Demystifying Thyroid Health

The thyroid gland secretes hormones that influence many aspects of one's health and vitality. Sometimes thyroid dysfunction is easily diagnosed. But there are occasions where thyroid imbalance is not detected by standard blood tests. This can leave a person feeling stuck, unsure of how to address their health needs or where they can get help.

Naturopaths at Next Wave in Hilton (Fremantle area) have a special interest in thyroid health. By working alongside your GP and taking a comprehensive look at symptoms, body temperature, diet, stress and blood test results, Naturopaths are often well-placed to help identify whether your thyroid needs some support. 

What do thyroid hormones do?

Thyroid hormones have far reaching effect on the body. They are needed for:

  • Metabolism. Overall, thyroid hormones control our basal metabolic rate.   Generally, a low thyroid function slows your metabolism and a high thyroid function speeds it up.

  • Digestion. Thyroid hormones increase the absorption of nutrients in the gut, they help  breakdown glucose and fat and regulate cholesterol levels.  They have an action on the motility of the gut too, so constipation occurs when there is not enough thyroid hormone, and diarrhoea occurs when there is too much.
  • Cardiovascular. The hormones increase the rate and strength of the heartbeat. They increase the rate of breathing, intake and consumption of oxygen, and increase the activity of mitochondria (helping produce energy).
  • Developmental. Thyroid hormones increase the growth rate of young people and play a particularly crucial role in brain maturation during fetal development.
  • Thyroid hormones also plays a role in maintaining normal sexual function (including libido and maintaining healthy menstrual cycle), sleep and thought patterns
  • The thyroid gland also produces the hormone calcitonin, which helps regulate blood calcium levels.

The thyroid produces two main hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).  The formation of these hormones requires several nutrients, including iodine, tyrosine, Vitamin C, Vitamin D3, iron and zinc. The production is stimulated by the release of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland in the brain. 

T4 is mostly inactive and needs to be converted to T3 which is the active form of the hormone.  This occurs predominantly in the liver and requires the nutrients selenium and progesterone (amongst others).

What happens when there is a problem with your thyroid?

Hypothyroidism is the term given to an underactive thyroid which produces low amounts of thyroid hormones.  The most common cause is an autoimmune disease called Hashimotos. An underactive thyroid can also be caused by nutritional deficiency, most commonly low iodine.

There are many symptoms in hypothyroidism – some of the main ones are listed below:

  • Unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight
  • Cold intolerance and cold hands & feet
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Hair loss on scalp but also on outer third of eyebrows
  • Low mood, poor concentration, lack of motivation
  • Throat and voice tenderness or hoarseness
  • Potential swelling of thyroid called a goitre

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the gland produces excessive amounts of thyroid hormones, the most common cause being Grave's disease, also an autoimmune disorder. There are several other causes of hyperthyroidism including inflammation and growths, both benign and cancerous.

Hyperthyroidism often causes a variety of non-specific symptoms including (but not limited to):

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling hot and sweaty
  • Tremor and heart palpitations
  • Anxiety / nervousness
  • Diarrhoea
  • Muscle weakness / fatigue
  • Goitre

Diagnosis

For identifying thyroid function, a standard blood test usually looks at TSH first. If the TSH is outside the reference range, then a test for Free (unbound) T3 and Free (unbound) T4 will be offered. Ideally a comprehensive thyroid test should include TSH, Free T3, Free T4, and antibodies to rule out autoimmune disease.

Interesting Fact

Diseases of the thyroid have been noted and treated for thousands of years. The first recorded mention of the thyroid is in Chinese texts circa 2700 BCE, where seaweed was used for the treatment of goitres. Iodine rich seaweed is used to this day for treatment of hypo-thyroid related goitre.

Naturopathic Treatment Options

There are many safe, effective, natural treatments to balance both hypothyroid and hyperthyroid conditions. If you have been diagnosed with an auto-immune thyroid condition, Naturopaths can help balance the immune system and reduce antibody numbers too.

Identifying Thyroid Disorder

Naturopaths can analyse blood test results and organise comprehensive thyroid testing if required.  The thyroid reference ranges are broad, and it is not uncommon for a thyroid condition to be missed with standard blood tests.  For example in subclinical hypothyroidism a person may have high Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) but normal T4 and T3.

An at-home test you can try is Basal Temperature Testing.  This involves taking your body temperature each morning before getting out of bed and charting the results to see if your body temperature is low (possibly hypothyroid) or high (possibly hyperthyroid). For a free basal temperature chart and full instructions, just ask!

Nutritional Supplementation

Because of the many nutrients required to make thyroid hormones and convert T3 to T4, nutritional deficiencies play a big role in thyroid health.  Iodine deficiency is common worldwide and has a major impact on thyroid hormone production, but other nutrients are equally important.  If you are taking medication such as thyroxine, there may be specific nutrient requirements to help the efficiency of this medication and treat the underlying reason for thyroid imbalance. Your Naturopath is trained to identify and address nutritional deficiencies.

Herbal Medicine

Stress levels and adrenal health impact thyroid function so this forms a very important part of thyroid treatment. Medicinal herbs such as Bacopa, Coleus, Rhodiola and Schisandra are excellent for supporting thyroid function. They do this by acting on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, hormonal pathways, digestion, nerve  and immune function.  

Naturopaths at Next Wave prescribe natural therapies after comprehensive assessment and consultation. We fully appreciate the benefits of setting realistic goals to meet a persons health and lifestyle needs.  If you have an existing thyroid condition there may be more that can be done to support your health. If you suspect a thyroid imbalance or have health concerns that need investigating, we can help. Feel free to contact us to find out more.

Written by Emma Chapman-Sharp (Principal Naturopath) and Sasha Wray (Naturopath and Principal Occupational Therapist)
Copyright Next Wave Therapy (2018)

Sasha Wray