Your thyroid is the butterfly shaped gland located in your throat area. It plays a huge role in how your body makes and uses energy and is involved in other vital functions including breathing, heart rate and regulating body temperature. It is also involved in the regulation of body weight, cholesterol and glucose metabolism and can influence the your nervous system. However, unless it’s not functioning well, you are probably completely unaware of its existence.
The symptoms that you may experience if your thyroid is imbalanced most commonly relate to hypothyroid function that occurs when there is a slowing of thyroid function, usually due to insufficient thyroid hormone production. These include fatigue, weight gain, constipation, dry skin and hair as well as hair loss, and poor temperature control that usually means that you’re looking for a jumper even when most other people are happy in a t.shirt. Hyperthyroid function can occur as well, although this is usually associated with autoimmunity. The symptoms that can result from increased thyroid function include weight loss, fast heart rate, diarrhoea, anxiety and insomnia. Both of these two extremes require treatment to bring thyroid function back into balance.
So, what causes the thyroid to become unbalanced? There is not a simple one answer solution to this question and it’s the reason why getting to the underlying cause is so important.
Thyroid function begins in the brain with the hypothalamus releasing a hormone called Thyroid Releasing Hormone (TRH). This triggers the pituitary gland, also in the brain, to produce Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). This is the hormone that is most commonly tested by your GP; and if it falls into their reference range it is the only thing that is tested. TSH triggers the thyroid gland (remember the butterfly) to produce thyroid hormones T4 and T3. The main function of the thyroid gland is to produce these two hormones that are responsible for the regulation of metabolic processes throughout the body. For this to happen, there needs to be certain nutrients available to produce the hormones as well as the ability of the body to utilise these nutrients. This is when our digestive function becomes involved and factors such as poor stomach acid production and dysbiosis can influence the availability of essential nutrients. The main nutrient required for thyroid hormone production is iodine and this is sourced from our diet and transported to our thyroid gland via our blood circulation. Other nutrients such as iron, zinc, selenium and the amino acid tyrosine are also essential for thyroid hormone production. The production of T4 and its active form T3 are regulated by TSH, forming a feedback loop. Problems can occur if there are not enough nutrients available for T4 and T3 production leading to more TSH being produced in an effort to boost production. Often this scenario is reflected in a slightly elevated TSH reading with further investigation revealing a deficiency in T4 and/or T3 production.
Another reason for sluggish thyroid function can occur as a result of chronic stress. Anyone who has read my previous blogs will know that anything that disturbs our normal body function leads to chronic activation of our stress response and increased cortisol production. This includes infections, diet high in glucose, poor gut function, intense exercise, insonmia as well as increased mental and/or emotional stimulation. Over time this scenario can lead to reduced T3 production and an imbalance to thyroid function. Although some T3 is produced in the thyroid gland, it is also produced in other areas of the body such the liver and kidneys.
The immune system can also play a role in thyroid dysfunction and lead to destruction of the thyroid gland and serious health implications. This happens when the body mistakenly attacks cells that make up the thyroid gland causing inflammation and destruction of tissue. Of course, this greatly impacts the ability of the thyroid to function effectively and can lead to permanent changes in production of T4 and T3. Autoimmune conditions can be triggered by other infections such as viruses and they can also have a genetic predisposition, meaning that if other members of your family have autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s, Grave’s disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, Psoriasis or Coeliac disease, you may be at a higher risk of developing one. If this is the case, it is important to identify this, as treatment will be different. Testing for thyroid antibodies can help to identify if there is an autoimmune involvement to your condition.
There are many things that can be done to support thyroid imbalance through diet, nutritional supplementation and herbal medicine. Obviously, the aim of treatment is to reduce the symptoms associated with reduced or increased thyroid function, but as we can see, returning it to balance has whole health implications.
A naturopath can help you to identify the cause of your thyroid condition and support you with nutritional and herbal medicine. As well as this, they can help you to improve your diet and lifestyle so that you are improving your overall health and giving your body the best conditions to function optimally. A naturopath is a specialist in looking at the whole person and identifying any contributing factors and providing support to these areas so that the body can rebalance.