Being born without a thyroid gland (Congenital Hypothyroidism) has certainly faced me with some challenges over the course of the last 27 years, however one of the many things I am grateful for is the opportunity this condition has given me to learn more about the thyroid gland and overall endocrine (hormone) health. I think it’s fair to say that endocrine health has become somewhat of a specialist subject!
Some of you reading this might not even know what a thyroid gland is, so I thought you may find it interesting to understand a little bit about what the thyroid gland does, why it is important, what happens when things go wrong and some simple ways in which we can better support it.
What does the thyroid gland do?
The thyroid gland is a butterfly shaped structure which sits low on the front of the neck, below the larynx/voice box. The thyroid produces two hormones; thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) which are secreted into the blood stream. The thyroid gland is controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain; the pituitary gland is what prompts the thyroid to produce/stop producing T4 & T3 to maintain homeostasis (aka balance). The pituitary gland communicates with the thyroid gland via the secretion of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). T3 is considered to be the ‘active’ thyroid hormone (T4 is converted to T3 in the body) which influences the activity of all the cells and tissues of your body.
Functions which are influenced by the thyroid gland include:
- Body temperature
- Body mass and metabolic rate
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Brain development and memory/concentration
- Bone development and maintenance
- Muscle control
- Menstrual cycle
What can go wrong?
- Hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) – A condition where the thyroid gland is not able to produce enough thyroid hormone, therefore the functions mentioned above begin to slow down and under perform. Symptoms of sub-optimal thyroid function include fatigue, weakness, weight gain, hair loss, feeling cold, constipation, depression, memory loss, an abnormal menstrual cycle and reduced libido.
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis – The most common cause of hypothyroidism. Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease where the body’s own immune cells (antibodies) start to attack healthy thyroid gland tissue instead of protecting it. The damaged tissues become less able to produce thyroid hormones, which can result in hypothyrodism.
- Hyperthyroidism (over active thyroid) – A condition where the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone, causing the body’s functions to speed up. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include fatigue, weakness, anxiety, tremors, heart palpitations, excessive sweating, sleep disturbances, diarrhoea/frequent bowel movements, weight loss and an abnormal menstrual cycle.
- Grave’s Disease – The most common cause of hyperthyroidism. Grave’s Disease is an autoimmune condition where the immune system creates antibodies (known as TSIs) which cause the thyroid to grow and make more thyroid hormone than the body needs, resulting in hyperthyroidism. One of the main physical indicators of Grave’s Disease is that a patient presents with bulging eyes (exophthalmos) in addition to hyperthyroid symptoms mentioned above.
- Goitre – A symptom of both Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and hyperthyroidism/Grave’s Disease, a goitre is described as a lump at the front of the throat, caused by an enlarged and inflamed thyroid gland. The swelling may also be accompanied by throat tightness or difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia). It is important to have this checked by your doctor as soon as possible because whilst the majority of goitres are benign (non-cancerous), there is also a risk of thyroid cancer.
- Thyroid Cancer – Frequently asymptomatic (without symptoms). When a symptom does present, the most common indicator is a lump in the neck (goitre). There are different types of thyroid cancer, the most common of which is Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma.
How to test for thyroid function
Most thyroid function tests should be offered free on the NHS if you live in the UK, however from personal experience, not all of the markers are tested; sometimes only TSH and T4 is tested (a cost saving exercise!). A full thyroid function panel should include the following:
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)
- Total T4
- Free T4 (The amount of T4 which is active in the blood)
- Total T3
- Free T3 (The amount of T3 which is active in the blood; an indicator of how well T4 is converting to T3)
- Reverse T3 (Also produced from T4 conversion, however in much small doses than T3. RT3 competes with T3 for receptors on cells therefore in high amounts it can negatively affect thyroid function)
- Thyroid Antibodies
- Thyroid peroxidase antibody (TPOAb)
- Thyroglobulin antibody (TgAb)
- Thyroid stimulating hormone receptor antibody (TRAb)
In addition to the above, it is likely/hopeful that your GP will also test other markers to rule out any other possible diagnoses. These tests may include:
- Full blood count
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
- Folate (vitamin B9)
- Ferritin (a marker for iron storage)
- CRP (a marker of inflammation in the body)
If the NHS is not available to you, there are many laboratories who offer private testing. Please contact me directly for recommendations.
How can I support my thyroid?
There are several ways from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective in which we can support thyroid function and overall health. Some key influencers associated with thyroid function are listed as follows:
- Iodine – A key mineral required to make thyroid hormones (T3 & T4). Iodine is naturally found in ‘sea vegetables’ – kelp, spirulina, chlorella, dulse and nori seaweed. The balance of iodine in the body is critical because deficiency and excess iodine are both associated with thyroid dysfunction.
- Selenium – Essential for the conversion of T4 to its active form, T3. The best source of selenium in food is found in Brazil nuts (2 nuts per day = 100% RDI). Other sources of selenium include sardines, pasture-raised poultry and eggs.
- Tyrosine – An amino acid which provides the building blocks for the production of T4 and T3. Tyrosine, which can also be synthesised in the body from phenylalanine, is found in soy products, poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts and seeds.
- Zinc – Another mineral required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones as well as the conversion of T4 to T3. Food sources of zinc include shellfish, meat, beans/pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids – DHA and EPA omega 3s are associated with reduced inflammation and improved cognitive function, as well as potentially having a protective effect on thyroid function. Omega 3 rich foods include oily fish, spirulina, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.
- Vitamin A – Required for the activation of thyroid hormone receptors. Insufficient vitamin A may lead to reduced thyroid function by increasing the pituitary gland’s secretion of TSH (risk of inflammation and goitre). Similar to iodine, high doses of vitamin A may also decrease thyroid function therefore it is particularly important to keep everything in balance. Food sources of pre-formed vitamin A include animal products such as organ meats and oily fish.
- Vitamin D – There is evidence to suggest that a low vitamin D level is associated with hypothyroidism and autoimmune conditions. Vitamin D is important for immune cell regulation and bone health/calcium absorption. Food sources of vitamin D are derived from both animal products (vitamin D3) such as oily fish and egg yolks, as well as plant sources (vitamin D2) such as mushrooms.
- B Vitamins – This group of vitamins has a wide range of functions within the body, namely energy production and red blood cell formation, however vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 (cobalamin) are particularly important for thyroid function. Food sources of B vitamins include green leafy vegetables, meat/organ meat, fish, eggs and whole grains.
Lifestyle recommendations are highly personalised and dependent on the type of thyroid condition a client is faced with. However, in general terms, the important things I focus on include a consistent sleep cycle and bedtime routine, regular movement, stress management, relaxation and establishing a support network.
A note on supplements
It is important to highlight that, particularly regarding thyroid health, you should NOT take any thyroid support supplements without prior testing or review by a healthcare practitioner. As mentioned above, nutrients such as iodine and vitamin A have the potential to be as harmful to thyroid health as much as they can be beneficial. In light of this, I won’t be recommending any supplements on here. Please contact me directly if you would like to book in for a consultation.
- The British Thyroid Foundation – http://www.btf-thyroid.org
- Thyroid UK – http://www.thyroiduk.org
- Stop The Thyroid Madness – https://stopthethyroidmadness.com
If you’ve made it to the end – CONGRATULATIONS! Thank you so much for sticking with me; as you can hopefully tell by now, endocrine function and particularly thyroid health is a passionate subject for me and I hope you have found this interesting. The thyroid gland may not be considered ‘sexy’ or the latest trend plastered all over your Instagram feed, however I can promise you it’s an important part of your life and one which should never be underestimated.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section down below or email directly using the ‘Contact’ page. I would love to hear from you!
Love and light,