heat intolerance – your body is already too hot from the high energy output
- inability to relax, physically or emotionally, and a sense of anxiety
- goiter (swollen thyroid gland)
- mental slowness and social disassociation (among the aging population)
This condition is fairly uncommon, affecting only about 1% of the population, but it is most common among people aged 60 and older. One cause is excessive iodine consumption, such as from kelp or other foods high in iodine. Your thyroid converts iodine into T3 and T4, so having too much iodine may cause your thyroid to produce too much of these hormones. Conversely, having too little B12 in your diet can also increase the risk for hyperthyroidism.
These are simple to control with minor diet changes. Multivitamins containing antioxidants are useful, and keeping a high level of omega-3 fatty acids will help reduce the inflammation associated with hyperthyroidism.
But other risk factors are outside of your control. Getting older and being a woman. For the older population, it can decrease appetite, provoke atrial fibrillations (irregular heartbeats), and speed up osteoporosis. (A recent pregnancy may also provoke hyperthyroidism, but this is fairly uncommon among the 60 years plus crowd.)
This condition is far more common and, for the baby boomers population, may produce a host of unwelcome effects. Your thyroid is not producing enough T3 and T4, so your metabolic rate is too slow as compared to how much food you eat and energy you need. Common symptoms include the following:
- inability to lose weight or weight gain – your body has more fuel than it can burn, so it stores it as fat
- fatigue – insufficient fuel is being converted to energy
- cold intolerance – your body isn’t producing enough heat
- mental fatigue
- memory loss and confusion (particularly among the aging population)
- thinning hair and dry skin
- sore joints
- goiter (swollen thyroid gland)
- constipation and water retention
- high LDL cholesterol levels
This condition is more common than hyperthyroidism, affecting approximately 4.6% of the population over age 12. It becomes increasingly common as adults age, with a higher percentage of adults affected.
Hypothyroidism has many causes. One common cause is Hashimoto’s disease in which your body turns its immune system against itself. This disease sometimes affects the thyroid and causes it to slow or stop producing hormones. Unfortunately, most medical treatments for hyperthyroidism also result in hypothyroidism. (Once again, a recent pregnancy can provoke hypothyroidism.)
Because the thyroid needs iodine to produce T3 and T4, iodine deficiency can produce this condition. Generally, using table salt with iodine is sufficient to maintain at least a minimal level of iodine you need to prevent goiter. Kelp, other sea foods, and dairy products will provide iodine safely for most people. At the same time, iron and Vitamin A can increase iodine uptake. Some foods, such as soy, can decrease iodine uptake. (Soy may also have an estrogenic effect, so too much soy intake is probably not a great idea anyway.)
Be cautious with iodine supplements, however. Consult with a doctor before taking iodine supplements. Too much iodine can produce complications, some of which mimic iodine deficiency and hypothyroidism and may lead to even greater self-dosing of iodine!
Screening and Testing
Look at the symptom lists again. Many symptoms are the same for both conditions. A common complaint, particularly among women, is weight gain, and many people who are gaining weight claim they have thyroid problems, whether or not it is true. Regardless, up to 60% of people with thyroid problems are unaware that the problems exist, and this is the real problem.
One issue that we detect during thermal imaging screenings is inflammation in the thyroid, which is a good indicator that a person may have thyroid dysfunction and should seek thyroid-specific screenings: TSH and T4 blood tests. The TSH test is the more common initial test. A high level of TSH indicates that the thyroid is not producing sufficient hormones (hypothyroidism), and a low level indicates that the thyroid is producing too much (hyperthyroidism).
General Practices for Thyroid Function
Most people can keep their thyroid working at optimal levels with fairly simple practices. The recommendations are basic and easy to follow. Most importantly, eat a well-balanced diet and exercise daily. Eat eggs (which also provide necessary sulfur), low-fat cheeses, sea food, and kelp. Reduce your intake of thyroid blockers, such as kale, cruciferous vegetables, and soy. Make sure you are getting sufficient vitamins and minerals, including iodine, and avoid toxins that block iodine absorption, such as fluorine and chorine. Daily exercise is critical, as it naturally raises your metabolic level and helps it return to a normal level. Importantly, if you start experiencing several of the symptoms described above, get screened.
Your body is wonderful, but it needs care and monitoring.