The thyroid system plays a critical role in your metabolism. Along with insulin and cortisol, your thyroid hormone is one of the big three hormones that control your metabolism and weight.
There are so many reasons for low thyroid function. At The Center for Natural and Integrative Medicine, our physicians ask about symptoms, perform a physical exam, and consider potential causes of thyroid problems. Then the key is to do the right comprehensive tests to confirm that a sluggish thyroid is contributing to a stalled metabolism and other problems. Once you know this for sure there are many ways to help correct thyroid problems.
Most doctors just check something called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which doesn’t give a full picture of the thyroid. In fact, even the interpretation of this test is incorrect most of the time. Unfortunately, this leaves millions suffering unnecessarily.
Besides TSH, we perform other essential tests including free T3, free T4, and thyroid antibodies. We also look for associated problems such as gluten intolerance, food allergies, and heavy metals, as well as deficiencies of vitamin D, selenium, vitamin A, zinc, and omega-3 fats.
Correcting these problems requires an integrative approach. It involves more than simply taking a thyroid pill. It involves nutritional support, exercise, stress reduction, supplements, reducing inflammation, and sometimes eliminating certain foods and detoxification from heavy metals (such as mercury and lead) and petrochemical toxins (such as pesticides and PCBs).
To integrate all these elements and create a successful set of techniques to cope with your thyroid problems, we recommend the following:
1: Eliminate the causes of thyroid problems.
Carefully consider things that may interfere with your thyroid function and eliminate them. As you will see, there are a good many things that can impede optimal thyroid function.
Diet is a good place to begin. Certain foods have developed a reputation for playing a role in thyroid dysfunction, but this reputation isn’t necessarily connected to the latest scientific evidence.
For instance, soy foods and the broccoli family (broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, and collard greens) have all been said to cause thyroid dysfunction, but they also have many other health benefits. Research on these foods to date has been less than conclusive.
On the other hand, there are food groups where substantive evidence supports a link to an autoimmune disease of the thyroid that slows down your metabolism.
Gluten is one of them. If you think you are having a thyroid problem, you need to do a blood test to identify any hidden reaction to gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, oats, kamut, and spelt. Gluten sensitivity or allergy can cause many different types of symptoms, from migraines to fatigue to weight gain.
Besides doing the blood test, you can simply eliminate gluten from your diet for three weeks. If your symptoms go away, you have a clue that your system might not like this food. If you want to take this self-test a step further, reintroduce gluten into your diet and see if your symptoms recur. If they do, that is another major clue.
There are other food allergies besides gluten that can stall thyroid function. We can help pinpoint these with additional specialized testing. Certain food sensitivities and toxins can slow down your thyroid.
Testing for mercury and getting it out of your system and your environment becomes crucial.
You also want to avoid fluoride, which has been linked to thyroid problems, and chlorinated water.
Checking for pesticides is more difficult, but supporting your body’s detoxification system by eating organic foods, filtering your water, and eating detoxifying foods can be very helpful to heal your thyroid.
Stress also affects your thyroid function negatively. Military cadets in training who were subjected to intense stress had higher levels of cortisol, higher inflammation levels, reduced testosterone, higher TSH, and very low T3.
Treating the thyroid without dealing with chronic stress can precipitate more problems.
A common form of chronic stress – adrenal gland exhaustion or burnout – particularly becomes dangerous for hypothyroidism. Adrenal gland exhaustion occurs when your adrenal glands are unable to keep up with the physiological needs created by stress.
To remedy this chronic stress, we encourage stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness meditation, yoga or anything else that you might enjoy.
2: Regular Exercise and Saunas
Exercise stimulates thyroid gland secretion and increases tissue sensitivity to thyroid hormones throughout the body. Ideally, you will want to sweat, and the exercise should be vigorous.
Besides being an excellent way to relax your muscles and your mind, saunas or steam baths are a good way to flush your system of pesticides that could be contributing to your thyroid problem.
Saunas are an important aid to weight loss and thyroid repair because as you lose weight, fat tissue releases stored toxins such as PCBs and pesticides (organochlorines). These toxins lower your T3 levels, consequently slowing your resting metabolic rate and inhibiting your fat-burning ability.
Detoxifying becomes an important part of improving your thyroid function. If you don’t detoxify, your ability to lose weight decreases as you lose weight because of the released toxins’ detrimental impact on thyroid function.
3: Eat Foods That Provide Nutritional Support for Your Thyroid, and Avoid Those That Don’t
Every step on your road to healing and weight loss depends on proper nutrition and using food to communicate the right information to your genes. Treating your thyroid is no exception.
Choose foods that offer nutritional support for your thyroid. The production of thyroid hormones requires iodine and omega-3 fatty acids; converting the inactive T4 to the active T3 requires selenium; and both the binding of T3 to the receptor on the nucleus and switching it on require vitamins A and D, as well as zinc. You will find these nutrients in a whole-food, clean, organic diet.
Thyroid-boosting foods include seaweed and sea vegetables, which contain iodine. Fish (especially sardines and salmon) contains iodine, omega-3 fats, and vitamin D. Dandelion, mustard, and other dark leafy greens contain vitamin A. Smelt, herring, scallops, and Brazil nuts contain selenium.
You want to avoid foods that can interfere with thyroid function. These include the aforementioned gluten. Also, choose clean sources of soy protein in moderation and avoid processed soy products.
4: Use Supplements That Support Your Thyroid
Key nutrients for healthy thyroid function include a multivitamin and mineral supplement that contains selenium, iodine, zinc, vitamins A and D, and omega 3 fats (fish oil). You will find all these nutrients at our office or our online store.
One warning is that if your adrenal glands are burned out from long-term stress, treating the thyroid without supporting the adrenal glands through relaxation and adaptogenic herbs (such as ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha Siberian ginseng) can actually make you feel worse. We therefore recommend working with one of our experienced physicians who can address individual nutrient needs for your thyroid and, if necessary, also your adrenal glands.
5: Have Your Thyroid Tested
There is no one perfect way, no one symptom nor test result, that will properly diagnose low thyroid function or hypothyroidism. The key is to look at the whole picture – your symptoms and your blood tests – and then decide.
Doctors typically diagnose thyroid problems by testing your TSH levels and sometimes your free T4 level. The diagnosis of “subclinical” hypothyroidism is often missed since many people have normal test results but a malfunctioning thyroid system.
To get a complete picture, we recommend looking at a wider range of functions:
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), the ideal range is between 1 and 2 m IU/ ml
- Free T4 and free T3 (the inactive and the active hormone)
- Thyroid antibodies (TPO), looking for an autoimmune reaction that commonly goes undiagnosed if the other tests are normal, as doctors don’t routinely check this
- Thyroid-releasing hormone (TRH) stimulation test
- A 24-hour urine test for free T3, which can be helpful in hard-to-diagnose cases
Our physicians are experienced in ordering these tests and interpreting the results. They can provide a more comprehensive picture of how your thyroid is functioning.
6: Choose the Right Thyroid Hormone Replacement
Ultimately, to properly balance a thyroid that is severely out of balance, you will need to go on some type of thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
Altering your diet and your lifestyle will certainly help tremendously, but if your thyroid isn’t functioning properly, you may need to take some additional thyroid hormones to supplement its output. Knowing what’s available and what to ask about can empower you to make better decisions about your health. A combination of experience, testing, and trial and error becomes necessary to get any treatment just right.
We have seen from experience that the majority of our patients benefit from a combination hormone treatment including both T4 and T3. Synthroid is just T4, the inactive hormone. Most doctors assume that the body will convert it to T3, and all will be well.
Unfortunately, pesticides, stress, mercury, infections, allergies, and selenium deficiencies can block that process. Since 100 percent of us have pesticides stored in our bodies, we will all likely have some problem with Synthroid.
Sometimes the only way to find out if you have a thyroid problem is a short trial of something like Armour thyroid for three months. If you feel better, your symptoms disappear, and you lose weight, it’s the right choice. Once started, you needn’t take it for life.
Sometimes, once all the factors that disturbed your thyroid function have been corrected, you may be able to reduce or discontinue the dose. As with any treatment, always work with a physician experienced in using medications to treat your thyroid.
Careful monitoring is essential. Taking too much thyroid hormone or taking it if you don’t need it can lead to undesirable side effects, including anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, and, over the long term, bone loss.
Do not lose hope. Taking a proactive approach and working with a trained physician can correct many thyroid issues. If you think you have an undiagnosed thyroid problem, call our office to schedule an appointment today