THe beautiful butterfly-shaped thyroid
The thyroid gland is a delicate, butterfly-shaped organ that sits in the front of the neck. It makes up part of our endocrine system and produces hormones that regulate metabolism, body temperature and energy levels.
The thyroid is quite specific in regards to its nutritional demands. Thyroid hormones are composed of the amino acid tyrosine and the mineral iodine. Iron, zinc and selenium are also required cofactors in the building and activation of thyroid hormones. Without these nutrients, the thyroid simply cannot produce thyroid hormones in an efficient manner.
Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function)
Hypothyroidism is the more common thyroid dysfunction that occurs and it primarily affects women. There are various factors that contribute to hypothyroidism including nutrient deficiencies, excessive intake of goitrogen foods, chemical exposure, heavy metals (mercury in particular) and autoimmune disease.
The signs and symptoms of low thyroid function include:
fatigue and lack of energy
brain fog and difficulty with concentration
unexplained weight gain
intolerance to cold or heat
changes to menstrual cycle - heavier bleeding and irregular periods are most common
dry skin, dry coarse hair and puffy face
The above list of symptoms are very general and are not exclusive to hypothyroidism. For a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, you will need to have blood tests done to check the level of stimulation your thyroid is receiving (TSH level) and the level of thyroid hormones being produced (free T3 and free T4). Thyroid auto-antibodies will also be screened for if autoimmune disease is suspected. Medical treatment of hypothyroidism is generally a prescription of thyroid hormone replacement medication Thyroxine.
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
Hyperthyroidism is a less common thyroid condition, in which there is excessive production of thyroid hormones. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is an autoimmune condition known as Grave's disease. Other causes include thyroiditis, multinodular goitres, toxic thyroid adenoma, and excessive intake of iodine or thyroid hormone medications.
Signs and symptoms of an overactive thyroid:
weight loss (despite increase appetite)
excessive sweating and increased thirst
a tendency to diarrhoea
palpitations and tremor
nervousness and/or anxiety
orbitopathy - bulging eyes and double vision
While the signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism are more specific, a blood test is still required for accurate diagnosis. The treatment for hyperthyroidism is more complex as there are a number of medications and surgery options, the use of which will depend on the underlying cause. Medical management of hyperthyroidism focuses on reducing the excessive levels of circulating thyroid hormones. Untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to thyrotoxicosis, which may have serious health consequences such as increased risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular events as well as development of osteoporosis.
Natural management of thyroid disease
Nutrition, herbal medicine and changes to lifestyle behaviours can provide great support in the management of thyroid conditions. Often, medications are needed long term, however specific nutrients and herbs can be safely prescribed along side conventional treatments. Treating the gut and reducing systemic inflammation are two of the key naturopathic treatment approaches in addressing any autoimmune disease. Correcting nutritional deficiencies (in particular selenium and zinc) can help bring the immune system back into balance. And of course, feeding our microbiome with loads of plant foods will go a long way in restoring healthy thyroid function.