What is the thyroid and could it be affecting your overall wellbeing?

WORDS: Jessica Scott-Young | Nutritionist

Feeling sluggish?
A bit fatigued?
Struggling to lose weight?
Noticed your hair is thinning or falling out?

These are all signs it could be time to get your thyroid checked.

May is Thyroid Awareness Month so what better time to discuss a topic that is near to my heart, and something I work with regularly in the clinic – thyroid health.

Thyroid dysfunction is the second most common endocrine condition affecting women of reproductive age. Statistics show that well over 1 million Australians are living with an undiagnosed thyroid disorder, with over 60,000 new cases diagnosed within Australia each year. Australian women are more likely to be affected by thyroid conditions than men.

You may be wondering, what is the thyroid, how do I know if I have an issue with mine and what can I do to get things back on track? Let’s start with the basics…

THYROID 101

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland, located just above the Adam’s apple in the neck.

Image source: Tara Nelson, ‘Thyroid Practitioner Level One Training’

The thyroid gland is an integrative part of the endocrine system, working alongside the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals, parathyroid, pancreas, gonads and the gut.

The pituitary gland is responsible for secreting thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which stimulates the production of thyroxine (T4) and small amounts of triiodothyronine (T3) which are required in an ideal 3:1 ratio for healthy thyroid function. With the right nutrients and conditions, the body then converts T4 into the active form, T3.

In times of increased stress, autoimmunity and nutrient depletion, the conversion of T4 to T3 becomes compromised and we see T4 stunted off down different pathways (hello, reverse T3), causing an issue with the conversion of active thyroid hormone available to the body. This is when we start to see different forms of thyroid dysfunction arise.

The transport of thyroid hormones into the cell is largely dependent on energy and therefore mitochondrial function. Therefore, in order to have a healthy thyroid, we also need healthy, well-functioning mitochondria (our cellular energy powerhouse). This is why excessive fatigue is often a tell tale sign that something is wrong at a cellular level.

The thyroid acts as both a hormonal gland and regulatory organ, playing a major role in metabolism and cellular growth and maturation of cells within the body. Think of the thyroid as your body’s ‘master controller’ – it makes sure everything in the body is working, ensures a steady stream of hormones is released into the body, telling the organs what to do and monitoring what needs to be brought back into balance.

So when the thyroid starts to go awry, it is time to look at what is likely to be causing this dysfunction and support both the thyroid and other bodily systems to get back on track.

SIGNS/ SYMPTOMS OF THYROID DYSFUNCTION

Given how interlinked the thyroid is with other parts of the endocrine system, it’s not surprising that when the body is under stress, the thyroid presses ‘pause’ and starts to slow down metabolic processes. This is when we see the most common form of thyroid dysfunction, hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is an underactive thyroid that creates a slowing of the metabolic processes within the body.

When the thyroid is underactive, you may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight management issues – difficulty losing weight or unexplained weight gain
  • Thinning or loss of hair in women
  • Constipation
  • Increased sensitivity to cold, especially to hands and feet
  • Recurrent infections
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Recurrent miscarriages
  • Infertility
  • Loss of libido
  • Depression
  • Dull/ dry skin
  • Brain fog
  • Throat issues – hoarseness, voice changes, constant sore throat
  • Increased cholesterol levels ands triglycerides
  • Decreased lymphatic drainage e.g puffiness/ puffy face
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Loss of outer ⅓ of eyebrows
  • Fibromyalgia

COMMON CAUSES OF DYSFUNCTION

What causes the thyroid to slow down and become underactive?

  • Stress – chronic emotional or physiologic stress can cause a significant reduction of transport of T4 into the cells of the body
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction e.g insulin resistance, diabetes, chronic infection, chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Increased gut permeability e.g coeliac disease
  • Food intolerances
  • Excess fasting
  • Calorie restriction – chronic dieting over a lifetime
  • Chronic illness or infection
  • HPA dysfunction (drive by emotional and physical dysfunction)
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Environmental toxin exposure
  • Mould exposure
  • Pregnancy/ postpartum depletion
  • Iodine deficiency
  • Inflammation
  • Nutrient deficiencies

TESTING

Test don’t guess! With the assistance of a qualified health practitioner (doctor, nutritionist, naturopath etc) you can obtain the pathology required to help piece together your thyroid puzzle. Basic thyroid panels can be obtained through a blood test screening for TSH, T4, T3. Checking reverse T3 is important as it can be an indicator of cellular hypothyroid. Screening for antibodies allows an understanding into whether or not there is an autoimmune element contributing to thyroid dysfunction.

