Your body burns food rather like a car burns fuel. Just as the accelerator regulates how much fuel gets to the engine of the car, so your thyroid regulates how quickly your body uses food.
Because of its function as a fuel regulator, your thyroid gland is responsible for maintaining your energy levels and regulating your weight. It performs these functions by secreting the hormones thyroxine (also called T4) and triidothyronine (also called T3). These are the hormones that tell your body how fast to burn calories. Most T3 is converted from T4 (itself an inactive hormone), and the production of both T3 and T4 is regulated by another hormone called TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone or thyrotrophin), which is made in the pituitary gland in the brain.
With the right amount of thyroid hormones, your body burns fuel at the optimum rate, and you’ll have plenty of energy. You’ll also have a constant body temperature and a regular heart rate and menstrual cycle. When you have too little T4 in your blood, your thyroid gland is said to be underactive – a condition known as hypothyroidism. This can happen as a result of an auto-immune disorder, a congenital abnormality in the thyroid gland (present at birth), or a nutritional iodine deficiency (the body needs iodine to manufacture thyroid hormones). Alternatively, if your pituitary under-products TSH, your thyroid isn’t stimulated to create T4, and this can be another cause. Left untreated, hypothyroidism puts you at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, emphysema, arthritis, depression, migraine, and carpal tunnel syndrome (a condition in which you experience pain, tingling, or numbness in the wrist). See your doctor immediately if you suspect that an underactive thyroid may be affecting you.
A poor diet, stress, inactivity, smoking, antibody attack, and certain drugs can all influence the functioning of your thyroid. There are certain symptoms that may indicate an underactive thyroid condition when they appear together. If four or more of the following apply to you, visit your doctor right away.
• Have you put on weight despite keeping to your eating and exercise patterns?
• Do you often feel cold, even when the weather is warm?
• Do you suffer from constipation?
• Is your mood low?
• Do you suffer from irregular periods?
• Is your hair thinner and drier than before?
• Do you suffer from fatigue?
• Does your skin feel much drier than usual?
Blood test If you ticked the above in at least four of the questions in the checklist, you should ask your doctor to test you for an underactive thyroid. Normal levels of TSH and T4 in your blood indicate your thyroid is working properly. If your results are borderline normal (only just within the normal range), your doctor will take into account your symptoms when deciding whether or not you should be treated for an underactive thyroid.
Basal body temperature If your blood test comes back normal but you continue to have all the symptoms of an underactive thyroid, we would suggest you take your temperature over the course of three days. This is because if the problem doesn’t lie with your thyroid itself but with the cells in your body that are supposed to latch on to your thyroid hormones, you don’t have a full-blown thyroid problem. However, you may have a slow metabolism, which can show up as a low body temperature.
For accurate measurement, use an electronic thermometer. During your menstrual cycle, your temperature rises after ovulation, which will affect your reading. Take your temperature on the second, third, and fourth days of your menstrual cycle to avoid this anomaly. On the first day, note the reading for that day, even before you get up. This is your basal body temperature, which is your body temperature when you’re resting. Over the following two mornings, take your basal body temperature in exactly the same way, first thing in the morning. If you find that your average basal body temperature is below 97.6 °F, your thyroid could be sluggish. (If your temperature is much lower than this, ask your doctor to repeat your blood test, as this suggests your thyroid is underactive).
If a blood test reveals an underactive thyroid, your doctor is likely to offer you the standard treatment for hypothyroidism, which is the drug thyroxine. It may take a few months for your doctor to establish the correct dosage – he or she will test and, around three months later, retest for hormone levels in your blood until the balance is right. After that, you’ll be asked to repeat the blood test at regular intervals (usually six monthly to a year) to make sure that the dosage doesn’t need to alter in any way.
If you doctor does prescribe thyroxine, be sure to avoid taking iron supplements, and any vitamins and minerals supplements containing iron, at the same time of day that you take the thyroxine. This is because iron seems to bind to the thyroxine so that the body can’t use it. Natural sources of iron don’t trigger problems with thyroxine medication, so you can still keep eating plenty of iron-rich foods, such as leafy green vegetables and dried fruit.
Other than following the hormone-balancing diet, guidelines, it’s important to stock up iodine-rich foods – in particular seaweed (which also has anti-cancer benefits and the ability to reduce cholesterol and improve fat metabolism in the body), as well as cod, prawn and tuna. Iodine is an essential component of the thyroid hormones, and deficiency has been directly linked to hypothyroidism because it hampers the body’s production of T4. When the pituitary gland recognizes that levels of T4 are low in the blood, it produces more TSH. If your TSH levels stay too high for too long, the thyroid gland can become enlarged to produce a goiter.
Goitrogens are foods that can hinder the uptake of iodine in the blood, which can then make an underactive thyroid worse. In their raw state cabbage, turnips, soy, peanuts, and pine nuts are all classed as goitrogens. However, after cooking, the problem disappears, so you needn’t avoid these foods altogether. If you suffer from hypothyroidism, you can benefit from all their healthy properties, but only once they’re cooked.
• Manganese This is an important mineral for healthy thyroid function because it’s needed for the efficient production of T4.
• Selenium is a vital component of the enzyme that helps trigger the creation of the thyroid hormone T3, so it’s essential that your levels of this mineral (found naturally in the soil, and also in shellfish and Brazil nuts) are optimum.
• Omega-3 Fatty Acids Essential fats are crucial for healthy thyroid function because they help keep cells more fluid, which means that they are more sensitive to thyroid hormones and respond more effectively. (Take flax seed capsules if you’re vegetarian).
• Tyrosine This amino acid plays an important role in the healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, improving metabolism and suppressing appetite.
Homeopathy Take Arsenicum 30c twice daily for up to five days, then wait two months and ask your doctor to assess the levels of thyroid hormone in your blood. If there’s no improvement, consult a registered homeopath. Arsenicum is believed to help improve the thyroid’s ability to manufacture hormones.
Acupuncture You may find this therapy helpful if you have an underactive thyroid and thyroid antibodies that show your immune system is attacking your thyroid cells. An acupuncturist will use moxibustion (burning the herb mugwort near your skin) to reduce the levels of thyroid antibodies and try to help recover proper thyroid function.
Traditional Chinese Medicine A study at the Shanghai Medical University treated 32 patients with hypothyroidism for a year with a Chinese herbal preparation to stimulate the kidney meridian. The clinical symptoms of hypothyroidism were said to be markedly improved compared with a control group. You’ll need to visit a qualified practitioner to see if this treatment could work for you.
Aromatherapy Geranium essential oil is thought to help balance the thyroid hormones. Place 5 drops of the oil in your bath and soak in it for 20 minutes. Try to do this every day. Alternatively, you could dilute 5 drops of the oil in 2 tsp. sweet almond oil and massage it into your skin in any way you find soothing.
De-stress your life Stress (along with high levels of inactivity and smoking) can encourage thyroid under- activity because stress raises your body’s blood levels if the hormone cortisol, which in turn reduce levels of T3, slowing your metabolism right down.
If there are high levels of cortisol in your body, your muscles will begin to break down to provide fuel (in the form of glucose) to your brain. The less muscle you have, the slower your metabolism (and equally, the more muscle you have the faster your metabolism, which is why exercise is so important for general good health). To make matters worse, high cortisol levels inhibit the production of TSH from the pituitary gland, so the thyroid fails to be stimulated to produce T4. So, if you suffer from an underactive thyroid, relaxation time is essential. Take time out to do the things you love – whether that’s reading, walking, painting, or simply sitting and watching the world go by. Make relaxation an important part of your daily life. Schedule it in if need be, and make sure you stick to it.