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  • Writer's pictureMartha Calihan MD

National Thyroid Month

The number of people with thyroid dysfunction is staggering, and seemingly increasing.

Why is this? How do you know if you have a thyroid problem? Is there anything you can do to protect the health of your thyroid or to help reverse already established thyroid disease?

Thy thyroid gland is a small butterfly shaped structure that sits in the front of your neck, right in the middle. It is called the “master regulator” because it really influences the metabolism of all of your body. It secretes a hormone, called T4 that the body then converts to T3, which is the active part of the hormone; this then drives your metabolism.

This system in under very tight control, with the pituitary gland releasing varying amounts of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) to tell the thyroid gland how much hormone to produce. When there is plenty of thyroid circulating in the body the level of TSH goes down and the opposite is also true; when there is not enough thyroid hormone, the pituitary secretes more TSH to push the thyroid to release more T4.

The thyroid is very sensitive to changes in the environment, and imbalances in the thyroid can reflect a myriad of issues, from nutrient insufficiencies to toxin overload. Perhaps the most common cause of thyroid disease is an Autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. This occurs when the immune system is triggered in attacking self; and creates antibodies against normal thyroid tissue. Ultimately, this can destroy the thyroid gland, resulting in a life long need for replacement thyroid hormone.

So how do you know if you have a thyroid problem? Hypothyroidism, or low thyroid, is more common than hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid. Hypothyroidism can cause a wide variety of symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, dry skin and nails, constipation, irregular menstrual periods and weight gain. Hyperthyroid symptoms tend to cause the opposite: and include symptoms such as rapid heart rate, jitteriness and weight loss.

Thyroid dysfunction is diagnosed by a combination of the history (symptoms), physical exam and lab tests. The problem is however, that lots of people only receive screening tests and not a full thyroid panel which can look for more clues. A complete panel will include at least the following: Total T4, Free T4 and Free T3, a Reverse T3 and TSH. Anti-thyroid antibodies can be used to determine if there is an autoimmune condition involved. Also, it can be helpful to have sequential testing to look for trends. Testing for the presence of antibodies can indicate early autoimmune disease, even before the thyroid function suffers.

The thyroid needs specific nutrients to function properly, including iodine, selenium and zinc, and needs to avoid things that are known to be potentially toxic to optimal functioning, including excessive stress, sometimes gluten, heavy metals and nutrient imbalances when there is an autoimmune condition, one needs to assess the state of the gut and diagnose and address the possibility of increased gut permeability or leaky gut as well.

So if you suspect that your thyroid is out of balance, I suggest that you ask for a full thyroid panel to be done, along with as assessment of your adrenal gland function (as an imbalance there can mimic thyroid dysfunction), perhaps heavy metals, a nutrient analysis and an analysis of your gut function to assess for potential leaky gut. Work with a practitioner who can do these assessments for you and a nutritionist who can help make sure you are getting optimal nutrition for the health of your thyroid and the rest of you as well!

It is as if the thyroid serves as a harbinger of the state of health of the body, as early imbalances and dysfunctions can shoe up in this gland, causing an array of symptoms that unfortunately overlooked and misunderstood. That is why I consider the thyroid to be the “canary in the coal mine”, alerting us to potential issues while there is still time to repair the damage and restore health. You can heal your thyroid!

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