Thyroid. You’ve heard the word before. It may have come up in a conversation with friends about weight gain or stubborn weight loss, or maybe your doctor mentioned it when reviewing your last round of bloodwork. But what is it really? And why should you care about it?

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What if I told you the effects of your thyroid went far beyond your ability to gain or lose a few pounds? What if I told you that every single cell in the body has receptors for thyroid hormones and that thyroid hormones directly impact your brain function, gut health, blood sugar control, hormonal health, cardiovascular system, cholesterol metabolism and immune system?

Oh, and that’s just the beginning. Symptoms of thyroid conditions vary widely, from weight gain, hair loss, and constipation to infertility, premature aging, fatigue, muscle pain, brain fog and depression.

Think of your thyroid as the conductor of a symphony. Its baton is its hormone. The orchestra is made up of your organs. If the conductor makes a mis- take with her baton it can affect every instrument in the orchestra. When the thyroid goes off-page and releases the wrong amount of hormone, a seemingly unrelated array of symptoms can occur in the body. Bottom line: Your conductor needs to be on her game.

But thyroid problems often begin well before a diagnosis is made, so it’s important to know what is bad for the thyroid, and what you can do to keep it healthy.

Let’s start with some basic thyroid bio- chemistry. The thyroid sets the body’s base metabolic rate, the amount of energy a person uses when doing nothing. It does this by secreting the thyroid hormones T3 and T4. T3 is largely responsible for activating the cells of the body.

Your thyroid knows how much T3 and T4 to produce because of a “mes- sage” called TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) it receives from the pituitary gland in the brain. The pituitary gland senses T3 and T4 levels in the body. Too low or too high and it will adjust your TSH accordingly. We call this communication between glands a feedback loop. This system is constantly working to keep your thyroid hormones conducting the sym- phony of your body.

When the thyroid isn’t working properly, it doesn’t release the right amount of thyroid hormone. Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid doesn’t release enough hormone and the pituitary gland releases an abnormally high level of TSH in response. Hyperthyroidism occurs when there is too much thyroid hormone circulat- ing through the body and the thyroid receives an abnormally low amount of TSH from the pituitary. Hypothyroidism is the more common of the two in Canada.

Most people are surprised to learn that the body’s own immune system can produce antibodies that attack the thyroid. Over time, this can destroy the glands’ ability to produce thyroid hormone. Studies show that up to 90% of hypothyroid cases are caused by this type of autoimmune attack, called Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.

As a naturopathic doctor I am always exploring the cause of symptoms and conditions with my patients. Only then will we know how to prevent and ultimately treat the problem. I see many patients with thyroid concerns and the first thing we explore together is what could have caused the thyroid dysfunction in the first place. Most often testing reveals that autoimmunity is the culprit. We then focus not only on supporting the thyroid, but, more importantly, on calming and balancing the immune system. But let’s back up and ask, “What could cause the thyroid, and most often the immune system, to fall out of tune?”

Research points to many factors that can contribute to thyroid malfunction: Genetics; diet; gut health; environmental factors including pesticides, heavy metals and tobacco smoke; age; and hormonal stage, such as menstruating, perimenopausal or post menopausal.

How to keep your thyroid happy and healthy:

GENETICS: Get familiar with your family history. Ask your relatives if they’ve suffered from a thyroid condition. If you have an immediate family member with a thyroid condition, particularly if the cause is autoimmune, you are more likely to develop a thyroid abnormality. Early and regular screening at your doctor’s office will help to catch it in its infancy.

DIET: Basic mineral and trace elements required for normal thyroid function include iodine, selenium and iron. You can get these nutrients from a well-balanced diet, but not from a diet high in processed foods, which are drained of these nutrients. Instead, ensure your diet contains eggs, beans, saltwater fish, organic yogurt and spinach. Even one or two Brazil nuts per day provides you with enough selenium to keep the thyroid happy.

“Goitrogens” are foods known to disrupt the thyroid by decreasing iodine uptake. When eaten raw and more than a few times per week, the following foods can act as goitrogens: Soy products, sweet potatoes, millet, and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy and kale. Cooking these foods decreases the goitrogen content significantly. If you consume the above frequently, go for cooked, not raw dishes most of the time.

GUT HEALTH: A healthy gut is the foundation of a healthy immune system. A diet rich in whole foods sets the stage for optimal nutrient absorption and also promotes healthy gut bacteria. Adding probiotics or fermented foods like kefir, kombucha or miso soup is another easy way to boost healthy gut bacteria. Work with a naturopathic doctor to follow an elimination diet or to test for food sensitivities and remove potential food aggravators, easing the burden on the immune system and helping to heal a leaky gut. (See my article on gut health in the 901 issue of OptiMYz.)

ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS: The thyroid is vulnerable to environmental disruptors. First and second-hand cigarette smoke contains cyanide, which can interfere with iodine concentration in the thyroid gland. Many pesticides can disrupt the thyroid, so buy organic foods whenever possible. Chemicals found in plastics, makeup and cleaning products have also been shown to disrupt the thyroid. Make an effort to transition to glass containers, “green” cleaning products and natural beauty products.

HORMONAL TRANSITIONS: Be on high alert if you are in a time of hormonal transition such as the postpartum period or perimenopause. Thyroid symptoms mimic common hormonal complaints such as hot flashes, depression, anxiety and sleep issues. If you experience any of these symptoms, report them to your doctor immediately and get bloodwork done to investigate whether the thyroid is involved.

Don’t be afraid to get screened regularly by your doctors. TSH should be measured yearly. If you are experiencing thyroid symptoms, have an autoimmune condition or a family history of thyroid disease, request that your doctor runs a complete thyroid panel which includes the following tests: TSH, Free T3, Free T4 and Anti-TPO.

Your body is programmed to look for cues that help it stay in tune. We are learning more about what to do to keep the whole orchestra working together. Your thyroid is a key player—a conductor whose lead is followed by many of the body’s health systems.

More Knowledge: Check out this insightful article on anxiety in women.

Author: Maggie Pattillo, ND is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor. Her clinical practice is focused on digestive disturbances, women’s health concerns and integrative cancer care.

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