What Role Does the Thyroid Play in Health?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is located in the neck below the Adam's apple. It produces thyroid hormone which plays a crucial role in energy, metabolism, body temperature, development, growth and repair. The thyroid is also part of a complex signaling system involving multiple hormones, organs and systems. Every cell in the body has receptor sites for thyroid hormones. As you can imagine, if your thyroid is not functioning properly, this can greatly affect your health.
Signs and Symptoms: How Can You Tell if You May Have a Thyroid Problem?
There are several different signs and symptoms associated with thyroid conditions. They are generally divided into two categories:
- Hypothyroidism (the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormones)
- Hyperthyroidism (thyroid hormone levels are too high)
The symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Weight gain
- Dry skin, nails and hair
- Hair loss
- Poor recovery from injuries and workouts
- Poor concentration and memory
- Feeling cold or cold intolerance
- Decreased sweating
- Hoarse voice
- Muscle cramps
- Joint pain
- Thinning of the outer third of the eyebrows
- Enlarged tongue
- Facial swelling
- Thyroid swelling
- Menstrual irregularities
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Heart palpitations
- Weight loss
- Heat intolerance
- Change in texture of skin and nails
- Increased appetite
- Increased bowel movements
- Menstrual irregularities
- Thinning hair
- Thyroid swelling
- Eye bulging
What causes thyroid problems?
There are many genetic, environmental and nutritional factors that can affect the thyroid. By far, the most common cause for thyroid problems in the U.S. involves an autoimmune reaction in which the immune system makes antibodies directed against the thyroid gland.
Hashimoto's thyroiditis is by far the most common thyroid disease in the U.S., making up approximately 90% of cases of hypothyroidism. This is an autoimmune condition in which the immune cells attack the thyroid and cause chronic inflammation and thyroid gland destruction. Rapid destruction of the thyroid gland can lead to the release of excess thyroid hormone by the damaged cells and symptoms of hyperthyroidism. More often, damage occurs slowly and results in symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Graves' disease is also an autoimmune condition and the most common cause for hyperthyroidism. The antibodies produced in this disease cause stimulation of thyroid hormone production and destruction of the thyroid gland.
Additional causes for thyroid problems include certain medications, iodine deficiency, heavy metal toxicity and rare genetic mutations.
How are thyroid disorders diagnosed?
Because thyroid disorders can be very complex, a careful history, physical exam and appropriate testing are important. When it comes to lab testing, many healthcare providers only test thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. Testing only TSH is problematic because it does not reveal how much active thyroid hormone a person has, nor does it indicate whether there is autoimmune thyroid disease present. At our clinic, we assess thyroid function with comprehensive thyroid lab testing. In addition to TSH, we test for thyroid antibodies, reverse T3, and levels of free thyroid hormones.
Sometimes patients must be referred for further testing or imaging if they have abnormal lab values, an enlarged thyroid gland or thyroid nodules.
How are Thyroid Disorders Treated?
Successful treatment of thyroid disorders is very individualized and there is no "one size fits all" solution. Close monitoring is important for optimal outcomes and to minimize the chance for side effects. Conventional treatment of hypothyroidism includes synthetic or natural thyroid hormone replacement medications. Hyperthyroidism is treated with radioactive iodine to shrink the thyroid, medications to block excess thyroid hormone production, or surgery to remove the thyroid.
What are the Natural Treatment Options for Thyroid Disease?
At our clinic, treatments are individualized to address the underlying cause of the thyroid imbalance. A careful history, physical exam and appropriate testing are utilized to guide treatment. The treatments are aimed at supporting thyroid function through nutrition, botanical medicine, stress management, detoxification and supporting other organs and systems that influence thyroid hormones.
We work with other practitioners and physicians if prescription thyroid medication or further evaluation and treatment is needed.