In today’s fast-paced world, complaints of fatigue, low mood, weight gain, and digestive distress are the norm. We work longer hours, sleep less, and are continually exposed to stimulation via WIFI from mobile devices and laptops. Your brain and body are constantly assessing these stressful stimuli and making the necessary adjustments to cope with the increased demands of a busy job, family and juggling your social calendar.
The key player and “master conductor” of the brain is the hypothalamus, assessing the body and relaying information to all other organs and tissues in an attempt to maintain balance or homeostasis. Another key player in helping you adapt to stressful stimuli is your thyroid gland.
If you get infected with a virus, your thyroid gland ramps up your immune system. If you’re stressed, your thyroid can increase or decrease your metabolism to compensate. It’s a fine-tuned sensor that relays messages all across the body and if you are rundown, gaining weight, sensitive to cold weather, struggling with low mood, constipation, muscle aches, or have dry skin or brittle hair, then chances are your thyroid is over-worked.
All of the above symptoms are commonly seen in patients with low or hypothyroid function. If you complain to your doctor about these symptoms they will likely run a thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test to determine if your thyroid function has slowed down and is stuck in the mud. This is a common scenario for clients struggling to lose weight, unable to improve energy levels, and feeling as though no matter how much sleep they get, it’s still not enough.
Testing For Low Thyroid Function
If you have a sluggish thyroid, your brain increases the production of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in the pituitary gland to tell your thyroid gland to work harder. In turn, the thyroid gland ramps up production of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (called T4) that travels through your bloodstream to the rest of your body. It’s important to remember that T4 must be converted into its active form, T3 or triiodothyronine, inside your cells.
The normal lab values for TSH range from 0.50-5.00, but ideally your levels should fall between 1.8-3.0 mU/L. If your lab results reveal levels greater than 3.0 you may have early signs of a sluggish thyroid. This is referred to as a functional deficiency— you display some signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism without your TSH levels being outside the normal range. Other key hormones to measure are reverse T3 (produced during times of stress) and thyroid antibodies (i.e. thyroid peroxidase or TPO), which are produced in auto-immune thyroid conditions (e.g. Hashimoto’s). If you suspect sluggish thyroid function it’s important to have a full thyroid panel run – TSH, T4, T3, thyroid antibodies and reverse T3 – to ensure a complete picture of thyroid function.
Addressing The Root Cause of Thyroid Dysfunction
The typical prescription for hypothyroid function is medication to increase the production of thyroid hormones. While this can be beneficial for some, it doesn’t address the root cause of “why” the thyroid has become over-worked and under-active. Let’s take a look at the three most common reasons for hypothyroidism, and outline what you can do to heal your thyroid naturally.
Blood Sugar & Insulin Imbalance
Insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone that tells the body to build. If you are exercising and eating right it will help you build lean muscle and maintain your optimal shape, if you are sedentary and craving carbs, processed foods, or sweets then it will trigger increased body-fat growth.
Typically, the more overweight you are, the worse your insulin sensitivity. This means your body does not process carbohydrates efficiently, leading to excessive high and low blood sugar swings. If your blood sugars are too low, you’ll likely experience symptoms of irritability, cravings for sweets, caffeine cravings, poor memory, and find yourself eating to relieve fatigue.
If this situation persists in the long-term, you’ll become insulin resistant and symptoms will become more pronounced, such as general malaise, fatigue after meals, constant hunger, weight gain around the abdomen, increased appetite and thirst, and tremendous difficulty losing weight.
Poor blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity leads to dysbiosis or accumulation of “bad” gut bacteria, impairs immune function, stresses the adrenals, slows detoxification and leads to an array of hormone imbalances. All of these factors negatively impact thyroid function.
A low-carb Paleo diet is the ideal approach to correcting insulin imbalance because it’s naturally high in protein, healthy fats and vegetables, and lower in starchy carbs, processed grains and simple sugars. Replacing your breakfast cereal, granola, or toast with eggs, avocado, and veggies is the perfect way to get your blood sugars and thyroid function back on track.
One of the main underlying causes of sluggish thyroid function is stress. Hectic work and home schedules can quickly increase stress hormones, tax your adrenal glands, and alter the brain’s communication with the thyroid.
Chronic or excessive stress impairs the thyroid hormones’ ability to enter cells, slows the conversion of T4 to the active T3 form, slows detoxification via the liver, and weakens the tight barriers of the digestive tract, potentially leading to immune dysfunction and increased risk of auto-immune Hashimoto’s.
Therefore, if your adrenal glands are working overtime, eventually it can wear out your
thyroid gland and lead to sluggish or low thyroid function. Elevated TSH levels are commonly seen when the adrenals are taxed, leading to slower metabolism, fatigue, and subsequent weight gain.
To support your adrenals and improve your stress response, increase your intake of healthy saturated fats (e.g. butter, ghee, coconut oil) and monounsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil, avocadoes), consume 0.7-0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight and calm your nervous system with meditation or breath. (Check out my last blog post Are You Suffering From Adrenal Dysfunction for more details.)
The research is clear that if your waist circumference is expanding, you’ll likely be suffering from dysbiosis and chronic inflammation. When your digestive system is not running on all cylinders, it has ripple effects through the entire body.
The accumulation of “bad” gut bacteria and excessive inflammation are the perfect storm for intestinal permeability or leaky gut. This is a condition where the integrity of your gut wall becomes compromised and molecules that should NOT be able to pass your intestinal barrier (e.g. bacteria, viruses, undigested proteins, etc.) can now readily pass into your bloodstream. This triggers a major immune system response as your body attempts to attack these “foreign” invaders.
Poor digestive function and leaky gut are commonly seen in patients with auto-immune thyroid conditions such as Hashimoto’s. This is when your immune system begins attacking normal thyroid tissue due to an immune system dysfunction. As 70% of your immune system is located in the gut, it’s critical to address digestion when supporting any auto-immune condition.
To restore optimal intestinal health you must eliminate aggravating foods, like excessive carbohydrates and simple sugars, to stem the growth of bad gut bacteria. A low-carb Paleo approach is a great place to start. In addition, those suffering from digestive dysfunction should add a probiotic supplement – one capsule twice daily – to re-establish healthy gut flora. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchee, plain yogurt, kefir, kombucha tea, and natto miso are also terrific foods to naturally support digestive health.
Low thyroid function is unfortunately becoming more and more common due to poor blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, chronic stress, and digestive dysfunction.
Interstingly, hypothyroidism is five times more common in women. If you suffer from sluggish thyroid function, address the key root causes of dysfunction and you’ll soon see better energy levels, improved mood, and a leaner, healthier you!
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS