In the clinic, I see many clients with thyroid issues - and in my opinion, thyroid problems are becoming more and more common. I also have found that it can take a long time for a thyroid problem to be diagnosed - with many people experiencing thyroid symptoms for months, even years, before full investigations are performed, and answers are found. This is a worrying trend, which is why I am always on the lookout for early signs of thyroid issues in every client who walks through my door.
What Does Your Thyroid Do?
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck. Its job is to produce thyroid hormones (known as T4 and T3), which control your metabolism (how effectively you burn food for energy), and that influence the growth and development of the cells in your body. The thyroid also influences other parts of your body, including your hormones, fertility and your nervous system. So it is certainly a part of the body we need to look after!
What Does An Unhappy Thyroid Feel Like?
The thyroid, for various reasons, can become unbalanced. It can become overactive (where it runs too fast) or, more commonly, it can become underactive/sluggish.
Because an overactive thyroid has an highly stimulating effect on the body, it can lead to symptoms such as:
- Anxiety, palpitations, nervousness or an inability to relax
- Eye problems such as protruding eyes, or a gritty feeling in the eye
Conversely, an underactive thyroid slows down a lot of your bodily functions, and can cause the following symptoms:
- Fatigue, exhaustion (even when you have had enough rest)
- Low moods and depression
- Concentration problems, 'brain fog', slow thinking
- Feeling the heat or cold more than others
- Unusual pains or cramps - often the sole of the foot feels hot or tingly
- Cholesterol issues - high cholesterol despite a healthy diet and lifestyle
- Hot flushes
- Unexplained iron deficiency
- Shortness of breath
- Gut upsets, constipation, bloating
- Low immunity, tendency to catch lots of colds or flus
- Period problems such as irregular periods or unexplained infertility
- Dry skin or hair, thinning of the outer edge of the eyebrows
- Weight gain, or difficulty losing weight even when watching diet and exercise
What Can Go Wrong?
There are a few reasons why your thyroid can become unbalanced.
- A) Thyroid Disorders. There are two common thyroid diseases that affect the thyroid gland - Hashimotos Disease and Graves Disease. Both of these are what we call 'autoimmune thyroid diseases' because ultimately, they have been triggered by the immune system. In the case of Hashimotos, the immune system attacks and destroys the thyroid gland over time, and thyroid is unable to keep up production of the hormones T4 & T3. Graves Disease occurs when the immune system stimulates the thyroid into overdrive.
- B) Post-Partum Thyroiditis. This is a reasonably common thyroid disorder experienced by 1 in 10 women who have recently had a baby. The thyroid usually regains its balance, however if you have experienced this condition then you are more likely to have further thyroid problems later in life, and it is a good idea to keep an eye on things.
- C) Sub-Clinical Hypothyroidism. A sub-clinically sluggish thyroid means that you can be experiencing one or more of the symptoms of a thyroid imbalance, yet blood tests show up as being 'fine'. What this means is that the thyroid is working, but not at 100%, yet it is not struggling enough to warrant medical treatment. There can be factors that are influencing the ability of the thyroid to function optimally, and these may be missed by conventional testing. In my clinic, I have seen many cases where the thyroid is struggling, and this is where natural medicine has a lot to offer.
What Can You Do To Keep Your Thyroid Happy?
- Manage stress. The thyroid is easily upset by stress and it communicates with your body's stress system. Take time out when you need it, get some exercise, and try to get enough rest to recharge your batteries.
- Give up dieting. Restricting your food intake too much, for too long can play havoc with your thyroid function, and ultimately slow your metabolism down. This includes fasting - while I am a fan of intermittent fasting, it can backfire on your thyroid if it isn't done properly, or your feeding window is too brief.
- Eat nutrient-rich foods. Aim for foods rich in the minerals iodine, zinc and selenium. such as wild-caught seafood, raw nuts and seeds, and plenty of fresh vegetables. These will help provide your thyroid with the building blocks it needs for healthy thyroid hormones. A good proportion of the population do not get enough iodine or zinc in their daily food intake, and Australia has quite selenium-poor soils, which can also lead to inadequate intake of selenium. This can reduce the metabolism and how effectively your thyroid hormones communicate with the rest of your body.
- Avoid exposure to toxins as much as possible. The heavy metal mercury can interfere with proper thyroid function. While seafood is important as a source of iodine, certain types of fish (such as flake and swordfish) tend to accumulate mercury more readily than other types of seafood such as wild-caught salmon, or shellfish. Fluoride (which most of us are exposed to via toothpaste and/or fluoridated water) can also be problematic for the thyroid gland, as it competes with iodine for absorption. It can be a good idea to filter your tap water, and switch to a fluoride-free toothpaste.
- Look after your gut health. If you have already been diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disease, or you have another type of autoimmune condition then paying attention to the health of your gut and microbiome (gut bacteria population) is crucial. Remember, 70% of our immune system is located in our gut, and disruption of our gut immunity is often where autoimmune diseases begin.
At the end of the day, because our thyroid gland plays such a pivotal role in our health, it deserves a bit of TLC. And keeping it happy is well worth the effort!