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Lee Dennis, ND

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Naturopathic Thyroid FAQ

by Lee Dennis, ND

Posted: December 12, 2013

Have you ever been told that you, a friend or family member has a thyroid problem and wanted to know more about it? Or perhaps you're just curious what it is and what it does? Below are a list of frequently asked questions about the thyroid gland - what it is, what it does and how problems can be treated using both conventional and natural approaches.

What is the thyroid?

The thyroid gland is a butterfly shaped gland that is situated in the front of the neck just below the Adam's apple. It produces two types of thyroid hormone known as T3 and T4. These hormones help to regulate an enormous number of metabolic processes in the body. In fact, the thyroid acts very similar to a thermostat. When it's turned up, the body warms up and everything works a little faster and more efficiently. But, if you turn it up too high or down too low, then a number of unpleasant symptoms can begin to develop. It is much more common to have an underactive thyroid (a thermostat turned too low), than an overactive one. This underactive thyroid is known as hypothyroidism, whereas an overactive thyroid is known as hyperthyroidism.

What are the symptoms of an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)?

Symptoms of hypothyroidism can vary from person to person, but will often include a number of complaints. An individual with low thyroid function will often feel more tired than usual. They may experience more dry skin and dry/brittle hair. As processes in the body slow down, they may begin to feel cold more often, have weight gain (or difficulty losing weight) and experience more constipation. They may also feel achy and have joint pain. Additionally, since the body and mind are intricately connected, they may have poor concentration or mental "fogginess" as well as depression. Though other symptoms can manifest, these are some of the more common ones we see.

What are the symptoms of an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)?

The symptoms of hyperthyroidism are essentially the opposite of what you see in hypothyroidism. An individual with hyperthyroidism may experience nervousness or anxiety. They may feel their heart pounding in their chest. They'll likely be warm, sensitive to heat and may have excessive sweating. They may also be hyperactive, have trouble sleeping and find themselves losing weight unintentionally.

Is there a test for hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism?

Yes. If you're experiencing symptoms of hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, your doctor will run a simple lab test to check your hormone levels and to confirm whether or not the thyroid is functioning properly. Typically your doctor will check your TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels. This is the hormone produced by your pituitary gland that tells your thyroid gland when to release more thyroid hormone. It will generally be elevated in a low functioning thyroid and depressed in an over functioning thyroid. Naturopathic physicians will also often test your free T3 and T4. These are the hormones produced by the thyroid gland itself. How these tests are interpreted can vary between practitioners, however. Additional tests may be run to determine the cause of the thyroid problem.

Can I still have a thyroid problem even if the test is normal?

Some individuals may experience symptoms of hypothyroidism even when the tests are in the "normal" range. This is not only because the normal ranges can vary between lab companies, but also because what is normal can vary between individuals. Again, this goes back to how tests are interpreted by your doctor and some doctors may not agree with this.

What causes hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism?

There are a variety of possible causes to thyroid disorders, so let's look at the most common. One of the most common causes is autoimmunity. This occurs when the body's immune systems makes antibodies against the thyroid gland. When the attack results in hypothyroidism, it's known as Hashimoto's disease. On the other hand, if autoimmunity leads to hyperthyroidism, it's known as Grave's disease. Which disease manifests depends on the type of antibody produced and where/how it affects the thyroid gland. Another cause of thyroid problems is nutrient deficiencies. Iodine deficiency tends to be more of a problem world-wide than in the United States. Since iodine is a part of thyroid hormone, a deficiency in this nutrient can lead to hypothyroidism. Other nutrient deficiencies may also be involved with thyroid problems.

What is a goiter?

A goiter occurs when certain receptors on the thyroid gland are stimulated. These receptors are generally stimulated by TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) produced by the pituitary. If the pituitary is producing excess TSH, which often occurs when the thyroid isn't functioning properly, the thyroid responds by making more cells to make more thyroid hormone. This causes the gland itself to enlarge. This enlargement is known as a goiter. It can occur in both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

How is hypothyroidism treated?

Hypothyroidism is typically treated by replacing or supplementing the body's own thyroid hormone with a synthetic version or dessicated pig thyroid.

Is synthetic thyroid hormone safe?

Unlike many of the hormones found in birth control pills and used in estrogen hormone replacement therapy, all synthetic thyroid hormone is bio-identical. This means that it is identical to the thyroid hormone produced by your own body. This makes thyroid hormone generally incredibly safe when it is used properly and in the correct dose. If the dosage is too high, one may experience symptoms of hyperthyroidism. But, this can be corrected by simply lowering the dose. Even though synthetic thyroid hormone is safe, some individuals respond better to dessicated thyroid. This may be due to the fact that dessicated thyroid contains more than just T4 (the hormone typically found in synthetic thyroid prescriptions).

Are there any natural treatments for hypothyroidism?

Yes. There are a number of natural therapies and supplements that may help an individual with hypothyroidism.

Nutrients: A number of different nutrients are required for thyroid hormone to function properly in the body. Many of these nutrients, or co-factors, are used by enzymes in the thyroid gland and elsewhere to make, metabolize and utilize thyroid hormone. Some of these include tyrosine, iodine, zinc, copper, selenium, vitamins E, A, B2, B3, B6 and C and essential fatty acids. Supplementing one or several of these co-factors can often make a huge difference in certain cases. Which nutrients to use will depend on the individual and the specific cause of hypothyroidism.

Diet: Elimination of allergenic foods may be of benefit to certain individuals, especially those with low thyroid function due to autoimmune problems. Gluten is a specific one to watch for. Additionally, certain foods, known as goitrogens, have been found to decrease thyroid function when consumed in large amounts. These include many cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, as well as soy. For many of these goitrogens, cooking will eliminate the anti-thyroid activity. Take note that normal amounts of these foods, raw or cooked, are generally not an issue, but only become a problem in excessive amounts or in combination with certain nutrient deficiencies.

DHEA: DHEA is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland that may be helpful in cases of autoimmune hypothyroidism (Hashimoto's).

Detoxification: Detoxification can be helpful if low thyroid function is due to autoimmunity. This can be achieved through dietary changes and nutrient/herbal supplementation.

Exercise: Exercise in itself can help to increase metabolism and improve thyroid function.

Guggul: Guggul (Commiphora mukul) is an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine that can help to stimulate the thyroid gland and may be useful in mild cases of hypothyroidism.

Bladderwrack: Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosis) is a type of seaweed that is especially high in iodine and is most indicated when low thyroid function is due to iodine deficiency.

How is hyperthyroidism treated?

Certain medications can be used to temporarily manage hyperthyroidism and the associated symptoms. These may include anti-thyroid drugs, such as methimazole or propylthiouracil, which work to prevent the thyroid from making thyroid hormone, or drugs to relieve some of the symptoms such as beta-blockers (propranolol) or calcium channel blockers (verapamil and diltiazem). If hyperthyroidism fails to resolve on its own, ablative therapy may be necessary. This involves using drugs or surgery to destroy all or part of the thyroid gland. Individuals are then usually required to take a thyroid hormone prescription to replace the function of the thyroid.

Are there natural treatment options for hyperthyroidism?

Yes. The following are some naturopathic treatment options for hyperthyroidism.

Stress Management: Decreasing stress is huge for preventing and treating hyperthyroidism. This can be many things including regular, full night's sleep, avoidance of stress triggers, meditation, progressive relaxation and various breathing techniques.

Diet: Avoidance of all stimulants is a must. This includes anything that contains caffeine such as coffee, tea and chocolate. As mentioned previously, certain foods can decrease thyroid function, so they may be useful in hyperthyroidism. These include turnips, cabbage, rutabagas, mustard, rapeseeds, cassava root, soybeans, peanuts, pine nuts and millet. These will likely only be helpful in mild cases and would need to be consumed raw and in large amounts. Avoidance of iodine containing foods, such as iodized salt and various seaweeds, may also be recommended.

Nutrients: Many nutrients can help to prevent some of the more dangerous complications of hyperthyroidism (including muscle and heart damage). These include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, calcium, zinc, carnitine and coenzyme Q10. Restriction of iodine may be recommended.

Herbs: A common botanical formula for hyperthyroidism may include bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus or Lycopus europaeus), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and motherwort (Leonurus cardiac). Bugleweed is a specific herb for this condition and may help to actually decrease T3 levels and help to provide symptomatic relief combined with lemon balm and motherwort.

Should I be worried about radioactive iodine from nuclear power plants?

There should only be concern about radioactive iodine within a few weeks after there is an incident at a nuclear power plant. This is because radioactive iodine has a half-life of about 8 days. This means if you have 2 grams of radioactive iodine, about half of it (1 gram) will have decayed into another element in 8 days. Potassium iodide tablets can protect your thyroid against radioactive iodine, but are generally only useful or necessary in the first 2 weeks following an incident and will not protect your body from the effects of other harmful radioactive substances such as cesium, strontium or plutonium.


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