A brand new year is the ideal time to reboot your system and commit to glowing health – and thinking about thyroid health is a good place to start.
If you often feel you’re dragging yourself through the day or you've been struggling to lose weight for some time despite eating all the right things, it might be worth considering whether your thyroid is doing the job it should.
The thyroid – a butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck – is the body’s internal motor, effectively setting the speed at which the body works. If it’s not up to scratch, you might experience a whole host of uncomfortable or annoying symptoms (see below).
The hormones it makes affect most cells in the body by increasing the basal metabolic rate, as well as augmenting heat production. That’s why people with an underactive thyroid often struggle to lose weight, feel the cold more and have low energy – along the lines of a record player playing a record at reduced speed.
Do any of these sound familiar?
· I feel tired all the time
· My hands and feet are always cold
· I’m putting on weight for no reason
· I can’t seem to lose weight whatever I do
· I’m often constipated
· My muscles ache
· I get muscle cramps more often
· I feel irritable
· Generally, I’m feeling a bit low
· My hair and skin feel so dry
· I’m losing hair at the outer edge of my eyebrow
If more than a few symptoms resonate with you, it would be a good idea to discuss your symptoms with your GP and ask to get your thyroid tested.
One of three things will happen after you have had a blood test. The doctor may tell you your results look normal, in which case no further action will be taken*. Or, if the result is uncertain, you might be sent for further testing, either immediately or for a retest in a few months’ time.
It’s much more common to have an underactive thyroid than an overactive one, and more common still for the underactive thyroid to be an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s, where the immune system destroys the thyroid gland to the extent that it can no longer function normally.
However, even with a diagnosis, many people still experience symptoms in spite of treatment.
In the UK, the first thing doctors test is Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) levels. TSH is the hormone which tells your body to produce the actual thyroid hormones. If TSH is within range, your GP is unlikely to take any further action on the assumption that the rest of the thyroid hormone-producing cascade is working correctly.
If TSH is raised, your body is working harder than necessary to produce the right levels of thyroid hormones. At this point, your doctor may repeat the TSH test in a few months in order to compare levels.
Alternatively, they might test your Thyroxine (T4) levels to determine whether or not you’re producing the right levels of this hormone.
If this level is below range, you’ll likely be prescribed a synthetic form of thyroxine to supply the body with what it is not making itself. If the level is above range, which suggests an overactive thyroid, you may be prescribed carbimazole and perhaps a beta-blocker.
*Still feeling tired and well below par despite treatment?
This is a common problem. Initially, you may start to feel better, but many patients report sliding back into their previous pattern of symptoms.
The reasons why you’re not feeling better can be complex:-
· Supplementing with T4 might not work, as what’s going on in your body might be more complicated and involve several issues
· Some people produce enough TSH and T4, but T4 isn’t actually the hormone which does the work
· Triidothyronine (T3) is the ‘work horse’ which needs to be converted in the liver from T4. Some people, for various reasons, simply don’t convert it very well
· In other cases, you might produce enough TSH, T4 and T3, but the body negates the effects of the usable T3 by making reverse T3 (rT3) – literally reversing the action of T3
· Everything may ‘look normal’, but if you’re still dragging yourself through the day, you could have sub-clinical thyroid problems. GP ranges are quite broad, so it’s easy to fall outside the limits
It’s worth knowing that regular GP testing does not cover T3 or rT3, so if you’re still not feeling right, it’s worth getting a full thyroid blood screen done privately.
Do you have an autoimmune thyroid problem?
Another vital piece of information, which often isn’t covered by the standard GP test, is for the presence of autoimmune thyroid antibodies (thyroid peroxidase and thyroglobulin). This indicates that your immune system is attacking your thyroid.
The autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s Disease (a form of underactive thyroid) is incredibly common but unless your GP tests for the antibodies, you won’t know that you have it.
GPs generally don’t test for this as it doesn’t affect their clinical management of you – whatever the diagnosis, you’re still going to be prescribed thyroxine.
However, this test is important to a nutritional consultant like myself, as the diagnosis requires an entirely different treatment protocol.
You may have high levels of these antibodies, but no symptoms of an underactive (or overactive) thyroid. The autoimmune element always comes first.
Hashimoto’s (underactive) and Graves’ (overactive) Disease affect the thyroid, but they are actually immune system disorders.
Adrenal stress - the missing link in thyroid treatment
Thyroid health is closely connected with your adrenals (two walnut-shaped stress glands located on your kidneys). If you have had any significant stress, your adrenal glands may not be performing optimally – and this is very bad news for thyroid health.
Adrenal stress disrupts the complex network of interactions needed to make the right amount of thyroid hormones, suppressing the thyroid function.
There are tests available privately for this. Unfortunately, adrenal problems are not recognized by GPs in the UK.
Addressing adrenal problems is important because the effects of stress affect energy production, fat storage (storing fat around the middle) and female hormone health.
The importance of iodine
Did you know that the mineral iodine is essential for the manufacture of thyroid hormones triidothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4)? Thyroid hormones contain three or four iodine atoms respectively. If you’re serious about fixing your thyroid for once and for all, you could consider a urine test to determine whether or not you have sufficient levels of iodine. In any case, you might like to sprinkle some sea vegetable flakes over your food as they are a very rich source of iodine.