Here’s the copy we wrote for an article for our friend’s blog, Joyous Health. It’s hasn’t been posted yet, but we thought we’d share it here as well.
Check out Joyous Health for other articles we have written on children’s health and sun protection and, as well as other great content on healthy eating and lifestyle.
The thyroid gland is a small, but absolutely essential gland located in the lower portion of the front of the neck.
The main functions of the thyroid gland are to regulate metabolism, and in younger persons, growth of bones and sexual development.
Thyroid dysfunction can occur in two ways: over-activity of the thyroid gland, and, more commonly, under-activity. This dysfunction is defined by levels of thyroid hormones under laboratory examination, meaning that a person may be diagnosed with thyroid illness without necessarily experiencing thyroid-associated symptoms.
Over-activity of the thyroid gland, or hyperthyroidism, is relatively rare, affecting approximately 1-2% of persons according to laboratory results (with fewer than that actually experiencing symptoms).
Under-activity of the thyroid gland, or hypothyroidism, is more common, affecting approximately 10% of persons older than 65 years, women more often than men, again, with fewer than that actually experiencing symptoms.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism are caused by anything that results in the thyroid gland producing excessive amounts of thyroid hormones (referred to as T-3 and T-4), most commonly:
- Autoimmune conditions (e.g., Grave’s disease, the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, in which the immune system stimulates the thyroid gland to produce excessive amounts of T-4)
- Adenomas (non-cancerous growths on the thyroid gland) that for unknown reasons, produce excessive amounts of T-4
- Inflammation of the thyroid gland (thyroiditis), which allows stored thyroid hormone to leak into the bloodstream
As mentioned above, a person may have abnormal levels of thyroid hormone detected by laboratory testing without experiencing thyroid illness symptoms. Symptoms that a person with hyperthyroidism may experience, can be conceived of as “speeding up” of body functions, and may include:
- Sudden weight loss, without a change in diet
- Rapid, irregular or “pounding” heartbeat
- Increased appetite
- Nervousness, anxiety and/or irritability
- Tremor – usually a fine trembling in hands and fingers
- Increased sensitivity to heat
- Changes in bowel patterns, especially more frequent bowel movements
- Enlargement of the thyroid gland (called “goiter”), which may appear as a swelling at the base of the neck
- Difficulty sleeping
- Skin thinning
- Fatigue and/or muscle weakness
- Changes in menstrual patterns
Hypothyroidism symptoms are caused by either under-production of thyroid hormones, or compromised availability of thyroid hormones that have been produced, by:
- Autoimmune disease (i.e., Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the most common cause of low thyroid function, an immune system condition that causes inflammation of the thyroid gland, but in this case the damage to the thyroid gland results in decreased production of thyroid hormones)
- Pharmaceutical medication use – a number of medications, including medications used to treat hyperthyroidism, can result in low thyroid function
- Radiation treatment of cancers affecting the head or neck (which may damage the thyroid gland)
- Iodine deficiency (iodine is a “building block” of thyroid hormones)
Symptoms of hypothyroidism are a “slowing down” of function, and may include:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Weight gain
- Skin dryness
- Face “puffiness”
- Hair thinning
- Voice hoarseness
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood cholesterol level
- Muscle and joint aches, tenderness and/or stiffness
- Heavier than normal, or irregular menstrual periods
- Slowed heart rate
- Impaired memory
Assessment of Thyroid Health
Usually, a problem with thyroid gland will be identified when person has some symptom listed above, and their physician orders blood testing to determine thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels.
Thyroid function responds to a “feedback loop” not unlike a house thermostat. If the blood has high levels of thyroid hormones, TSH will be “turned down” (because the thyroid gland does not require “stimulating”); therefore, low TSH levels indicate hyperthyroidism.
High levels of TSH suggest increased attempts at “thyroid stimulating”, indicating low thyroid activity, hypothyroidism.
(Relevant to fertility, the conventionally accepted “normal” range for TSH is quite wide, and women planning to become pregnant should have “optimal” thyroid function, reflected by TSH values of lower than 2.5 mIU/L to minimize risk of miscarriage).
T-4 (T-3 often remains at normal levels until much later) is then measured to confirm that thyroid function is increased or decreased.
Other testing, including tests for antibodies that may be damaging or stimulating the thyroid gland or hormones are used to identify causes of compromised thyroid function (e.g., measurement of antibody levels to confirm an immune system cause for compromised thyroid function, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis).
Practical Assessment Thyroid Function
Sometimes, a person experiencing symptoms of thyroid dysfunction will have “normal” laboratory values for thyroid hormones (perhaps because of the wide “normal” TSH-range). In these cases, a naturopathic doctor may suggest measurement of basal body temperature (BBT).
Measurement of BBT involves measurement of one’s body temperature immediately on waking over a period of at least three days. If the average body temperature is higher than 37 °C, hyperthyroidism may be present, and if less than 36.4 °C, hypothyroidism is suggested.
Natural Treatment of Hyperthyroidism
Conventional treatment of thyroid over-activity includes use of radioactive iodine or surgery, both of which are used to reduce the mass/volume of the thyroid gland, but which may result in thyroid under-activity (itself requiring treatment).
Treatment of hyperthyroidism using natural medicines can be complicated, but the starting point, specifically in immune system and inflammation-related conditions, is to remove triggers of immune activity and inflammation in the diet, using IgG anti-body testing to identify potential trigger foods. Research also supports the use of meditation for reduction of inflammation.
Once excessive immune system activity and inflammation has been managed, herbal medicines can be used to further reduce inflammation, “re-balance” immune system activity to reduce propensity for immune system “flare-ups”, and reduce thyroid hormone production.
Natural Treatment of Hypothyroidism
Conventional treatment of hypothyroidism is use of synthetic thyroid hormone, levothyroxine.
Naturopathic treatment of thyroid under-activity, if caused by immune system “attack” on thyroid gland or hormones, will similarly begin with identifying and eliminating dietary triggers of autoimmune activity and inflammation; possibly with further support of a meditation practice.
Herbal medicines can be used in the to further manage inflammation and immune system dysfunction, but also to stimulate thyroid hormone production.
A final, important consideration in natural treatment of hypothyroidism may be supplementation with iodine, providing an essential “building block” of thyroid hormones.
Poor thyroid function responds well to natural treatment, particularly in preparation for pregnancy, or combined with conventional approaches as a means of minimizing or avoiding side effects of conventional therapies.
If you suspect you may have some thyroid dysfunction, or are planning to become pregnant, it is important to a professional assessment, as untreated, compromised thyroid health can have serious consequences, ranging from deceased quality of life to vision loss or even death.
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Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) [Internet]. Mayo Clinic; 2015 Oct 28 [cited 2016 Aug 25]. Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hyperthyroidism/basics/causes/con-20020986.
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) [Internet]. Mayo Clinic; 2015 Nov 10 [cited 2016 Aug 25]. Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothyroidism/symptoms-causes/dxc-20155382.
Murray MT, Pizzorno JE. Appendix 7: Patient instructions for measuring basal body temperature. In: Murray MT, Pizzorno JE, editors. Textbook of natural medicine. 2nd ed. Toronto: Churchill Livingstone; 1999:1609-10.
Macdonald F. Mindfulness meditation linked to the reduction of a key inflammation marker: biological evidence for the power of meditation [Internet]. Science Alert; 2016 Feb 10 [cited 2016 Aug 25]. Available from: http://www.sciencealert.com/a-key-inflammation-marker-is-lower-in-people-who-meditate-research-finds.
Posted: 2016 September 13