Experts estimate that more than 20 million Americans suffer from thyroid problems and that well over 10 percent of the population will experience a thyroid disease or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
The sad part is that these numbers are only expected to continue growing. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune form of thyroid disease, is the most common of all types of autoimmune diseases.
It affects women seven out of eight times and can lead to life-altering symptoms. But that’s not the only problem that can impact the thyroid.
Read on to understand what this small but vital organ does for the body, problems that can occur, and options that can help you take back control of your thyroid wellbeing.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ that produces hormones. It is part of the endocrine system. It sits at the base of the neck.
The primary job of the thyroid is to produce two hormones: T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). These hormones control the body’s metabolism and other aspects of health, such as:
- Cellular energy
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Body temperature
- Other hormone levels
While these two hormones are made by the thyroid, they have distinctly different roles. T4 is the primary hormone made by the thyroid, but it is also the inactive form.
When it is activated, it becomes T3. While the body makes some T3, most of the body’s T3 comes from activating T4 into T3.
Because the body requires nutrients and other physiological processes to ensure a constant balance of thyroid hormone, it’s pretty easy for them to get off-balanced.
When thyroid hormones are not optimal, it can result in some unpleasant and extensive symptoms that, in some cases, can be difficult to diagnose. While thyroid problems are common, especially in women, they’re still not as easily diagnosed as they should be.
How Thyroid Problems Begin
The thyroid is highly sensitive to the systemic environment of the body. This means that stress, illness, allergies, immune problems, other hormone imbalances, along with several other factors, can easily blow the thyroid off course.
People of any age can experience minor or major thyroid disturbances, from temporary hormone changes to autoimmune diseases and even thyroid cancer.
Thyroid issues are most commonly seen in women over age 30. Factors that can increase the risk for thyroid problems include:
- Family history of thyroid disease or disorder
- Pregnancy and postpartum hormone changes
- Menopause hormone changes
- Infection with Epstein-Barr, cytomegalovirus, or others in the herpes virus family
- Environmental toxins or allergens
- Food allergy or sensitivity
- Leaky gut or other gut-related problems
- Immune disorders
- Having another autoimmune or chronic disorder
Signs the Thyroid Isn’t Working Properly
Not everyone will have the same signs that their thyroid isn’t working properly, but many common symptoms do tend to appear at one time or another.
Because thyroid symptoms overlap with other conditions, sometimes it can be hard to get an accurate diagnosis.
Frequently seen symptoms of a thyroid that is under-functioning can include:
- Intolerance to cold
- Poor circulation
- Easily fatigued or out of breath when exercising or walking
- Insomnia or unrestful sleep
- Low pulse and low basal body temperature
- Dry skin
- Brittle nails
- Hair that falls out more than usual
- Thinning eyebrows
- Weight gain and the inability to lose weight
- Poor concentration and focus
- Low sex drive
- Heavy menstrual cycle
Signs that the thyroid could be over-functioning include:
- Feelings of nervousness
- Poor concentration and focus or feeling “manic”
- Feeling excessively warm or hotter than everyone else in the room
- Increased heart rate
- Diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
- Bulging eyes
- Thinning hair
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- Weight loss without trying
Different Types of Thyroid Disorders
There are several different ways that the thyroid can begin to malfunction. These are the most common categories that thyroid disorders fall under.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid is stimulated to produce too much hormone, resulting in an overall highly stimulated body. It can include heart palpitations, sweating, feeling warm, and having a brain that doesn’t settle down.
Short-term or temporary hyperthyroidism can occur for various reasons including too much intake of iodine, an inflammation of the thyroid gland, or even benign tumors in the thyroid or the pituitary gland.
2. Graves’ Disease
Hyperthyroidism that is driven by an underlying autoimmune component is not temporary and can result in more serious symptoms. Autoimmune hyperthyroidism is known as Graves’ disease.
It is driven by a miscommunication from the immune system, where it begins to attack the thyroid. There is no cure, but treatments can bring the disease into remission and reduce overall symptoms.
Graves’ disease is the most common reason that people get hyperthyroidism and women are significantly more affected than men. (source)
It often needs medical intervention to prevent severe symptoms. Common medical treatments can include radioactive iodine, thyroid surgery, or antithyroid drugs. Lifestyle factors can work in addition to calm autoimmunity.
The opposite of hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism involves a thyroid that is putting out too few hormones. The results are a sluggish body and slowed metabolism. The most common triggers of short-term hypothyroidism are menopause, pregnancy, and postpartum hormone changes.
Most cases of hypothyroidism will resolve on its own, but some doctors will prescribe hormone replacement to boost levels.
4. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the autoimmune form of hypothyroidism. It is caused by an immune attack on the thyroid gland that slowly destroys the gland’s ability to produce hormones.
There is no cure, and the damage cannot be undone, but hormone replacement and lifestyle changes can lead to remission and the relief of symptoms.
The most common autoimmune disease in the world, Hashimoto’s affects more than 14 million people in the United States alone.
5. Thyroid Cancer
Thyroid cancer is not as common as other types of thyroid disorders, but it does still impact some. Statistics show that just under 50,000 get diagnosed each year, and it leads to death in under 2,000 cases per year. (source)
Not all thyroid cancers are the same. There are five different types that affect the thyroid:
- Follicular thyroid cancer: Most likely to recur and spread elsewhere in the body.
- Papillary thyroid cancer: Most common, slow-spreading, and highly treatable.
- Medullary thyroid cancer: Second most common kind, typically genetically derived.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer: Most aggressive form, but quite rare.
- Thyroid lymphoma: Rarest form of thyroid cancer.
Cancer of the thyroid is treated like other types of cancer, with potential treatments including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgical removal of all or part of the gland.
Medication for Thyroid Conditions
Both types of autoimmune thyroid disease often need some sort of medical intervention. Non-autoimmune hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism often don’t need medication, although some providers may recommend it for short-term relief.
Graves’ disease is treated with antithyroid medications to calm the overactivity of the gland. Hashimoto’s is treated with hormone replacement to compensate for the gland’s loss of hormone production, sometimes only partially or sometimes completely.
Most thyroid hormone replacement is either T3 alone, T4 alone, or a combination of the two. Dosing medications for thyroid hormone replacement is complicated and often requires a significant amount of adjusting before a patient feels settled with the right amount.
Sometimes medication changes are done to find one that works best with the person’s physiology. Regular blood tests are required to monitor levels.
Supplements to Support Thyroid Health
When a thyroid problems presents itself, often people want to look into more natural means to address it. Supplements can be enticing and there are many on the market that claim to be for thyroid health.
The problem is that, depending on the thyroid condition, supplementation could make it significantly worse.
Iodine, for example, is often touted as being for thyroid health, but when you have autoimmune thyroid problems, adding iodine to the mix will ramp up the immune system’s attack and worsen symptoms and the damage being done to the gland.
Supplements can also interfere with how thyroid medication works, so it’s important to run any supplements by your doctor before trying them.
If you suspect you have a thyroid issue but have not been diagnosed, don’t simply start taking supplements in the hope that it will be fixed. You could unknowingly make your condition a lot worse and a lot harder to treat and recover from.
That being said, there are a few nutrients that can support thyroid health and don’t tend to worsen the condition, even if there is something underlying.
It’s still best to run all supplements by a practitioner before starting, but the following nutrients can naturally support thyroid function without directly influencing it to make more hormone:
- Selenium: A potent antioxidant that is required by the thyroid before it can make hormones. Also has other health benefits throughout the body due to antioxidant protection.
- Vitamin D3: Essential for immune health and neurotransmitters, vitamin D is important for the thyroid, too. Don’t supplement unless your levels have been assessed and they’re low (typically below 40). Normal supplement intake ranges from 2,000 IU daily to 10,000 IU daily, but should always be done with a healthcare provider’s approval.
- Magnesium: A mineral that is required for converting T4 into T3, many adults are low in this mineral that also supports many other aspects of health: bone health, mental health, heart health, and muscles, to name a few. Magnesium glycinate is the best supplemental form and is usually safe up to 300 milligrams per day.
Nutrition for Thyroid Health
There is no one-size-fits-all thyroid diet. But basic principles that apply to thyroid problems include:
- Avoiding refined and processed junk foods
- Limiting or eliminating gluten
- Limiting or eliminating dairy products
- Eliminating soy products
- Reducing sugar intake
- Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Eating plenty of high-quality protein
- Focusing on healthy fats like salmon, sardines, anchovies, avocado, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter
- Limiting or eliminating caffeine and alcohol
- Boosting intake of healthy probiotics
- Boosting intake of gut-friendly nutrients like bone broth and collagen
One of the major factors in the development of thyroid disease is leaky gut, and these dietary tips are also used to address this intestinal disorder.
Understanding your personal food triggers is important, too. If you have known allergies or sensitivities, avoiding those is essential for healing your digestive system.
If you are unsure if these exist, ask your practitioner to test for food allergies and to advise on foods that could be worsening your condition.
Lifestyle Tips for a Healthy Thyroid
Many today live a life of stress and chaos, and regardless of how well you think you handle it, the thyroid can suffer under these conditions. Making some lifestyle adjustments to reduce stress and promote relaxation will support thyroid health and overall wellness.
The best lifestyle tips for thyroid health include:
- Having a regular bedtime and getting plenty of sleep.
- Eliminating exposures to household or other toxic chemicals, including fragrances, cleaners, solvents, and more.
- Working in regular exercise that is gentle. HIIT or extreme aerobic workouts might be too difficult to promote thyroid healing; focus instead on yoga, swimming, tai chi, Pilates, bicycling, and basic walking routines.
- Avoiding junk foods and stimulants and focusing on a well-balanced diet. There’s no one way to do this, and you don’t have to overhaul everything at once. Just start working in better choices on a regular basis.
- Get regular health check-ups and follow through on your lab work. The best way to improve thyroid health is to be informed about what’s going on in your body.
- Managing stress in a healthy way is important—see a counselor, practice meditation, get acupuncture, or find other creative outlets to combat feelings of stress.
- Don’t ignore self-care. Having a thyroid disorder or any other health problem is overwhelming, and taking care of your health needs can feel like a full-time job. It’s also important to do things that bring you joy and rejuvenate your mood. Whether it’s reading, seeing a movie, getting a manicure, or something else, make sure to find little ways to focus on self-care on a regular basis.
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Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.