Understanding Thyroid Disorders
The thyroid gland is a key part of the endocrine system, the network of glands that regulate the body’s hormones. Thyroid disorders are common, especially among women, and dangerous to long-term health. A poorly functioning thyroid can put the person at risk for other, serious health conditions, such as infertility and cardiovascular disease.
Thyroid disorders are chronic, and often go undiagnosed. The American Thyroid Association estimates that 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid dysfunction. The symptoms are often vague and general. People don’t recognize the problems, nor do they understand the role of thyroid and its impact on overall health.
Thyroid disorders are triggered in part by diet and lifestyle. The standard American diet (SAD) and modern environment expose us to toxins, stressors and nutrient deficiencies that can further stress the thyroid gland. By understanding how the thyroid works, and how it is affected by diet and stress, we can keep the thyroid healthy. If thyroid disorders have already developed, proper diet, lifestyle changes and stress reduction can help support the thyroid. Along with natural therapies, such as acupuncture, herbs and nutritional supplementation, thyroid function can be improved and perhaps restored to optimal health.
Basics of Thyroid Function & Thyroid Disorders
The thyroid produces the hormones calcitonin, T3 and T4. T3 and T4 are really two forms of the same hormone. T3 is the active form, and T4 must be converted into T3 by other organs (including the liver, gut and muscles).
Every cell in the body has receptors for thyroid hormones, making thyroid function crucial for proper metabolism, growth and reproduction. Thyroid hormones determine how sensitive your body is to other hormones. Some of the vital functions influenced by thyroid include breathing, heart rate, body temperature, body weight, cholesterol levels, menstrual cycles, and nervous system functioning.
To keep hormone levels stable, there is a feedback loop between the thyroid and the hypothalamus and pituitary. The hypothalamus produces TRH (TSH Releasing Hormone) which signals the pituitary to produce TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone). TSH signals the thyroid to produce T3 and T4. When there is a sufficient amount of thyroid hormones, T4 signals the pituitary to stop releasing TSH.
When this feedback loop is destabilized, it can cause either hypothyroidism (not enough thyroid hormones) or hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormones) or both at once. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, dry skin and hair, depression, joint and muscle pain, heavy periods and sensitivity to cold. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include anxiety, irritability, hyperactivity, sweating, trembling, hair loss, missed or light periods.
It’s no wonder thyroid disorders are difficult to detect and can’t be diagnosed from symptoms! Many of the symptoms in the “bucket list” above could be caused by other illnesses. Lab testing under the care of a qualified health care professional is essential to diagnosing thyroid disorders. If you suspect that you have a thyroid disorder, please don’t self-diagnose. Get it checked.
Autoimmune Disease & Thyroid Disorders
Autoimmune diseases are caused by the body’s immune system attacking itself. Two specific autoimmune diseases are linked to thyroid disorders, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Grave’s disease.
In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the body attacks the thyroid tissue itself. At first, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis produces symptoms of hyperthyroidism, but as the disease progresses the thyroid is destroyed. The person develops hypothyroid symptoms.
Grave’s disease, on the other hand, produces hyperthyroid symptoms and accounts for most cases of hyperthyroid. The immune system overstimulates the thyroid, cause it to produce too much T3 and T4.
Causes of autoimmunity are not well understood. While genetics plays a role, environment, diet and stress all trigger autoimmune disease. It’s been said of autoimmune disease, “Genetics loads the gun, while diet, lifestyle and environment pull the trigger.”
Another complicating factor is that autoimmune disorders, including Hashimoto’s and Grave’s, cause inflammation. The inflammation interferes with the body’s ability to convert T4 into T3, the active form. This means that even if the body is producing enough T4, it can not be utilized.
Thyroid Disorders & Insulin Resistance: a Vicious Cycle
The relationship of thyroid disorders with metabolism is a two-way street. While thyroid disorders produce wide-ranging metabolic problems, the thyroid also needs proper metabolic regulation to remain healthy. Insulin resistance (the body’s cells resisting the effects of insulin) can cause thyroid disorders. It stresses the thyroid and prevents it from producing hormones.
Insulin resistance is a factor in metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including obesity, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. As such, it is closely related to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While insulin resistance stresses the thyroid, both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can contribute to worsening insulin resistance, creating a vicious cycle.
The main underlying causes of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are a sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, the Standard American Diet (SAD). The best way to prevent the vicious cycle, and to stop it once it begins, is with regular exercise and a diet with optimal carbohydrate intake.
Thyroid Disorders, Gluten Intolerance & Paleo Diet
What level of carbohydrate intake is optimal, and what are the best sources? While each person’s dietary needs are different, optimal carbohydrate intake is far lower than the SAD (standard American diet) that most Americans consume. The food source of the carbohydrates also matters. The best sources of healthy carbohydrates are starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, winter squash, root vegetables). These foods are nutrient-dense and are tolerated well by the body.
What about whole grains, especially those containing gluten? While a limited amount of whole grains may be a healthy source of carbohydrates for some individuals, anyone with an autoimmune disorder, such as Grave’s disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, should follow an autoimmune paleo diet and definitely avoid any grains (even those without gluten), especially during an autoimmune flare-up.
Thyroid disorders and autoimmune disorders are closely related to gluten intolerance and “leaky gut” syndrome. “Leaky gut” means that the lining of the small intestine becomes permeable to things that shouldn’t be allowed through into the blood stream. One of the big culprits in creating this condition is gluten. When your immune system finds gluten in the bloodstream, it creates antibodies to attack it. To make matters worse, gluten contains a protein, gliadin, chemically similar to the thyroid. When your immune system makes antibodies to gliadin, those antibodies also attack thyroid tissue.
Thyroid Disorders & Micronutrients: Optimal Balance
Besides the important role of healthy carbohydrate intake for preventing insulin resistance and thyroid disorders, several other micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are key for thyroid health, especially iodine, selenium, zinc and Vitamin D. These key nutrients will be discussed in Part II of this post.