Thyroid Dysfunction

*Author’s Note: This article is a bit technical. If you get lost, just try to follow along as best you can and I think you’ll get the drift in the end.

Tell me if any of these symptoms sound familiar:

  • Fatigue, especially on waking; less toward evening
  • Difficulty losing weight; weight gain primarily around the abdomen
  • Depression or melancholy
  • Cold hands and feet; feel chilly all the time
  • Elevated cholesterol, especially high LDLs
  • Muscle cramps and pain; Fibromyalgia-type symptoms
  • Constipation; hard bowel movements
  • Arthritis; pain in the joints
  • Poor memory; other neurological symptoms

If you said yes to a number of these parameters, you could be a candidate for something called: Subclinical Thyroid Dysfunction (STD - no relation to the other condition known by these initials) STD is a something that I, and my colleagues, believe is much more prevalent than currently thought. The problem with figuring out who has it is difficult because lab tests will most likely not reveal it. In fact, the labs that are routinely done for thyroid function actually give very little information about your thyroid metabolism. They are very effective for detecting overt disease, but tell us nothing about the metabolism of thyroid hormone at the cellular level. A very quick primer is needed so that you will understand what I’m talking about.

In response to various stimuli, your brain tells your thyroid to release thyroid hormone, or T4. T4 then travels to the liver to be converted into T3. T3, the active form of thyroid hormone, then travels to your tissues (primarily your muscles) where it essentially stimulates them to produce more energy. Most routine thyroid testing only looks at the levels of the brain hormone that stimulates the thyroid and T4. However, as I have just said, it is the T3 that does all the work. Therefore, the tests can all come back normal, but you may have a problem either converting T4 to T3, or there may be a problem with how T3 works once it contacts a cell (similar to insulin resistance - the problem that adult-onset diabetics have). One can measure circulating levels of T3, but that still doesn’t tell you how it is functioning at the cellular level So, the tests come back normal, but you still feel down in the dumps, and your doctor won’t do anything because, “the tests all looked fine”. You may have Subclinical Thyroid Dysfunction.

Or, at least you think you do - but how can you tell for sure? Well, there is no definitive test to tell you so, but there is something you can do yourself to check. I recommend that people take their temperatures at 2:00pm every day for two weeks with an oral mercury thermometer (the electronic kinds are not reliable). If your average temperature is bellow 98 degrees - you can more forcefully suspect an underactive thyroid metabolism. Again, this is not definitive, but combined with the above symptoms, it makes a very compelling case.

All right, so now you're pretty sure you have a problem. The next obvious question is: what to do about it. Unfortunately, this is where it gets tricky. Many of the standard thyroid therapies simply won’t cut it. Tyrosine (an amino acid) and iodine, the two components of thyroid hormone T4, are long standing supplements used to improve low thyroid function. However, I already explained that the thyroid is producing plenty of hormone (as evidenced by the lab tests), and that the problem is how that hormone is used; so these therapies will not work. How about the standard medical treatment of low thyroid function: Synthroid? Well, Synthroid is nothing more than synthetic T4. But, again, we apparently have plenty of T4. So this won’t work, either. Therefore, we have to turn to some other therapies that are targeted at where the problem lies.

Selenium is perhaps the best supplement to improve your ability to convert T4 to T3. Other nutrients that promote this conversion are zinc and vitamin E. Some herbs are also known to promote T3 production. These include Commiphora mukul (better known as guggulu) and the Aryuvedic medicinal, Ashwaganda. Guggulu also has the added benefit of lowering blood cholesterol.

The other potential problem is that your cells may not respond correctly to the thyroid hormone. Supplements that may help your cells respond more readily include Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids), zinc (again), and rosemary.

Another issue to consider relates to adrenal function. Your adrenal glands are your stress glands. When you are stressed, your adrenal glands receive a strong signal to “work” and become active. If you are chronically stressed, this system can go into overdrive and become overactive. Overactivity of the adrenal glands has a negative impact on your ability to convert thyroid hormone into the active form (T3). Therefore, stress reduction techniques may be extremely helpful.

A forth, and very important, issue is one surrounding the production of anti-thyroid antibodies. For various reasons, due mostly to poor lifestyle and dietary choices, our bodies can develop antibodies that attack our thyroid; sort of a mild autoimmune condition. Taken to the extreme, this is known as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. However, long before that disease sets in, there are states of functional impairment of thyroid activity which result from marginally elevated anti-thyroid antibody levels. In fact, a study recently done in Italy found the single most important factor for healthy aging and long life was very low levels of these anti-thyroid antibodies. As it happens, the best way to decrease your levels of these harmful antibodies relates back to an article I wrote a few months ago: food intolerance. Studies have demonstrated a reduction in anti-thyroid antibodies when individuals avoid their food intolerances. Of course, these intolerances are different for everybody. However, by far, the single food (or foods) that makes the biggest difference in this regard is avoidance of gluten containing goods, particularly in gluten sensitive individuals. Think you're not gluten sensitive? Think again. It turns out that up to 1 in every 120 people have some level of gluten intolerance - many, many more than previously thought. Vitamin D (again) is also useful for lowering levels of these antibodies.

If you are already on Sythroid, or are working with an M.D., you may want to ask them to switch you to Armour Thyroid. Armour is a preparation of desiccated thyroid gland. As such, it contains not only T4, but T3 and some other thyroid products as well. Some people who do not find that Synthroid makes a difference for them do very well on Armour Thyroid. It is only available by prescription.

Confused? I hope not. But if you are, try to find a health care practitioner who understands these issues and knows how to assess and handle them. Good Luck!

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