Here’s a section you can read to gather some information on your thyroid, a vital gland located in your neck that controls how fast or slow everything (but everything!) operates in your body. Compare it to the gas pedal of your car, with the gearshift in neutral. Too slow, and the motor dwindles and grinds to a halt. Too fast, and you’ll burn your engine out. Although most thyroid disorders are treated either by replacement hormones or prescription drugs, an inappropriately operating thyroid places all sorts of burdens on the smooth functioning of your body. Many of these can be helped with dietary changes and selected nutritional supplements.
Let’s see how our recommendations at WholeHealth Chicago can help with both underactive and overactive thyroid conditions.
What is Thyroid Disease?
The thyroid gland, made up of two large lobes at the base of the neck, produces hormones that regulate the rate of innumerable chemical reactions throughout our body, processes collectively called metabolism. Symptoms of thyroid disease basically reflect whether these processes are too slow or too fast. Usually the onset of any symptoms related to the thyroid is a slow process and most patients are unaware of the gradual change taking place within. An estimated one in every 20 Americans has thryroid disease, but millions don’t know it. Left untreated long enough, thryroid disease can be dangerous–but this is very rare. Thyroid disease is both easily diagnosed through a few blood tests and easily treated using replacement thryoid hormone, medications or (for hyperthyroidism) low doses of radiation therapy, all of which have surprisingly few side effects.
When the thyroid releases too little hormone (a condition called hypothyroidism), everything within the body slows down and the predominant symptom, not surprisingly, is a sense of sluggishness, both mental and physical. Hypothyroidism is about four times more common in women than in men and is a particular risk for women over age 50.
When the thyroid secretes too much hormone (hyperthyroidism), metabolism speeds up. Here the predominant symptoms are nervousness and jitteriness, although eventually a sense of fatigue prevails. (Envisioning the effect on a car engine with the idle set too high is a good comparison of what’s happening in the body.) Hyperthyroidism is about five times more common in women than in men and strikes most often between ages 30 and 40.
Nodules can also develop on the thyroid gland. These usually develop slowly over many years, and may occur alone or in clusters. Most of these are benign, but rarely a solitary nodule can become cancerous. Nodules need to be checked regularly by a physician, who may order tests with radioactive iodine to indicate whether nodules are “hot” or “cold.” Hot nodules can start producing excess thyroid hormone, necessitating treatment for hyperthyroidism. Cold nodules don’t produce enough hormone and should be monitored for the possibility of cancer.
• Fatigue, lethargy, slower movements
• Memory loss, depression
• Constipation, weight gain
• Intolerance to cold
• Dry skin and hair
• Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
• Puffy eyes
• Heavy menstrual periods
• Moodiness, anxiety
• Restlessness, insomnia * Greater appetite, unexplained weight loss, diarrhea
• Rapid heartbeat, intolerance to heat, increased sweating
• Goiter (enlarged thyroid)
• Bulging, irritated eyes
• Light or absent menstrual periods
What Causes Thyroid Disease?
The most common types of thyroid disease are caused by mild autoimmune disorders in which the thyroid is the sole victim of an attack by the body’s immune system. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an example of this phenomenon. Hypothyroidism frequently runs in families; however, it can appear without any family history and for no obvious reasons. Sometimes hypothyroidism will follow treatment for an overactive thyroid (including surgery in which too much of the gland has been removed and radiation treatment).
Almost all hyperthyroidism is due to Graves’ disease, a condition in which the immune system produces an abnormal antibody that then overstimulates the production of thyroid hormone. The other fairly common cause of hyperthyroidism is simply taking too much replacement thyroid hormone during the treatment for underactive thyroid.
Treatment and Prevention
If you have hypothyroidism, your doctor will most likely prescribe a synthetic thyroid hormone consisting of a single hormone called T4 that the body coverts to an active form called T3.
But some people, often those who are older, lack enough of a certain enzyme that is key in this conversion process. For them, an alternative may be natural thyroid hormone extracted from animals, which contains both T3 and T4. Within the last few years a new synthetic thyroid hormone, a drug called Thyrolar, has come on the market. It includes both T3 and T4, and presents a viable alternative to the natural thyroid hormone, which can be hard to measure.
Although supplements can’t take the place of a replacement hormone, some are powerful enough to affect the amount of standard medication you need and may help people with mild hypothyroidism. But be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements. (Supplements are not effective in the treatment of thyroid nodules.)
Treatment for hyperthyroidism involves reducing production of thyroid hormone by destroying part of the gland, usually with radiation or surgery. Drug therapy suppresses the thyroid hormone production without harming the gland itself. Often after such treatment, the thyroid produces too little hormone, leading to hypothyroidism.