DIET

Eating a nutrient-dense wholefood diet is the key to nourishing a healthy thyroid!

Here are my top tips for supporting your thyroid health:

  1. Ditch gluten – restoring thyroid health means reducing inflammation within the body. For anyone with an autoimmune condition, gluten should be a no-go zone. Removing gluten from the diet can reduce antibodies and improve symptoms
  2. Eat pate – liver is rich in protein and is a great source of iron, zinc, vitamin A, selenium and B vitamins, which are important for the creation of thyroid hormones
  3. Enjoy wholefood carbs – T3 is carbohydrate dependent so do not go low carb! The thyroid needs good, ‘gentle carbs’ for active T3. Think cooked root vegetables (sweet potato, potato, pumpkin, beetroot) and cooked/ cooled rice (great resistant starch)
  4. Avoid raw goitrogenic foods –  goitrogens are compounds found in foods that block the uptake of iodine. These include brassica family (cabbage, kale, turnip, cauliflower, brussel sprouts), cassava, soybean, millet, peanuts. Cooking these foods usually deactivates the goitrogens. This means no raw kale smoothies!
  5. Season your foods with seaweed – seaweed is nature’s source of iodine. Good sources include: dulse flakes, wakame, aramea, nori, kombu. A sprinkle every other day is a great way to boost your iodine intake naturally
  6. Eat 6 brazil nuts per day – brazil nuts are rich in selenium, a trace element mineral that is often lacking in our daily western diets
  7. Eat organic – organic produce is grown in soils that contain more trace minerals which are needed for thyroid hormone production and activation

LIFESTYLE

Addressing stress and lifestyle factors is a key part in regulating metabolic health and restoring thyroid function. Here are three simple techniques you can implement today to support your thyroid health:

  1. Basal body temperature tracking – BBT tracking is a simple, at-home, low cost (aka free) way to check your basal body temperature. A low resting metabolic rate and body temperature can be a sign of underactive thyroid function. All you need is a digital thermometer. Simply place a digital thermometer under the tongue first thing in the morning before getting out of bed and record your temperature on our Ahara Health BBT tracker. Monitor for 3-6 months. A morning reading consistently below 36.5 may indicate hypothyroid. A reading consistently over 36.9 may indicate hyperthyroid. A spiky reading may indicate cortisol issues
  2. Daily stress management techniques – incorporating practices into your regular routine that support your nervous system and reduce stress are key to thyroid and hormonal health. Try meditation, mindfulness, yoga, swimming, gardening etc
  3. Morning ocean swims – cold water therapy is great for stimulating thyroid function! If you can’t get in the ocean, try a 30 second cold water blast at the end of your morning shower

If you want support investigating your thyroid health please book in a consultation with one of our practitioners. Based on your health history and symptom profile, we can recommend additional pathology (if required), dietary interventions and lifestyle changes to help support your individual health needs.

REFERENCES:

Briden L, 2022, The Most Common Cause of Weight Gain, New Zealand, viewed 16 May 2022,

            <https://www.larabriden.com/gentle-carbs-for-gaba-cortisol-and-adrenal-health/>

The Australian Thyroid Foundation, 2021, Hypothyroidism & Hashimotos-Disease, Australia, viewed 17 May 2022,

            <https://www.thyroidfoundation.org.au/Hypothyroidism-&-Hashimotos-Disease/>

The Australian Thyroid Foundation, 2021, Thyroid Facts – Definitions, Australia, viewed 17 May 2022,

<https://www.thyroidfoundation.org.au/Definitions>

Nelson T, 2022, Cellular Hypothyroidism: Solutions For Symptomatic Patients With Normal Pathology, Designs for Health, Australia, viewed 16 May 2022,

<https://designsforhealth.com.au/cellular-hypothyroidism-webinar/>

Nelson T, 2021, Level 1 Thyroid Practitioner Training: Anatomy and Physiology – Thyroid 101, Tara Nelson, Australia, viewed 16 May 2022,

<https://more.taranelson.com.au/level-one-thyroid/post/3>

Pizzorno JE Jr., Murray MT, Joiner-Bey H, 2016, The Clinician’s Handbook of Natural Medicine, 3rd  edn. Churchill Livingstone- Elsevier, St. Louis, Missouri

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