(February, 2011)“Approximately 20 million American women have some form of thyroid disease,” says nutritionist Gary Null, PhD—and a lot of them don’t even know it. While the reasons aren’t clear, thyroid problems impact women far more frequently than men.
This small gland at the base of the neck produces hormones that control the metabolism of virtually every cell in our bodies—from hair follicles to toenails and everything in between. Is it any surprise, then, that the thyroid is involved in almost all conditions impacting any part of the body—brain, digestive tract, heart, kidneys, reproductive organs, and especially the immune system?
Trouble is, thyroid dysfunction is a “great masquerader because it can deceive both doctors and patients alike,” says Dr. Null, author of Be a Healthy Woman. Because thyroid disease mimics so many other health problems, it’s commonly overlooked.
Hyperthyroidism (or overactive thyroid) causes irritability and restlessness, feeling too warm, less frequent menstrual periods (or decreased flow), insomnia, hair loss, and unexplained weight loss. Any woman with symptoms of menopause is wise to have her thyroid checked. “Too much thyroid hormone in the body can be very toxic to many cells, including the heart as well as your bones,” says Saralyn Mark, MD, in Be a Healthy Woman. Striking 10 times as many women as men, hyperthyroidism is sometimes caused by overactive nodules in the gland, which can be surgically removed.
Hypothyroidism (or underactive thyroid) is far more common. This condition can result in depression, fatigue, sensitivity to cold, painful or heavy periods, fertility problems, dry skin (sometimes with yellow-orange coloration), high cholesterol, low heart rate, recurrent infections, migraines, trouble concentrating, and unexplained weight gain. It’s linked to excess estrogen (in relationship to progesterone)—as well as numerous other chronic diseases. Affecting approximately 13 million Americans, underactive thyroid is most common among women between the ages of 30 and 50. It’s important to check the pituitary gland, as well as blood sugar levels, kidney and liver functions, and cardiovascular markers in anyone with low thyroid function.
Get an Accurate Assessment
Conventional thyroid analysis is based on symptoms and blood tests that measure thyroid-stimulating hormones (TSH) and thyroxine. But preventive practitioner Stephen Langer, MD, suspects that more than 40 percent of Americans may have low level hypothyroidism that blood tests don’t detect.
Current research links subclinical hyperthyroidism with cardiovascular disorders ranging from atrial fibrillation to death, while subclinical hypothyroidism has been associated with all-cause mortality. Subclinical hypothyroidism has also been linked to problems with mitochondrial function at the cellular level, so consider other forms of testing besides blood work—and don’t give up if you believe your thyroid may not be working properly.
If you suspect an underactive thyroid, also take your basal body temperature. First thing every morning—before getting out of bed—place an oral thermometer under your arm for 15 minutes. Keep track of the reading for five days, and share that information with your health care practitioner. A temperature of 97.6[degrees] F or lower may indicate hypothyroidism.
Also consider a test called TRH (thyrotropin-releasing hormone) stimulation, because the pituitary gland produces more TRH when thyroid production is low. With environmental toxins increasingly linked to thyroid dysfunction, you may want to do a hair or tissue mineral analysis for heavy metals and nutritional deficits. Because allergies and autoimmune problems impact the thyroid, consider antibody testing too.
Another simple, often reliable, assessment to discuss with your practitioner is a test developed by endocrinologist Guy E. Abraham, MD, to determine iodine sufficiency. Studies show that women who weigh about 110 pounds need at least 5 milligrams of iodine daily, for example. Consider Dr. Abraham’s iodine-loading test to check your levels.
Holistic Thyroid Support
Conventional medicine is cautious about treating middle-aged people with low thyroid function, perhaps because so many of the drugs have adverse effects. The good news is that nutritional supplements, herbs, and other alternative/complementary approaches are as useful as they are safe.
Take iodine, for example. This mineral is much harder to obtain in the American diet today than it was even 50 years ago, says nutritionist Nan Kathryn Fuchs, PhD, and this deficit may play a large role in thyroid dysfunction. “Water that contains chlorine, fluoride, or bromine interferes with iodine molecules and causes your body to excrete the iodine it needs so much,” says Dr. Fuchs.
“Iodized table salt contains 74 mcg of iodine” per gram, she adds. “To get sufficient iodine, you’d need to eat 168 grams of salt every day,” far more than anyone would possibly want to consume. Instead, she recommends seaweed (such as agar, arame, hijiki, kelp, nori, and wakame) available at many health food stores.
Similarly, amino acid and selenium deficits can adversely impact the thyroid, says Dr. Null. Nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, finds that copper overload (from cookware, water pipes, and a diet high in chocolate, coffee, tea, soy, and yeast) also inhibits conversion of the thyroid hormone thyroxin, slowing down metabolism. And anyone on a vegetarian diet may need more zinc to help balance copper levels.
Essential fatty acids are necessary for normal thyroid function, as are B vitamins, and antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E. Certain herbs—like motherwort and turmeric—have been found to slow thyroid activity, so they may be useful in hyperthyroidism. Black cohosh, goldenseal, gentian, and mugwort appear helpful for hypothyroidism.
Because stress is a common cause of thyroid dysfunction, work with an integrative practitioner to determine which nutritional, herbal, and/or homeopathic therapies can reduce cortisol and restore balance in your body. Adaptogenic herbs (like ashwagandha) can combat the effects of stress, help you sleep, and restore energy. Any relaxation techniques (acupressure, aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, cognitive therapy, deep breathing, exercise, massage, meditation, progressive relaxation, reflexology, and traditional Chinese medicine) can help.
Toxins Damage the Thyroid
Environmental toxins have been linked to thyroid disorders. For example, flame retardants interfere with thyroid hormones in women. Perchlorate (a chemical used in manufacturing and even some thyroid drugs) interferes with iodine uptake by the thyroid gland. Exposure to the fungicide maneb/mancozeb more than doubles a woman’s risk for overactive thyroid—and can slow thyroid function as well!
The bottom line? Drink filtered, not bottled, water. Whenever possible, eat organic foods. And detox regularly.