The thyroid is a small butterfly shaped organ and is one of the main glands involved in the endocrine system. It is found in the front of the neck and is responsible for a variety of vital body functions. It produces hormones that regulate and affect just about every function in the body and is most crucial for body metabolism. The thyroid converts the food we eat into energy. Thyroid hormones impact body weight, energy levels, muscle strength, skin condition ,heart rate, menstrual cycles, cholesterol levels, memory, emotions, mood and much more. When the thyroid doesn't produce enough of these crucial hormones, then hypothyroidism occurs and results in a variety of psychological and physiological symptoms.
When the thyroid slows down, all other organs and systems decelerate as well. Every cell in the body is dependent on thyroid hormone to activate its mitochondria and thereby energy production. Thyroid hormone also enhances the ability of catecholamines to activate their receptors. Therefore, if hormones are elevated, as is the case in hyperthyroidism, then there can be excessive activity of the catecholamines (dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine), and if thyroid hormone levels are low as is the case in hypothyroidism, then activity could be decreased.
Causes of Hypothyroidism
There are a variety of causes of hypothyroidism, which may vary from person to person. In order for the thyroid to produce one of its main hormones called thyroxin, it needs the amino acid tyrosine. Many people are deficient in amino acids; thus one of the reasons low thyroid is so prevalent. Iodine is also needed in the production of thyroxin, so a deficiency in iodine would be a major contributor. Selenium is also needed in the production process as well, so ensuring adequate levels of this vital mineral is important.
Additionally, Candida overgrowth interferes with and mimics thyroxin in the body; thus wrecking havoc on proper functioning of the thyroid gland. The thyroid is also very sensitive to environmental toxins like endocrine disruptors, which impede normal functioning of the gland. This is especially true of pesticides and herbicides, which can bind to and thus inhibit your iodine receptor. This is also true of heavy metals and other toxins like halides such as fluoride, bromine and chlorine. Essentially the toxin takes the place of the iodine. For example, in my own life, when I was younger I had been taking three grains of Armour thyroid for quite a few years due to low thyroid function. One day my neighbors used herbicide in their yard and it got in my house and made me extremely ill. Within a few days, I became incapable of taking my thyroid medication because it would result in hyperthyroid symptoms. However, I was still experiencing symptoms of low thyroid function.
A lot of the time the problem with the thyroid can lie in the adrenal glands. This is often referred to as secondary hypothyroidism. The thyroid and the adrenal glands have a very interconnected relationship and how well the thyroid is functioning is sometimes dependent on how well the adrenal glands are functioning. As a matter of fact, thyroid function is downregulated to conserve energy and get some rest when the adrenal glands are weak, because they have a difficult time dealing with the stress that is associated with normal body functions and energy production. One should never take thyroid hormones without first assessing the health of their adrenal glands, because trying to jump-start the thyroid when the adrenals cannot perform their functions adequately can cause the adrenal glands to crash and result in more deterioration in health. If you have taken thyroid hormones and ended up feeling worse in a few days or you feel better initially and then symptoms return, or symptoms persist despite thyroid hormone replacement, then the problem is likely in the adrenal glands. I've written about this issue in more detail on my hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue page, which you should be sure to read. Additionally, it is possible to be born with adrenals that are weak; there can be genetic problems that impair one's ability to produce cortisol and aldosterone.
Problems in the pituitary or hypothalamus may also contribute to hypothyroidism. For example, you may be born with a low functioning pituitary or the pituitary may be affected by viruses, autoimmunity, tumor or head trauma. The pituitary releases TSH to regulate the thyroid hormones and ACTH to stimulate cortisol. The HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals) may also become impaired due to childhood abuse and/or neglect or any other type of traumatic, stressful emotional event like a natural disaster, domestic violence, being in combat or living in a war zone.
The thyroid gland has a very complex and delicate interaction with neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are needed for the modulation and syntheses of the thyroid-stimulating hormone; while on the other hand, the production of serotonin is dependent upon the thyroid. Additionally, hypothyroidism alters the manner in which the brain uses these neurotransmitters.
Additionally, insulin resistance, which is very common in the population but most people are unaware they have it, can impair the conversion of T4 to T3. T3 is the primary thyroid hormone involved in energy metabolism, which means if it is not present you will have a lower metabolic rate, more fat storage, less energy, and impaired brain function. T4 is produced by the thyroid and the liver converts it into T3 but if the liver is insulin resistant its ability to do this is significantly impaired.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
The most common symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, which is unbearable and no amount of sleep can eliminate it, depression and weight gain. Hhowever, some of the other most common symptoms that occur include: anxiety, constipation, forgetfulness/short-term memory loss, irritability, and myalgias or arthralgias, listlessness, intolerance to cold, heart palpitations, cold hands and feet, accentuation of allergies, menstrual irregularities, vascular headaches, premature gray hair, slow pulse and reflexes, flaky dry rough skin, puffiness of face and eyes, unsuccessful dieting, coarse lifeless hair that falls out easily, nervousness, premenstrual syndrome, loss of sexual desire, high cholesterol, muscle and joint pain, adrenal fatigue, and weakness.
However, it's important to take note that many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism overlap with a variety of other conditions like hypoglycemia, hormone imbalance, adrenal fatigue, food allergies or sensitivities and more, so it is important to work with a health care provider who is knowledgeable in this area and familiar with Dr. Barnes technique I will describe below.
Before beginning hypothyroidism treatment it's important to get an accurate diagnosis. Hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) often goes unsuspected so undetected. As much as 40% of the population may be suffering from hypothyroidism because it is frequently undetected by conventional blood tests, which is the most common medical procedure used.
My doctor used what is called the Barnes basal temperature test to diagnose my hypothyroidism. This test is named after the late Dr. Broda Barnes of Connecticut who created it. Dr. Barnes spent 44 years in both university labs and private practice studying hypothyroidism and published more than 100 scientific papers on this subject. He also wrote a comprehensive book entitled Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness about his discoveries, if you'd like to learn more about it.
In his studies, he found patients where even though their thyroid blood test and physical examination of the thyroid was within normal limits, still exhibited clear-cut hypothyroid symptoms. He concluded that the most accurate assessment of thyroid function is obtained by evaluating ones metabolic rate, as exhibited in the basal body temperature and the resting pulse rate.
My blood work showed that I didn't have a thyroid problem. However, the first time I saw my alternative health doctor, he took my pulse and it was only something like 35 and that wasn't even the resting pulse. A normal pulse is 6580. He couldn't believe it and said he didn't know how I was functioning at all. I then followed the testing procedure described below and found my pulse and body temperature were always running low and I immediately began hypothyroidism treatment.
A temperature and pulse that consistently runs low may be an indication of hypothyroidism. Generally a pulse running 65 or below indicates lower thyroid function. The normal basal body temperature runs between 97.8 and 98.2 degrees Fahrenheit. A temperature running below 97.6 indicates the possibility of low thyroid function.
The Barnes basal temperature test is a simple, do-it-yourself test that you can do at home. It is accurate and requires nothing more than an oral thermometer. Here's what you do:
At bedtime shake down a mercury thermometer to 94 degrees Fahrenheit and place it on the nightstand, within easy reach. Do not use a digital thermometer for taking your temperature because they are not as accurate. When you wake up in the morning, make sure you stay in bed quietly and take the thermometer and place it securely under your armpit. (The most accurate way of checking the body's metabolic rate is with the axillary (meaning under the arm) temperature.) Hold it in place for 10 minutes and then write down what the thermometer reads. During the 10 minutes you're waiting, take your pulse for one full minute and record what this result is also.
Do this exact procedure each morning for several weeks. Make sure you do not get up to go to the bathroom or anything else. It must be done before you have any activity. You must be in bed for a minimum of two hours before reading your temperature and the reading will not be accurate if you move around or get up. Do not use an electric blanket or other electrical devices in your bed. Do not sleep on a waterbed to perform this test. A waterbed will elevate your temperature artificially.
It has also been found that a woman's body temperature varies with the different phases of her menstrual cycle. The second and third days of her menstrual cycle are when the most accurate/reliable temperature can be found. Therefore, it is recommended that you make note on your records with red pen on the days you were menstruating and make sure you perform your test during this week.
If your basal temperature consistently runs below 97.8 or your pulse runs below 65, you may have hypothyroidism. Take your results to a competent health care provider who is knowledgeable with the Barnes basal technique and discuss your findings and treatment options with them. Once again, this won't be your typical general practitioner. You'll need to look for a doctor of environmental medicine, a doctor of orthomolecular medicine or a naturopathic doctor at the American Holistic Medical Association, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, American Holistic Health Association or www.orthomolecular.org.
Hypothyroidism treatment with a natural thyroid preparation, available only from your physician, rather than a synthetic drug is the most common treatment for most people with hypothyroidism. The thyroid produces two hormones, one is T3 and the other is T4. Synthetic drugs like Synthroid only contain T4. T4 is converted by the body into T3, but for many people the body can't adequately make this conversion. Natural thyroid, such as that found in Armour thyroid or from a compounding pharmacy, is derived from porcine and it contains both T3 and T4 and is easier for the body to synthesize.
Additionally, supplementing the diet with iodine is also effective for some people when the root cause is iodine deficiency, but you want to be careful not to take too much too quickly or that is not good for the thyroid either. Iodine deficiency can be the root cause of hypothyroidism, but too much iodine can result in hyperthyroidism. Dosages should be introduced and increased slowly.
Iodine would also be called for if pesticides, heavy metals or other pollutants are at the root of the problem, as supplementing iodine would push the toxin out of the receptor. Pesticides and other toxins can cause an iodine deficiency, but on the other hand, an iodine deficiency can allow the toxins to fill up the iodine receptor.
Supplementing the diet with tyrosine can address hypothyroidism as well, when the root cause is a tyrosine deficiency. Selenium is another important nutrient needed for a properly functioning thyroid and a deficiency in selenium can be at the root of hypothyroidism. When that is the case, supplementation with selenium can improve the health of the gland. As mentioned a variety of times throughout this site, eating a diet rich in protein is important for all conditions, including the thyroid.
Preventing insulin surges that lead to and perpetuate insulin resistance that will inhibit your T4 to T3 conversion can be achieved by removing sugar, grains, starches and alcohol from the diet and eating low-carb.
Avoiding exposures to pesticides, herbicides and other endocrine disruptors by eating organic and living an environmentally friendly lifestyle is also a crucial component of the recovery path and maintaining health of the thyroid gland.
Again, working with a knowledgeable health care provider is always advised. As we see above, thyroid problems are a very complex issue with a variety of potential causes. The causes may vary from person to person. It's important to uncover the causes in your situation, because using a supplement, hormone, or approach that does not fit your unique circumstance can actually be counterproductive and produce more symptoms.