According to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), an estimated 20 million Americans are currently diagnosed with some form of thyroid disease. Worse yet, it is expected that 60 percent of people suffering from thyroid conditions are still undiagnosed, meaning as many as 12 million more people may be suffering from fatigue, lethargy, brain fog, depression, or many more symptoms, without knowing why. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on some of the mysteries behind the thyroid, what it does, what external factors impact its performance, how you can determine if you might have a thyroid condition, and some ways to support the thyroid for optimal function. First, you should understand what the thyroid is and why it is so important.
What Is the Thyroid and What Does it Do?
The thyroid is a hormone-producing gland located in the front, lower portion of the neck that is shaped a little like a butterfly (see image 1). Its primary purpose is to produce the hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). Only a very small amount of hormone created in the thyroid is T3, the vast majority is T4. Once T4 is released from the thyroid, it travels via the bloodstream to the liver which converts it into T3 by splitting off one of four iodine molecules, hence the name-change from T4 to T3. Iodine is critical for the thyroid to develop both hormones and should be supplemented if your regular diet cannot supply enough.
Once converted, T3 travels throughout the body depositing small amounts of iodine and acting as a “key” to activate mitochondria in each of our cells. Think of mitochondria as the engine in your car. You can have a perfectly operational car, but unless the engine is turned on, it doesn't have the energy to perform its task. T3 is the key that starts the motor of your cells. All cells contain mitochondria, just at different amounts depending on their specific workload. Brain, organ, and muscle cells have high numbers of mitochondria, whereas fat cells have very low amounts.
When there isn’t enough T3 to activate the required number of mitochondria, cells operate at less than their full capability and don’t do their job as well. The energy that we feel is derived from the energy in each of the cells in our body, so when they are lacking energy, our whole body lacks energy. On the other side of the spectrum, if too much T3 hormone exists, it can “over-energize” the mitochondria causing them to burn out more quickly. Now, instead of having motors that can’t be started, the motors simply don’t work anymore and the cell is still without a viable energy generator. The body also experiences fatigue and low energy when this occurs. Understanding the purpose of T3 and how it interacts with the cells of our body, it’s no surprise that many thyroid diseases are accompanied by extreme fatigue and slow metabolism. The next factor critical to thyroid function is how the body provides feedback to increase or decrease hormone production.
The hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis is the main loop of systems involved in activating the thyroid to increase or slow the production of T3 and T4. The hypothalamus is constantly monitoring T3 and T4 levels circulating through the bloodstream. When it detects a dip in thyroid hormone, it signals the pituitary gland to release thyroid-stimulating hormone or TSH. This hormone signals the thyroid to increase the production of T3 and T4 until normal levels in the blood are detected. Once the hypothalamus detects normal levels of thyroid hormone in the blood, it signals the pituitary gland to stop releasing TSH, which then slows the production of T3 and T4. This relationship is important to understand because all three systems are responsible for the regulation of metabolism and external factors that impede any of the three will affect the loop as a whole.
External Factors that Impact Thyroid Function
Many external factors can impact the thyroid, thus, impacting the function of your entire body. One of the most common impediments we are exposed to is heavy metal contamination. Heavy metals are attracted to fatty tissue once in the body and hormone-producing glands are composed of very high-fat content, making them an easy place for heavy metals to deposit. The thyroid is especially vulnerable to heavy metals because it is so close to the mouth.
Mercury is one of the most common heavy metals that we encounter regularly. It is fairly well known that some ocean fish have higher than recommended mercury levels. Swordfish, sharks, and king mackerel have been found to have some of the highest mercury levels. Ideally, stick to wild-caught salmon and other fish lower on the food chain like shellfish, wild tilapia, and Pollock. According to Livestrong.com, high fructose corn syrup is a very common additive in highly processed foods that also tested positive for small amounts of mercury. The effects of mercury are cumulative, however, so even small amounts consumed across many processed products should be considered harmful. We don’t just ingest mercury from food, however, it may already be in your mouth.
Mercury amalgams used in most dental practices also present a legitimate concern. They are a danger while in the tooth since mercury will off-gas, and can pose an even larger hazard if the amalgams are removed improperly. One consistent event among many people who have Hashimoto’s and other thyroid diseases is a recent amalgam extraction. There are safety procedures established to remove amalgams, however, some dentists are sloppy, or simply don’t follow safe practices when it comes to extraction.
Other heavy metals that are very toxic to the thyroid are halogens such as bromine, fluorine, and chlorine. Each of these causes damage and irritation to the thyroid, as well as blocks its ability to absorb iodine. Poor iodine absorption directly affects how efficiently the thyroid can produce the T4 hormone, which as mentioned earlier, converts into T3 to energize most of your body’s systems.
Outside of heavy metals, radiation is the next most common factor that interferes with the thyroid. Iodine-131 is a by-product of nuclear fallout and can “insert” itself into the same receptor sites as good iodine within the thyroid. Not only does the iodine-131 block regular iodine absorption, but it damages the thyroid.
Nutritional deficiency is another major cause of thyroid dysfunction. The thyroid requires very specific nutrients to function well. If your diet is poor, or your body cannot efficiently absorb nutrients, then it also creates the opportunity for problems with the thyroid. In particular, the thyroid needs iodine, selenium, magnesium, zinc, and copper to function well. When one of those elements is missing, it leaves a "hole" for something else to fill in its place. The replacement is usually a toxin of some sort, which can not only reduce thyroid efficiency but can irritate and damage it as previously mentioned.
Vertebrae misalignment in the neck, imbalanced microbiome, chronic viral infections, and xeno-estrogens are a few other factors that negatively affect the thyroid. Now that some of the most common factors of thyroid disruption have been discussed, it’s important to highlight signs and symptoms that may indicate a thyroid dysfunction is present.
Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Dysfunction
A very important concept to remember is that the thyroid does not affect just one system in the body. Because it creates the hormone that starts the motor in all cells, a dysfunction in the thyroid will affect the body globally. In other words, if the thyroid is operating at 80 percent, every system in your body will be operating at 80 percent, so signs don’t always immediately point to the thyroid. Another aspect that makes it hard to pinpoint the thyroid as the cause of symptoms is that normal blood tests will not display abnormal results until the thyroid is operating below 70 percent of normal functionality. That means a person could be living with a thyroid condition for years where every system in their body is operating at 75 percent and doctors won’t detect it in normal blood tests. Therefore, it is important to know some of the most common signs and symptoms associated with thyroid dysfunction.
Common signs and symptoms of thyroid dysfunction are: losing the outer third of the eyebrow, chronically dry and cracked heels, brittle nails, hair loss, digestive problems such as constipation (hypothyroidism) or loose, frequent stool (hyperthyroidism), problems waking up in the morning and winding down at night, chronically low energy, anxiety and depression, high cholesterol, and expedited aging. If you think you may have thyroid dysfunction, you can request more specific lab work to determine if you do.
More in-depth blood labs can test for levels of T4 and T3 (the total hormone in the blood) as well as free T4 and free T3 (the active hormone in the blood). Normal ranges for this test can vary by age and by lab, as well as during pregnancy for women, so it is important to have a professional very familiar with thyroid conditions interpret the results. Your doctor may also test levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which is the hormone produced by the pituitary gland that stimulates T4 and T3 production by the thyroid. Additionally, your naturopath may look at reverse T3 (RT3) levels, which indicates the extent to which the adrenals are slowing hormone activity. When the adrenals feel over-stressed, they send a signal to the liver to create fake T3 so the mitochondria cannot be activated by the actual hormone. Next, testing for thyroglobulin levels is important as very high amounts of thyroglobulin can be an indicator of thyroid cancer. Finally, in the case of an overactive thyroid, there could be an excess of thyroid peroxidase, which is the enzyme that breaks down thyroid hormones. When excess amounts of hormones are produced, it makes sense that more enzymes are needed to break them down.
While the above blood tests can determine whether or not a thyroid condition is present, remember, this means the system is already working at less than 70 percent to show indicative results. The blood is the body’s lifeline and will do everything it can to maintain balance. If blood needs to rob Peter to pay Paul, it will. Then, it will rob Thomas and every other apostle down the line before it can no longer maintain balance. By the time the imbalance is detectable in blood tests, there is already a very big problem.
A very simple way to test for hypothyroidism (underactive) is to consistently take your resting body temperature to monitor the activity of your metabolism. There is a direct correlation between body temperature and the activity of the mitochondria, which you now understand is driven by the thyroid hormones. Keep a log of body temperature just before going to bed at night, and just before getting out of bed in the morning for ten to thirty days. Consistently low body temperature indicates low metabolic activity, meaning there is a very good chance you have a thyroid condition. However, there are many ways to support normal thyroid function that may eliminate the need for more drastic measures.
How to Support the Thyroid for Healing and Optimal Function
No matter if the thyroid is overactive (hyper) or underactive (hypo), the natural medicine approach is to support normal function and set the environment for the thyroid to heal. The goal is to normalize the thyroid activity so all of your body’s systems can also normalize. The first mechanism to support normal thyroid function is supplementation.
Support with Supplementation
The most important supplements to add to your regimen are iodine, selenium, magnesium, zinc, and the whole range of B vitamins. These are the key “nuts and bolts” used by the thyroid to function normally. If the body is nutritionally deficient from these elements due to poor diet or poor nutrient absorption, supplementing these nutrients can be the first critical step to healing your thyroid. Additionally, you could supplement with the amino acid tyrosine and the herbs ashwagandha and Rhodiola. Excellent mushrooms for thyroid health are shiitake and cordyceps. Finally, studies have shown fulvic acid can be very beneficial in normalizing the thyroid by increasing hormone production in hypothyroidism and calming activity in cases of hyperthyroidism.
Another great addition to one’s supplement regimen would be a quality probiotic. Probiotics improve how our body heals itself in almost every aspect. If you heal your microbiome, your microbiome will heal you. The addition of good microbes (aerobic) to your microbiome adds to the total wellness of your body and increases your capacity to heal—no matter what the condition is.
Support with Diet
In addition to supplementation, adjusting your diet can also play a major role in thyroid health. Many foods are beneficial to both thyroid function and healing. Incorporating the following list of ingredients into your daily diet can help give your body the best chance possible to normalize and heal the thyroid.
- Wild-caught salmon
- Brazil nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Culinary and medicinal mushrooms
- Coconut oil
- Farmed seaweed
- Sprouted seeds
Wild salmon should be consumed over farmed salmon when possible. Studies have shown mercury levels to be similar between the two products, however, the nutritional value gained through wild salmon is much better. Farmed salmon may also contain synthetic hormones or other toxic chemical additives in their food that would not exist in wild fish. The opposite is true for seaweed because of radiation contamination from the Fukushima incident. Japan is the world’s largest supplier of seaweed and seaweed nori sheets, so be careful about the source of seaweed products. Farmed seaweed, ideally from the Atlantic Ocean, will be the safest bet.
When it comes to the thyroid, it's not what the thyroid affects, rather, what it doesn't affect. As the gland responsible for creating T4 and T3 hormones, which activate the "motor" in every cell in our body, a normalized operation is critical to holistic health. Regardless of whether one is suffering from an under active (hypothyroidism) or overactive (hyperthyroidism) thyroid, or the thyroid is being suppressed or inhibited by another system, it wreaks havoc on that person’s life. Each day must be navigated with brain fog, lethargy, constipation, excess weight, anxiety, lack of sleep.... the list goes on. By the time regular blood tests indicate dysfunction in the thyroid, it is already functioning at less than 70 percent of capacity and affecting every system in the body.
In my book Detox for Life, I discuss in-depth how one must stabilize, detoxify, and fortify to heal any ailment in the body. The thyroid is no different. First, one must stabilize the thyroid by minimizing the external factors that can cause or aggravate dysfunction. Avoid heavy metal and radiation exposure to the best of your ability and increase the quality of your diet to ensure you are not nutrient deficient. Next, one must detoxify so that chronic inflammatory issues and thyroid disruptors are removed from the body. In the case of the thyroid, a heavy metal detox would be critical. It may not be readily recognized as a detox, but reducing anaerobic gut microbes to balance your microbiome is also critical to help with nutrient absorption. Finally, one must fortify the thyroid with quality supplementation and a diet of nutrient-rich foods. Following this three-step process will allow for the thyroid to normalize—and eventually heal.
Ultimately, the information in this article should be used to empower anyone with a diagnosed or suspected thyroid dysfunction. While this article doesn’t cover everything there is to know about thyroid conditions, it is a good foundation to help readers understand what the thyroid is and what it does, what external factors impact its performance, how you can determine if you might have a thyroid condition and some ways to support the thyroid for optimal function.
Please forward this article to friends and family so they can also understand the thyroid and how it affects the entire body. Also, check out these beneficial supplements available now that support thyroid health, Super Earth Energy, Super Fulvic Iodine, and Black Brew.