How Supplements Can Help
Vitamin C and the B vitamins riboflavin, (B2), niacin (B3), and pyridoxine (B6) are essential in making thyroid hormone. Because they regulate the immune system and improve thyroid function, they help with both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
An overactive thyroid (or too much thyroid replacement hormone) is actually quite dangerous to the skeletal system and will eventually accelerate osteoporosis. If you have any form of thyroid disease, you should be taking calcium supplementation.
Nutritionally oriented physicians believe that an overactive thyroid will eventually exhaust the adrenal gland (stress gland) system. They often recommend taking a combination product for adrenal support. This may include pantothenic acid, licorice, Siberian ginseng and raw adrenal gland (from sheep or cows).
The amino acid tyrosine is a main ingredient in thyroid hormone. Tyrosine is helpful, however, only in cases where a thyroid patient is malnourished or not eating the proper diet. After taking this amino acid for one month, add a mixed amino acid complex.
Vitamins E and A and zinc work as a team to encourage production of thyroid hormone. People taking zinc for more than a month should take copper as well, because zinc slows copper absorption.
Forskolin, extracted from an herb called Coleus forskohlii, stimulates the release of thyroid hormone. This traditional Indian remedy may lower blood pressure and should not be taken with prescription medication to lower blood pressure.
For both hyper- and hypothyoridism, occasionally use your thumb and fingertips to press very gently along the front of your neck just below the Adam’s apple to feel for lumps and bumps, which may signal thyroid trouble.
• Avoid excessive amounts of cruciferous vegetables, as they can suppress thyroid function. Examples are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale.
• Get plenty of iodine-containing foods such as shellfish and saltwater fish and use iodized salt, also found in many breads and cereals.
• Quit smoking. Swiss researchers found that smoking can worsen hypothyroidism.
• Exercise regularly. Physical activity stimulates the thyroid to secrete more hormone and makes the body more sensitive to any thyroid hormone that is circulating.
• Avoid stringent dieting. Restricting food intake lowers metabolism.
• Eat raw cruciferous vegetables often. These contain a natural thyroid suppressor.
• Avoid iodized salt and iodine-rich foods.
When to Call a Doctor
If you have any symptoms of thyroid disease. Your doctor will be able to confirm with a simple blood test.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: The supplements below are divided into two groups, depending on whether your thyroid is over- or underactive. With the exception of the herb forskolin, all the supplements can be taken with conventional drugs. Because forskolin stimulates thyroid hormone production, you may not need as much thyroid replacement hormone as you were prescribed.
How to Take the Supplements
Because any change in thyroid function or in thyroid medications can alter the your metabolic and nutritional needs, everyone should take a daily high-potency multivitamin and a separate antioxidant complex. Additionally, the risk of osteoporosis increases with hyperthyroidism or if you get too much thyroid replacement hormone; this means everyone should also take calcium daily. These basic supplements are meant to be used on a permanent basis.
Remember, you’ll probably need thyroid replacement hormone eventually, so don’t neglect your health by uselessly experimenting with nutritional supplements. However, your thyroid gland does have nutritional needs of its own.
The amount of vitamin C and vitamin B complex found in a daily multivitamin will probably be sufficient. The trace minerals zinc and copper are needed to activate hormone production and may be a helpful addition.
If you have concerns about your overall nutritional status, consider adding the amino acid tyrosine, used by the gland to produce its hormone. Iodine as a separate supplement is probably not needed unless you live in a part of the world that doesn’t iodize its salt. If you have concerns about your iodine status, simply eat more iodine-rich fish and sea vegetables (such as kelp, dulse, wakame).
As mentioned above, the herb forskolin can increase thyroid hormone production. Although you can consider this for mild hypothyroidism, discuss it with your doctor first.
High doses of vitamin A have been shown to suppress thyroid function and may be worth a try in mild cases. Extra amounts of vitamins C and E will protect your body from the oxidative stress of being in an “overdrive” state.
Hyperthyroid patients are frequently zinc deficient, and supplementation may be recommended. Most nutritionally oriented physicians also believe an overactive thyroid can excessively stress the adrenal gland. This may warrant a good adrenal support combination, containing herbs such as ginseng and licorice, as well pantothenic acid and other supplements needed for adrenal health.
Finally, for both men and women, calcium supplementation is needed as a protection against osteoporosis (bone-thinning).
Continue taking the supplements until your medication has been adjusted to your individual need and your doctor says that the amount of thyroid hormone in your body is “just right.” Then you can stop all the supplements except the calcium and your multivitamin and antioxidant.
Be sure to have your thyroid function rechecked often as it is very easy to develop an underactive thyroid after treatment for an overactive one. Important:
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD