What Is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid gland, a small organ in the front of your neck, cannot produce enough hormones. Although the thyroid is modest in size, it’s mighty. The hormones affect the way your body uses its energy. Functions like metabolism, growth and development slow down when your body doesn’t produce enough hormones, usually caused by the thyroid in some capacity. (x)
The pituitary gland near the brain determines levels of the two main thyroid hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). It secretes thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) to tell the thyroid to produce more T3 and T4 as needed. (x) Then, once the thyroid receives the signal to make more hormones, it uses iodine from the food we eat to help make your hormones. (x)
The thyroid depends on the central nervous system (brain), the pituitary gland and iodine levels to function correctly. However, sometimes when the pituitary gland or thyroid are not working correctly, your body can go awry. If not handled correctly or appropriately diagnosed by a healthcare provider, down the rabbit hole you go. About 5 percent of the general population has hypothyroidism, and that number jumps to 20 percent for women over the age of 60 based on their lifestyle. (x)
A variety of factors can cause hypothyroidism, and its symptoms vary from person to person. After diagnosis by a blood test, interventions like changes in lifestyle, medication and supplements can effectively treat it. Left untreated, though, it can cause significant health problems.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
Not everyone experiences the same symptoms of hypothyroidism. They depend on the stage of the condition, age, gender and genetics. In addition, sometimes they develop slowly and become confused with changes that tend to occur with aging. Symptoms include: (x) (x) (x)
- Weight gain
- Feeling cold
- Dry skin
- Brittle fingernails
- Hair loss
- Brain fog and cognitive impairment
- Heavy or irregular menstrual periods
- Puffiness in the face, arms, hands and feet
- Thinning eyebrows
- Joint pain
- Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
- Fertility problems
- Slow speech
Subclinical hypothyroidism occurs when blood tests show that the thyroid can produce enough hormones but that the condition may be in its early stages. In this case, there may be no symptoms, or they might be mild. However, have two tests performed for 2 to 3 months apart simultaneously as TSH levels fluctuate throughout 24 hours. These two tests help determine high TSH readings but in the normal range, which shows a possible health concern. Based on all the above symptoms, make sure you have a well-informed physician to adjudicate whether your thyroid is healthy. (x)
On the other hand, severe, untreated hypothyroidism can lead to myxedema, a severe life-threatening condition. People with myxedema show skin swelling and mental deterioration. They must get immediate medical help. (x)
Causes and Risk Factors of Hypothyroidism
There are a few different underlying causes of hypothyroidism.
Congenital hypothyroidism, also called cretinism, occurs when a baby is born with low levels of thyroid hormones. It stems from a thyroid gland that didn’t form properly in utero or because the mother was iodine deficient during pregnancy. It causes problems with growth and brain development. First discovered in 1832 with the subsequent iodized salt, the health concern is no longer a public issue, though one in 3500 births. (x)
Another type is autoimmune hypothyroidism. Sometimes the body’s immune system attacks its thyroid gland, causing inflammation and damage to the organ. Autoimmune types of hypothyroidism include Hashimoto’s disease (the most common type) and can also occur secondary to other autoimmune conditions such as juvenile diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. (x) (x)
Pregnancy can also impair thyroid function, increasing the demands on a woman’s metabolism during pregnancy and sometimes the thyroid cannot keep up. Ideally, thyroid function returns to normal within a few months postpartum. Occasionally, though, it doesn’t, leading to a more chronic condition. (x)
Thyroiditis means inflammation of the thyroid gland. When the thyroid becomes inflamed, it can initially increase the circulating levels of hormones. After a few months, however, this surge in circulating hormones can swing in the other direction and create a hypothyroid state. (x)
Occasionally, a deficiency in the mineral iodine is to blame. The body must have iodine to make T3 and T4. You can only get iodine through your diet, and sometimes people just don’t take in enough of it. Or, you may get enough iodine but also eat foods that inhibit its absorption. It usually results in an enlarged thyroid gland (called a goiter) and reduced function. Thanks to the availability of iodized salt, this isn’t as common as it once was. (x)Finally, viral illness, certain medications, prior thyroid surgery or radiation therapy can also reduce thyroid function. (x)
Treatment for Hypothyroidism
Treatment of this condition depends on the underlying cause. Often, medications, lifestyle adjustments and supplements are effective in managing hypothyroidism. Treatments include:
Medications such as levothyroxine that replace the hormone thyroxine (T4) are the most common to treat hypothyroidism. Sometimes doctors add a synthetic T3 to your T4. More is not better, however, and monitoring symptoms is essential for finding the correct dose. Too much T4 can make people feel sleepless, sweaty, jittery and uncomfortable. (x)
Diet and Lifestyle
As hard as it may be to get moving when you’re feeling fatigued, exercise is essential for managing weight and insulin levels, two factors that are affected by hypothyroidism. Once you start exercising, your body will feel better and thank you. (x)
- Healthy Diet
Diets that emphasize nutrient-dense, healthful foods not only promote a healthy weight and blood sugar but may also reduce symptoms of autoimmune hypothyroidism. One particular diet, called the Autoimmune Protocol Diet, has shown significant improvement among women with Hashimoto’s disease, for example. (x)
- Minimize Soy
Soy products contain compounds that may interfere with iodine absorption and thyroid function. Studies currently question the clinical significance of this effect, but it appears that, in some people, soy can induce or exacerbate hypothyroidism. (x) (x)
- Reduce Stress
Stress triggers chemical reactions in the body that can alter how the thyroid gland works and may worsen autoimmune types of thyroid conditions. Stress is an environmental factor that you can control based on changing your lifestyle and associates that cause stress. (x)
Supplements for Hypothyroidism
With the okay from your doctor, dietary supplements can support the thyroid gland and complement conventional treatment.
A word of caution about biotin — this B vitamin is widely available in multivitamins. Many people use it as a stand-alone supplement to improve the appearance of hair and nails — brittle nails and hair are a sign of thyroid problems. However, researchers find that it interferes in lab tests that check for thyroid function, causing false-positive results for an overactive thyroid. Let your doctor know about all the supplements you’re taking, especially biotin. (x)
This vital trace mineral plays countless roles in the body, especially with the immune system. (x) Zinc also promotes thyroid health, and conversely, a healthy thyroid is necessary to absorb dietary zinc. (x) A tiny amount of zinc goes a long way, so follow instructions on the label or check with your doctor before using.
DHEA is a naturally occurring compound that aids reproductive and cognitive health. (x) Studies suggest DHEA levels may be low in people with an underactive thyroid. (x) Take the supplement in dosages of 5 mg daily and increase to 25 mg over a 1-2-week period as tolerated. Because of the varying sensitivity levels, check DHEA levels before starting and then again, every six months.
Taurine is an amino acid that helps improve energy and promote heart health. (x) According to animal and human studies, taurine levels can be low with hypothyroidism and supplementation may improve the organ’s function. (x) (x) You should take it in doses of 500 mg twice a day or as directed by your doctor.
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The Bottom Line
The thyroid gland, while small, has the critical job of producing the hormones T3 and T4, which regulate metabolism, growth and development. When it’s not producing enough thyroid hormones, metabolism and bodily functions slow down. It causes a large spectrum of symptoms ranging from mild fatigue and modest weight gain to extreme disability and even death. (x)
The causes of hypothyroidism vary and can include genetic factors, autoimmune responses, pregnancy or medications. Treatment often requires medication that a physician closely monitors because these hormones are essential to your well-being and positive outlook on life.
Ideally, you apply a healthy diet that provides a variety of vitamins and minerals, exercise, stress management and dietary supplements that can contribute to overall health and offset some of the effects of hypothyroidism. Consult with your doctor before starting any new supplements.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease