Could It Be Your Thyroid?
Are you struggling to keep your eyes open, gaining weight and keep getting told everything’s fine?
Your thyroid could be the hidden problem. The thyroid is a very important butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the throat. It creates thyroid hormone, which controls the metabolism (the rate at which we burn energy) of every single cell in the body! A problem with the thyroid can therefore affect virtually all systems in the body.
There are two ways the thyroid can swing – up and down. If the thyroid is working too hard, it’s over functioning. The symptoms of this can involve insomnia, fatigue, and intolerance of heat, irritability and nervousness, heart palpitations, sweating, tremor, weakness and weight loss despite having a good appetite. Most of the time, an over functioning thyroid is caused by an autoimmune condition called Graves disease. Graves disease most commonly affects young women, and is not as prevalent an issue as an under functioning thyroid.
The thyroid is deemed under-active when it is no longer producing enough thyroid hormone. Opposite to an overactive thyroid, an under-active thyroid is similar to a slow, cold winter morning. Common symptoms include unexplained weight gain, fatigue, lethargy, depression, irregularities in menstruation, infertility, poor concentration, intolerance to cold, headaches, constipation, hoarseness of voice, recurrent infections and poor immune response… as well as low libido, dry skin, thinning hair… okay, you get the idea. You can see how so many bodily processes and systems are affected, and how an under-active thyroid is much like the body slowing right down. In a way, that is what’s happening within the cells when the metabolic rate reduces, all because this one little, often forgotten gland is not functioning properly.
In Australia, the most common reason for an under-active thyroid is an autoimmune disease known as Hashimotos disease. This is an inflammatory immune mediated process, which results in the cells of the thyroid gland being destroyed by autoantibodies (cells from the immune system that have decided the thyroid gland is the enemy, and has to go!). Over time, this inflammatory immune response damages the thyroid gland and essentially burns it out, reducing the amount of thyroid hormone that can be produced. This will leave you feeling pretty darn terrible. The problem is that signs of an under-active thyroid can easily be swept under the rug to deal with another day long before blood tests will show that something is wrong. This is why so many women that come to our clinic can’t figure out why they feel like they’re on death’s door but every doctor sends them home saying everything is fine. The thyroid may be being ignored.
As with all things, there are many factors to take into account when it comes to thyroid health, such as stress, iodine deficiency, medical history, and diet and lifestyle choices. Often there are underlying issues such as poor gut health, food intolerances and sensitivities that haven’t been addressed, and periods of high physical and emotional stress which may play a part in the presentation of an under functioning thyroid.
There are many ways to naturally stimulate the thyroid gland, and work to holistically reduce inflammation. The thyroid may not have enough of the essential nutrient, iodine, in order to convert thyroid hormone. The pituitary gland may be to blame. But, most commonly, it does come back to autoimmunity, which raises many questions and concerns on its own. Not enough is known about how autoimmune conditions develop yet, so treating the underlying cause of inflammation and degradation of the thyroid is not possible. So, although autoimmunity may be the reason that the thyroid is not working, the general approach is to wait until the thyroid is no longer responsive and simply prescribe synthetic thyroid hormone (thyroxine) to do the job that the thyroid no longer can. This can be life changing and life saving, but for some people may not be the answer they are looking for, and for many, the option to go down another path is not offered. Many don’t realise once they start thyroxine, it can take months to find the right dosage to help with symptoms. Many don’t realise a diet deficient in iodine may be the problem. Many don’t realise there are other avenues available to treat the thyroid, especially when it comes to preventative care.
I studied for several years to be a Naturopath, and have learnt a lot about the thyroid in both my studies and clinical practice, but the reason I can speak heart-to-heart about these issues is because I suffer with an under-active thyroid, and I know just how difficult it can be to get help. I was diagnosed with Hashimotos disease when I was just 18 years old. Normally Hashimotos is found at the age of 30-50 and predominantly affects women (like most autoimmune conditions, women are in a higher risk category). I have had some years to immerse myself in natural healthcare and, considering I was studying Naturopathy at the time of my diagnosis, I chose to take the natural path to support my thyroid health and do what I could to help my immune driven inflammation.
I know what it’s like to feel terrible and have no visible cause to the problem. I know what it’s like to have doctor after doctor say everything is fine because they aren’t testing the right thing. I know what it’s like to not be heard or listened to, and told things will get better with time. Unfortunately, if your thyroid gland is at all to blame, then time won’t do anything any good. I have tried many different products and ways of eating, addressed my gut health and food sensitivities, and I am proud to say that seven years later, I am still successfully managing my thyroid health naturally. So, I’m here to tell you that if you’re feeling not-quite-right and know there’s something wrong, trust your gut. Explore things further. Find someone that will listen and do the right tests.
Thyroid health is complex, but the more you know, the more equipped you will be to make informed choices about treatment and preventative care. I’m not saying the natural way is the only way. I’m saying you have a choice. I treat many women that are on thyroxine and still support them naturally. I treat many women who have decided for one reason or another not to take thyroxine, and still support them naturally. The idea here is that knowledge is power when it comes to your health.
Stay tuned in the next fortnight to understand more about these issues surrounding the development of an under-active thyroid, starting with dietary deficiency in iodine...