January is Thyroid Awareness Month which is our opportunity to help shed light on this small gland and the role it plays in our overall health and wellness. As confirmed by the American Thyroid Association, more than 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime. Far too often thyroid disorders go misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. People suffering from a thyroid disorder may be unaware what is causing their symptoms, which is why it is necessary to gain a better understanding of the thyroid and conditions associated with it.
What is the thyroid?
It is a butterfly-shaped organ located in the front of the neck. Though it is small, it is a major gland in the endocrine system that impacts almost all organs in the body.
What does the thyroid do?
The thyroid interacts and regulates almost all hormones in the body. It plays a key role in energy metabolism, temperature regulation, cholesterol regulation, heart rate, bone health, fertility, and cognitive functions. When the thyroid gland becomes imbalanced, hormone production gets thrown off. Thyroid hormone imbalances can cause the body to exhibit unrelated symptoms making it difficult to pinpoint as the cause. Important thyroid hormones that lead to thyroid disorders if not properly regulated:
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) communicates which other hormones need to be produced
- Thyroxine (T4) is the inactive form of thyroid hormone
- Triiodothyronine (T3) the active form of thyroid hormone (increases metabolic activity)
- Reverse T3 inhibits T3 function to keep metabolism from becoming overactive
The best way to find out if you have a thyroid dysfunction is to have blood tests on T3 and T4 rather than TSH, which can be requested through your general physician.
An under-active thyroid is the most common thyroid condition in the US. It is typically caused by an autoimmune response, like Hashimoto’s disease. The body attacks the thyroid, which prevents it from releasing adequate levels of hormones T3 and T4, which are necessary for the body to function properly. Lack of these hormones can cause symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, dry skin and hair, constipation, and muscle and joint pain. Hypothyroidism can also occur after pregnancy or viral illness.
An overactive thyroid is another thyroid condition. Graves’ disease is the most common form, which causes the thyroid to produce too much T3 and T4 hormones. Graves’ disease is a hereditary condition, and is more common in women than in men. Symptoms include anxiety, unintentional weight loss, increased appetite, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, insomnia, diarrhea, muscle weakness.
Hashimoto’s is more common than Graves’ disease, but both are referred to as autoimmune thyroid disease (ATD). Both diseases have a strong genetic link, and associated with other autoimmune disorders, like lupus, type 1 diabetes, and celiac disease.
What causes imbalances in the thyroid?
Various diet and lifestyle factors may cause the thyroid to become imbalanced over time. The thyroid can become compromised after years of unhealthy eating habits, chronic stress, accumulation of environmental toxins, or even an infection.
How does nutrition impact the thyroid?
Poor nutritional habits are one of the primary root causes for thyroid disorders because it is a nutrient dependent gland.
Eating a diet that is low in nutrient-dense foods and high in processed foods that are high in sugar and fat may lead to deficiency in key nutrients that regulate thyroid hormone production. Another cause for individuals may also be various dietary sensitivities, like gluten or lactose, which can lead to leaky gut, chronic inflammation, and a possible elevation in thyroid antibodies that would show the presence of Hashimoto’s.
A diet rich in nutrient-dense foods helps to ensure that adequate amounts of essential nutrients to regulate thyroid function are consumed. Important nutrients for thyroid health:
IODINE provides the building blocks of thyroid hormones, and essential for proper function. Iodine supplements may cause symptom flare-ups in people with Hashimoto’s disease because it stimulates autoimmune antibodies.
VITAMIN D deficiency has been linked to Hashimoto’s in studies. Hyperthyroidism is known to cause bone loss. Adequate bone-building nutrients, such as vitamin D, are important during and after treatment.
SELENIUM helps to convert T4 to T3. Selenium can also help reduce thyroid peroxidase antibodies, which cause damage to the thyroid when elevated.
ZINC is needed to help your regulate thyroid hormone levels, and tells it to increase production with levels are low.
Once the body can no longer produce an adequate amount of thyroid hormone necessary, thyroid replacement medication is necessary to correct the hormonal imbalances associated with hypothyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism is typically treated with medications, surgery, or oral radioactive iodine. These treatments may cause the thyroid to produce inadequate amounts of T3 and T4, which causes insufficient function after treatment. The majority of individuals with Graves’ or thyroid cancer end up needing treatment for hypothyroidism as a result.
The top priority of thyroid disease is to get hormones under control. Weight changes won’t happen until hormones are regulated. It is important to focus on eating nutrient-dense foods, exercising regularly, managing stress, and sleeping adequately, instead of focusing on the scale. Emphasize consumption of more vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fiber, heart-healthy fats, and fluids to help manage thyroid disease, and maintain good health.
Take away message
Undesired weight changes, cardiovascular risks, fatigue, depression or anxiety, infertility, and GI issues are some of the challenges that thyroid disease presents. If diagnosed it is important to set realistic goals, and focus on managing hormones with exercise and consumption of nutrient-dense foods. If you have never been tested, use this month to take action and get your thyroid checked.
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