Recent estimates state that approximately 20 million Americans have some kind of thyroid disease. With a population of around 317 million people, that means that 1 in 15 of us have thyroid dysfunction. Even more stunning is that those same estimates state that of the 20 million Americans who have thyroid disease, 60% of them are unaware of it. That means that 12 million people have dysfunction in their bodies that they don’t know about!
The stats go on and on:
“One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime. Levothyroxine, a synthetic form of thyroid hormone, is the 4th highest selling drug in the U.S. 13 of the top 50 selling drugs are either directly or indirectly related to hypothyroidism.” (Source)
Obviously this thyroid business is a big deal, but why are so many people affected by it? Has it always been this way? What can you do to promote thyroid health?
Primer- What the thyroid is and why it’s important
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system, which controls all of the hormones in your body. The thyroid itself produces three hormones: triiodothyronine (T3), thyroxine (T4), and calcitonin. Calcitonin helps regulate calcium absorption in the body. But far more important are T3 and T4, which are really two forms of the same hormone: T3 is the active form, and T4 must be converted into T3 by other organs in order to perform its role in the body. These thyroid hormones are synthesized from iodine and tyrosine, and their production is regulated by another hormone- thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH)- which is produced by the anterior pituitary gland.
The importance of thyroid hormone cannot be understated. In fact, every cell in the body has receptors for thyroid hormone.
“These hormones are responsible for the most basic aspects of body function, impacting all major systems of the body. Thyroid hormone directly acts on the brain, the G.I. tract, the cardiovascular system, bone metabolism, red blood cell metabolism, gall bladder and liver function, steroid hormone production, glucose metabolism, lipid and cholesterol metabolism, protein metabolism and body temperature regulation. For starters.” (Source)
That is a long list! To put it another way, the hormones produced by the thyroid determine how quickly the body uses energy (metabolism), make proteins, and control how sensitive the body is to other hormones. Pretty important stuff!
There is a laundry list of diseases associated with the thyroid, but it basically boils down to having either an overactive or underactive thyroid. An individual with an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) produces too much thyroid hormone, and individual with an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) produces too little thyroid hormone. 90% of thyroid problems involve an underactive thyroid. One other common thyroid disease is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks the thyroid tissue itself. The disease is characterized by at first having an overactive thyroid and then, as the thyroid tissue becomes damaged, an underactive thyroid.
Thyroid problems are underdiagnosed (hence the 12 million people who are unaware they have them) because they have vague symptoms that overlap with many other diseases. Most medical professionals also offer insufficient levels of thyroid testing, and they rely on “normal” ranges that are too wide in the tests they do conduct.
Environmental and dietary causes of thyroid dysfunction
So why now? What is causing so many thyroid problems at rates that previous generations didn’t see?
The simple answer is our environment; everything from the food we eat to the chemicals in the air around us is entering our bodies, and our bodies don’t know what to do with this overload of foreign and toxic substances.
Here is a list of potential causes of thyroid dysfunction:
- Leaky gut/imbalances in the gut flora
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- A lack of vitamin D, iodine, or selenium in the diet
- Nutrient poor diets
- Diets containing gluten
These items are all so common that you would be hard pressed to find a single person that wasn’t affected by any of the above mentioned causes of thyroid dysfunction. And so many of them are interrelated that most people suffer from more than one. Stress leads to a leaky gut and inflammation. It can also cause metabolic problems and blood sugar dysregulation. Nutrient poor diets lack many vitamins and minerals necessary for proper bodily function, such as vitamin D, iodine, and selenium. They often contain high levels of PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids), which cause inflammation, and they contribute to imbalanced gut flora and a leaky gut. When put all together, the standard American diet and high stress lifestyle are a recipe for thyroid damage and dysfunction.
Before I go any further, I want to make a special note about gluten. I am not trying to say that anyone who eats gluten is doing irreversible damage to their thyroid or is necessarily damaging their thyroid at all. I think the decision of whether or not to eat gluten is very individual depending on each person’s level of health and how well his or her body responds to gluten. That being said, it is important to note that gliadin, one component of gluten (which I have written about here), is chemically quite similar to the thyroid, so if your body has antibodies to gliadin, it will also attack the thyroid. That is why there is a strong connection between gluten intolerance and autoimmune thyroid issues, and it is advised that anyone with an autoimmune thyroid disease avoids all gluten.
Just because someone has thyroid-like symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has a problem with the thyroid itself. What it does mean, however, is that something is going on in that person’s body that needs to be dealt with before the thyroid does become damaged. Stress, both lifestyle and dietary, can lead to thyroid symptoms, as can illness. Thyroid related problems can also be caused by the thyroid getting the wrong message from other parts of the endocrine system, such as the adrenal or pituitary glands.
Having weak adrenal glands can cause hypothyroid symptoms without the thyroid actually having any problems. Therefore, treating the thyroid itself with standard means (generally replacement hormones in the form of synthetic T4) will be ineffective. Standard treatment would also fail to help if systemic inflammation or poor gut flora, both which inhibit the body’s ability to convert T4 to T3, are the cause of thyroid-like symptoms.
It would be remiss to talk about causes of thyroid symptoms without mentioning metabolism because, while the thyroid is known for regulating metabolism, metabolic problems can also manifest as thyroid symptoms. Generally metabolic problems result from extremes in diet, such as extremely high or low carb diets, or very restricted caloric intake. Eating disorders, past or present, also lead to metabolic problems. Extreme diets such as the ones mentioned can lead to something called Non-Thyroidal Illness Syndrome, where the thyroid gland is actually functioning normally, but thyroid hormones are not being produced in the proper proportions, causing symptoms of hypothyroidism. (Source) This knowledge underscores the importance of diet when it comes to treating and preventing thyroid disease, because the thyroid and metabolism are so inextricably linked.
What to do to care for your thyroid
- Reduce stress as much as possible. Get plenty of sleep, avoid or at least minimize stimulants such as caffeine, and stabilize blood sugar to avoid the stress that blood sugar highs and lows cause in your body.
- Eat a nutrient dense diet/fix leaky gut. Consume a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats that feels right for your body and situation in life. Include lots of broth, gelatin, and other healing foods. Avoid dietary causes of inflammation such as refined flours, highly processed sugar, and industrial seed oils.
- Make sure you are getting plenty of vitamin D. Sun exposure is the optimal way to get vitamin D. If that isn’t possible due to time or climate, take fermented cod liver oil (my favorite flavor) daily to keep your vitamin D levels up. If fermented cod liver oil isn’t well tolerated, take a high quality vitamin D3 supplement.
- Make sure to consume plenty of iodine and selenium either in your diet or via supplementation. The body needs selenium to convert T4 to T3, so a selenium deficiency can cause hypothyroid symptoms. It is also anti-inflammatory. (Please consult with a naturally minded health care provider before starting a supplementation regiment, especially if you already have thyroid problems.)
- Limit the amount of raw cruciferous vegetables you eat. Cruciferous vegetables contain goitrogens, which can prevent the thyroid from absorbing iodine. Boiling the vegetables eliminates 90% of the problem chemicals. You should also avoid soy. Not only is soy a goitrogenic food, it contains phytoestrogens that cause hormonal imbalances. (Peanuts can also cause problems in sensitive individuals.)
- Remove fluoride, bromide, and chlorine from your diet and environment. These chemicals are found in drinking water, anything flame retardant, and in fertilizers, just to name a few places. They inhibit the uptake of iodine in the thyroid and build up in the body over time. In addition to avoiding these chemicals, work to detox what is already built up in your body with a nutrient dense diet, liver support and cleansing, and vitamin C. Fluorides are salts, but they are often combined with heavy metals which also build up in your body. Consider using bentonite clay internally, chlorella, cilantro, or other natural chelation methods to detox the body of heavy metals that are bound to fluoride.
- Monitor for metabolic problems. Check your basal body temperature immediately upon waking and after meals for a week or two. If your temperature is consistently below 98 degrees at any time of the day, you probably have a sluggish metabolism which you should work on improving.
This is such a dense subject and impossible to cover in one post since thyroid function affects every part of your body. What questions does this post leave you with? What is your experience with thyroid disease/dysfunction? Comment below!
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