A thyroid gland that's not working as well as it should can affect so many other parts of the body, and it is a temperamental little thing – it is easily upset by stress, digestive problems, nutrient deficiencies and exposure to chemicals. And if your thyroid isn’t functioning well, you can feel worn out, depressed, anxious, have dry skin & hair, gain weight easily (or have difficulty losing it), experience problems with your periods or fertility, feel the cold/heat easily or suffer from night sweats, among many other less-than-pleasant symptoms. Because of these multiple, and often vague, symptoms, issues with the thyroid are not always apparent - and thyroid function is often overlooked as a potential underlying cause for many health issues. However, in my clinic I find that it is very common for the thyroid to be playing a central role in many of the conditions that my patients come and see me for.
Taking A Closer Look At Thyroid Function
When I'm working with patients who come to me with either an established thyroid condition, or I suspect that their thyroid may be less-than-optimal, the first step I take is to find out whether they have had their thyroid checked. Often, the answer is that yes, and the thyroid was 'fine'.
However, 'fine' doesn't always mean 'fine'. And here's why...
Conventional thyroid testing usually only looks at one aspect of your thyroid - however your thyroid is a complex gland, and there is an interplay of hormones that affect every part of your body. Also, when it comes to thyroid testing, it pays to keep in mind that the ranges used by conventional standards are very broad - and you can still experience symptoms of a thyroid imbalance within these 'normal' ranges.
What Is Testing All About?
Here are the typical tests available for checking your thyroid function, and why they may be useful for helping pinpoint thyroid problems as an underlying cause of many chronic, unexplained health problems.
- TSH - Thyroid Stimulating Hormone. You can think of as being a bit like a 'jockey' for your thyroid, telling it how fast it needs to run. So if your TSH is high, this can mean that your jockey is whipping your thyroid to work harder, and if TSH is very low, it is pulling back on the reins to try to slow the thyroid function down. This is usually the first (and often only) test that will be performed as part of conventional testing. While this test can be useful, without the additional information provided by thyroid hormones, it doesn't give the whole picture of thyroid health. In fact, TSH is not even part of your thyroid at all - it is produced by the pituitary gland in your brain.
- T4 - Tetraiodothyronine. T4 is the most abundant hormone your thyroid produces, and it is best described as the 'storage form' of thyroid hormone, because it is not very active within the body. It is made with iodine, so if you don't get enough of this crucial mineral via your food or supplements, then your thyroid can struggle to make enough of it. T4 is occasionally checked as part of a conventional test (but not always).
- T3 - Triiodothyronine. T3 is also made by the thyroid gland, but to a lesser degree than T4. However, this is the thyroid hormone that is the most active within the body - in other words, it is the one that has the greatest effect on your health and symptoms. Your body makes most of its T3 by breaking T4 apart in your tissues - a process that is reliant on the minerals zinc and selenium. The ratio between T4 and T3 can give us a good idea how well your body is performing this process, and whether you may have a deficiency in either of these minerals. Interestingly (and frustratingly), T3 is generally not tested as part of a typical thyroid check!
- rT3 - Reverse T3. rT3 is an inactive form of T3 that has the ability to go and block some of the good work that T3 does. Sometimes (as in the case of an overactive thyroid that is running too fast) this can be a good thing, but if your thyroid is already struggling, a high level of rT3 can worsen the situation. rT3 is produced when there is a lot of tissue damage occurring (for instance, it is normal to have higher levels of rT3 following surgery), but is also produced when we are under a lot of stress. Another reason to make sure you are taking steps to manage your stress levels!
- Thyroid Antibodies. Antibodies to the thyroid, or to parts of the thyroid hormone network, occur when the immune system becomes confused and starts directing an attack against the body tissues. This is one of the ways in which autoimmune thyroid conditions such as Hashimotos Disease or Graves Disease are diagnosed. However, tests usually aren't done until other markers (such as TSH) move out of the 'normal' range - and by this time the disease is well-established and a lot of damage has been done.
In my clinic, because I see many people who present with one or more symptoms of a thyroid imbalance, I offer the option of extensive thyroid functional pathology testing. I estimate that around 90% of people with whom we have looked 'under the surface', functional pathology has revealed one or more ways in which the thyroid was struggling.
This is one of the areas in which I feel that natural medicine has so much to offer - by identifying and addressing the root cause of health issues - so that the right support can begin.