The butterfly-shaped gland just under your adam’s apple is your thyroid. This little organ is one of the most important glands in your body for regulating hormones, moderating your metabolism and, overall, keeping you well.
Despite the thyroid’s vital importance, the American Thyroid Association makes it clear that:
- More than 12% of Americans will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetimes.
- Upwards of 20 million people in the U.S. are currently suffering with some form of thyroid disease.
- As many as 60% of Americans with thyroid disease don’t know it.
- Women are up to 8 times more likely to develop thyroid problems.
What’s worse is that thyroid disease remains one of the most poorly managed diseases in mainstream medicine with patients dependent on lifelong drug therapies.
Common Symptoms of Thyroid Dysfunction
- Weight gain even with low calorie diet
- Morning headaches that wear off as the day progresses
- Over-sensitivity to cold
- Poor circulation and numbness in hands and feet
- Muscle cramps while at rest
- Easily catches colds and other viral/bacterial infections, while recovery is difficult
- Wounds heal slowly
- Require excessive amount of sleep to function properly (9+ hours daily)
- Chronic digestive problems, aches, and cramps (hypochlorhydria)
- Itchy dry skin
- Dry or brittle hair and nails
- Noticeable hair loss or thinning and/or hair that falls out easily
- Edema (swelling), especially facial (myxedema)
- Very thin or absent outer third of eyebrows
What Does the Thyroid Do?
As mentioned earlier, the thyroid is a vitally necessary gland for regulation of metabolism. By supplying a constant stream of signaling hormones, the thyroid helps to regulate many bodily functions.
The thyroid directly supports the following systems and processes:
- immune system
- brain/nervous system
- endocrine system (adrenal glands, ovaries, testes)
- gastrointestinal function
- liver and gallbladder function
- growth/sex hormones regulation
- body fat storage and burning
- insulin and glucose metabolism
- bone metabolism
- cholesterol level regulation
- stomach acid regulation
Being central to many hormonal processes in your body, the thyroid depends on various bodily systems and those systems depend on the thyroid. This “cross talk” happens between your:
- Thyroid and Immune System
- Thyroid and Gut
- Thyroid and Brain
- Thyroid and Endocrine System
Common Types of Thyroid Dysfunction
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormone (T3 and T4). In areas with adequate levels of iodine, like the United States, the leading cause of thyroid disease is autoimmune hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s Disease. Even still some researchers have argued that up to 90% of all thyroid cases are autoimmune hypothyroidism.
With Hashimoto’s Disease, the true culprit is not the thyroid but rather an underlying autoimmune process manifesting in your thyroid. In many cases of autoimmune thyroiditis (especially early on), primary thyroid markers like TSH, T3, and T4 can be within a normal range, but the autoimmune process triggers symptoms all the same.
Thyroid resistance works similarly to insulin resistance (type II diabetes). Both conditions are driven by cellular inflammation that blocks normal hormone communication with your cells. With thyroid resistance, your body produces enough thyroid hormone (T3 and T4) but your cells can no longer recognize it and so less and less of the thyroid hormone actually reaches your cells. In this case, TSH can be normal despite persistent symptoms. See also T3 Over-Conversion.
Under-Conversion of T4
Most of the thyroid hormone floating around is inactive T4 which must be converted to the active form, T3, for use throughout your body. T4 is converted to T3 in three primary modes: liver processing, gut processing, and through enzymatic action. About 60% of T4 is converted in the liver with the remaining conversion divided between gut processing and enzymatic processing. Naturally, if your liver function is suboptimal, so could be your T4-to-T3 conversion. Likewise, if you have intestinal damage, weakened bacterial communities in the gut, or enzymatic dysfunction, your thyroid hormone conversion can suffer.
Sometimes the body makes or converts too much active thyroid hormone (T3) which causes your cells to resist it over time. Without T3 in the cells, many functions in the body don’t progress at appropriate rates, leading to symptoms of slow metabolism—lethargy, cold intolerance, etc. This is more common among people with: type II diabetes, insulin resistance, elevated testosterone levels, and in women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
Elevated Thyroid Binding Globulin
Thyroid hormones are transported and cleaned up throughout the body by a protein carrier called Thyroid Binding Globulin (TBG). If TBG levels are elevated, they can literally “bind up” thyroid hormones, not allowing them to be adequately delivered to cells. This pattern is often seen in individuals with liver problems, elevated estrogen levels, estrogen dominance, and women using birth control pill or estrogen creams.
Hypothyroidism Driven by Inadequate Pituitary Function
In some cases, hypothyroidism is not a result of an attack on the thyroid (Hashimoto’s Disease) but instead a consequence of low pituitary gland function! The pituitary gland is responsible for telling your thyroid to work. In a healthy system, the hypothalamus “talks” to pituitary gland via the hormone TRH, then the pituitary gland “talks” to the thyroid via thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which causes enzymes (TPO) to begin release of T4 (93%) and T3 (7%). These hormones ride the “taxi cab”—thyroid binding globulin (TBG) to cells throughout the body. So, if the pituitary doesn’t send the right signals—or enough of them—how will your thyroid know what to do? It won’t!
How Does Conventional Medicine Treat the Thyroid?
Mainstream medical treatment of thyroid conditions usually only tests:
- Level of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)—the hormone that tells your thyroid to release thyroid hormones (T4 and T3).
- Total level of T4—the inactive, storage version of thyroid hormone.
But, there are several more thyroid markers needed to understand fully your level of thyroid function! These include:
- TSH—thyroid stimulating hormone, tells your thyroid when to release thyroid hormones
- Total T3—total active thyroid hormone in body
- Free T3—unbound active thyroid hormone in body
- Reverse T3—can block T3 uptake in cells
- T3 Uptake—measures how well T3 is carried throughout the body
- Total T4—total storage thyroid hormone in body
- Free T4—unbound storage thyroid hormone in body
- Thyroid antibodies (AntiTG and AntiTPO)—antibodies that signal your body is attacking its thyroid gland, measures autoimmunity
Because many suffering from thyroid conditions have symptoms despite normal results on conventional lab tests (TSH and total T4), most mainstream doctors miss a correct diagnosis completely, often turning away early cases of thyroid disease. This often results in people continuing to silently suffer until their disease becomes “clinical”—advanced to a stage that TSH and total T4 levels become abnormal. In some individuals, the thyroid can be all or nearly destroyed before these levels become “clinical!” At this point, the conventional approach is to supplement with synthetic T4 for the rest of a person’s life regardless of the progression of the disease.
This conventional approach nearly guarantees destruction of your body over time and is a far cry from healing and restoring health!
Only by analyzing ALL thyroid markers is it possible to catch thyroid disease early, identify the root cause, and truly heal.
How Does Functional Medicine Treat the Thyroid
In contrast to conventional doctors, practitioners of functional medicine run a full assay of lab tests to hunt down the exact disease process in your thyroid. We also take the time necessary to understand WHY the disease started in the first place.
Once we understand deeply the root cause and the exact disease process, we create a personalized treatment plan that removes infections, toxins, food sensitivities, or other triggers that promote inflammation and disease while nourishing your body with natural sources of vitamins and minerals to rebuild your health.