Updated: May 3, 2020
The thyroid gland produces the thyroid hormones (TH), triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), which function to regulate the heart rate, breathing, body temperature, menstrual cycle, muscle strength, cholesterol levels, nervous system, body weight and much more. Given the many functions that the thyroid hormones and gland serve, malfunction of this gland may lead to many debilitating conditions. The most commonly diagnosed malfunction of this gland is hypothyroidism.
What is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is under-active and not producing enough of the thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, required for normal body functions. Official diagnosis of hypothyroidism is evident by the level of the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), T3 and T4.
TSH is a hormone that encourages the release of the thyroid hormones free T3 and free T4. When the TSH is high that means that the gland is telling the body to release more thyroid hormone in order to achieve homeostasis. In hypothyroidism, the TSH level is high while the thyroid hormones levels are inversely low. When this happens, the body processes, including the metabolism, slow down and the body produces less energy.
In the beginning stages of hypothyroidism, the effects are mild. As a result, many individuals may have hypothyroidism without realizing it. However, as the thyroid hormone declines further, the side effects intensify and affect the individual systematically . These systematic side effects are not usually concentrated to one system of the body ( i.e fatigue and hair loss), so they are often ignored and attributed to stress or aging. As a result, about 10% of the American population suffer from hypothyroidism, with most of them being undiagnosed (Green, 2017).
What Causes Low Thyroid Hormone?
There are a variety of conditions and lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of an under-active thyroid, but it is thought to possibly derive from nutritional deficiencies (iodine), toxins, stress, genetics, radiation therapy, pregnancy, thyroid surgery, hormonal imbalances (estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, DHEA), inactivity, head or neck trauma, medications (lithium, cardiac medications, and synthetic estrogen) or an autoimmune attack.
Worldwide, the most common cause of hypothyroidism is iodine deficiency. Iodine is needed in order to produce thyroid hormones, but iodine is not readily available other than in seafood and algae. Also, there are several chemicals of the environment that block iodine and or interfere with thyroid activity, such as: fluoride, chloride, and perchlorate, mercury, lead, and arsenic.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of hypothyroidism are often vague and similar to symptoms of a number of other conditions. For this reason, it is important to look at how many of the general symptoms relate to you. However, rather you have a few or many of the symptoms, it still may warrant further evaluation from your primary care or naturopathic doctor.
Symptoms of an under-active thyroid or hypothyroidism:
Forgetfulness and brain fog
Sadness and depression
Poor sense of smell and taste
Dry itchy skin and hair
Longer, heavier or frequent periods
Tingling, numbness or pain in the feet, arms, hands and legs
High blood pressure
Feeling sleepy all the time
Unexplained weight gain
Slowed heart rate
Puffy face, hands and feet
Inability to conceive or pregnancy complications
Increased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels that will not respond to diet, exercise and medication. (Krueger, 2018)
Until the late 1940s, hypothyroidism was diagnosed based on a patient's number of symptoms, basal metabolic rate (BMR) and cholesterol levels. BMR and cholesterol levels were appropriate indicators during that time period because those factors depend entirely on thyroid function. With that method, 40-45% of the population were diagnosed and treated for hypothyroidism.
In the current time frame, TSH, free T3 and free T4 are used to diagnose hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is officially diagnosed if a person labs values show a high TSH and low T3 and T4 value. Additional testing, such as anti-thyroglobulin antibodies, anti perioxidase, DHEA, cortisol, testosterone, IGF-1, estrogen, progesterone insulin, intestinal permeability, vitamin and mineral analysis, amino acid analysis, food allergies and digestive function, can be done to rule out underlying conditions.
Alternative Approach to Hypothyroidism
According to Dr. Kharrazian, about 90% of hypothyroidism sufferers have Hashimoto’s disease, a condition where the immune system attack the thyroid gland (autoimmunity) . Therefore, any approach to treating hypothyroidism must work to correct or prevent autoimmunity. In many cases, thyroid function can be improved by avoiding factors such as stress, nutrient deficiencies, inflammation and overuse of medications. Most importantly, hypothyroidism can very well be managed at home with special attention to diet and lifestyle.
Check out our recommendations for thyroid management with herbs, foods and healthy lifestyle choices.
There are a number of herbs that contain phytochemicals that improve thyroid function. Because herbs are powerful medicines that may affect multiple hormones or interfere with other medicines, it is best to use them in appropriate quantities or under the supervision of a naturopathic doctor. Studies show promising benefits of several herbs for thyroid health.
Ginger is a great source of potassium, magnesium and zinc which are all important for thyroid function and also help to reduce inflammation. Fresh ginger is best for this purpose.
Gum guggul contains guggulsterone which enhances thyroid function and accelerates the conversion of T4 into T3 , which makes thyroid hormone more available .
Gooseberry (Indian ginseng) is an adaptogen that enhances overall health and provides a boost of energy. Being rich in iron and antioxidants, it strengthens the immune system and helps sufferers to combat factors that contribute to thyroid problems such as stress and anxiety.
Evening primrose reduces inflammation and improves thyroid function .
Bayberry is known for effectively treating Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune attack on the thyroid gland.
Flaxseeds* contain omega-3 fatty acids which improve hormone production. *They must be cooked for this purpose since raw seeds contain cyanogen which impairs the gland’s ability to use iodine.
Gentian activates normal production of thyroid hormones and regulates the rate of metabolism.
Bladderwrack (Sea Oak), is a seaweed that is rich in iodine and it is used widely for the treatment of hypothyroidism.
Ashwaghanda has shown to stimulate the endocrine system and reduces cortisol which improve thyroid hormone levels.
Licorice promotes balance within the thyroid gland and improves energy levels for those experiencing fatigue. It contains triterpenoid glycerrhetinic acid, a compound which stops the growth of invasive thyroid cancer cells.
Coleus forskohlii helps to increase the production of thyroid hormones. Also, it contains forsholin, a phytochemical that stimulates energy release from fat cells. Its action is similar to ephedrine but without the side effects.
Thyroid hormone production can be enhanced by eating the right foods that support thyroid gland stimulation. The proper nutrition can also heal the gut by eliminating free radicals that cause inflammation and autoimmune reactions. Exercise the following nutrition tips to potentiate full thyroid function.
Go Gluten-Free. Avoiding gluten will reduce your risk of leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut is a condition where the intestines become damaged from excess inflammation. Gluten increases this damage and causes undigested food particles to leak into the blood stream. Once particles are no longer leaking through the gut, autoimmune responses may go away if the thyroid has not been completely destroyed.
Reduce/Eliminate Inflammatory GI Foods. Reduce or remove sugar, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fat from your diet. They create havoc on your metabolism and turn acidic in the body, increasing the chance of inflammation and decreased production of the thyroid hormone.
Increase Plant Protein Consumption. Enjoy protein in the form of nuts, nut butters, plants, and legumes during all of your meals. Protein plays a huge role in transporting thyroid hormone to all body tissues, which helps to normalize thyroid function.
Eat Healthy Fats. Contrary to popular beliefs, healthy fats and cholesterol are necessary for health and they must be included in our diet. Good cholesterol is the precursor to hormonal pathways. Eat olive oil, flax seeds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, avocados, nuts, yogurt, avocado, and coconut milk products to satisfy healthy fat intake.
Eat Sea Veggies. Kelp, Nori, dulse, kombu and wakame are good sources of iodine which is needed to produce the thyroid hormone.
Increase Glutathione-Rich Foods. Eat grapefruit, spinach, garlic, squash, avocado, peaches, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and asparagus. They produce glutathione, a powerful antioxidant, which fights Hashimoto’s disease and boosts your body’s ability to control and regulate the immune system. Regulating the immune system protects the thyroid gland and encourages healing.
Promote Gut Health
The thyroid gland depends on the presence of friendly bacteria in the gut in order to continue to produce and serve the appropriate functions. To make sure you have enough, take probiotics or eat foods that promote restoration of healthy gut flora, which are fibrous foods (fruits, veggies and beans) fermented foods (sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, & pickles), yogurt, and healthy fats.
It is known that high levels of stress can reduce the thyroid's ability to produce the thyroid hormone. When stress and tension are released from the body, the thyroid gland works together better with the adrenal gland to produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress and other essential functions. Activity, such as restorative yoga, is performed in order to reduce this stress and tension and therefore improve thyroid hormone levels. Other activities that benefit thyroid health are aerobic exercise, Pilates, and isometrics.
A combination of diet, herbal supplements, stress management and gut healing may help you reverse hypothyroidism. The tips of this blog are to help increase your chance of positive health outcomes and potentially help you to prevent this condition. However, keep in mind that thyroid dysfunction is a serious condition once diagnosed. Alternative methods are not a substitute for medical treatment of thyroid disorder, so it is best to manage this condition with the help of a trained professional. Remember, you can be in control of you health as long as you are nourishing your body with all of the appropriate nutrients.
Green, M. (2017). American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, How to Handle Hypothyroidism: Suspect, Detect, Defeat.
Krueger, A. (2018). Peak Pure and Natural, 19 Signs Your Thyroid isn’t Working Right.
Stengler, M., Balch, J., Balch, R. (2016). Prescription for natural cures. 3rd. Turner Publishing Company: Nashville, TN.