The thyroid gland regulates the metabolic functions of the body and regulates body temperature. A growing number of Americans are experiencing low thyroid function, also known as hypothyroidism.
The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland of the endocrine system (hormonal system). It is located in the front of the neck. Its function is to produce thyroid hormones (which include T4 and T3) that are responsible for many functions of the body including metabolism and growth. The synthesis of the thyroid hormones (T4 and T3) is regulated by TSH secreted by the pituitary gland.
What is hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a dysfunction that causes the thyroid gland not to produce enough thyroid hormones, slowing down normal function. As a result, there is a greater secretion of a hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland. The secretion of TSH is the body's way of regulating the production of thyroid hormones. Generally, the more TSH is secreted, the more thyroid hormones are produced. This is an attempt by the body to get the thyroid gland to step up production of thyroid hormones so as to recover the normal level of thyroid hormones. However, in primary hypothyroidism, this does not work because the thyroid gland is dysfunctional.
In order to diagnose hypothyroidism, determining the levels of TSH, T4 and T3 are important since they give a thorough look of the health of the thyroid gland. High levels of TSH with low levels of T4 and T3 may indicate a damaged thyroid gland (primary hypothyroidism). Low levels of TSH with low levels T4 indicate trouble in the brain – with the pituitary gland (secondary hypothyroidism) or with the hypothalamus (tertiary hypothyroidism). Occasionally, there are also cases of subclinical hypothyroidism, which is a mild failure in the thyroid gland and can occur when symptoms are present, but thyroid hormone levels are low-normal.
What are the causes of hypothyroidism in adults?
The most common is a condition called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. It happens when the immune system, which protects the body against infections, confuse the thyroid cells and enzymes as invading organisms and attack them. This can be checked by testing for thyroid antibodies.
An illness caused by a problem with the immune system or by a viral infection, which causes an inflammation of the thyroid and, consequently, that the thyroid hormones are released suddenly. This causes a short duration of hyperthyroidism, which then gives way to hypothyroidism.
The thyroid gland is extremely sensitive to environmental toxins from radiation and endocrine disruptors (chemicals that interrupt the hormones in the body), such as fire retardants and phthalates.
Medications, for example, like amiodarone and lithium may trigger hypothyroidism, but usually in those with a genetic predisposition. Also some antitussive and expectorant syrups, iodinated salts and some antiseptics can precipitate it.
Conditions such as pituitary conditions, partial or surgical removal of the thyroid gland due to conditions such as thyroid nodules, thyroid cancer, or Graves disease, and other diseases such as amyloidosis and sarcoidosis.
What are the symptoms?
- Weight gain
- Dry skin and hair
- Tiredness and/or drowsiness
- Reduced concentration capacity
- Memory failures and forgetfulness
- Greater sensitivity to cold
- Hoarse voice and swollen face
- Pain and/or muscle cramps
- Rigidity or swelling in the joints
- In women, sometimes menstrual disorders
All these symptoms can go unnoticed for a while since they are nonspecific, that is, they can be common to other diseases and are often a reflection of a slowing metabolism. Some complications that can occur if hypothyroidism is not treated. Goiters, which happens due to an enlarged thyroid gland, can occur and if the enlarged thyroid gland presses against the windpipe, it may lead to breathing problems, mental health problems, complications in pregnancy, and myxedema which can lead to coma and death.
How is it diagnosed?
Hypothyroidism does not have any specific symptoms, in addition, all the symptoms that people with hypothyroidism may have other diseases in addition to hypothyroidism, therefore, one way to know for sure if the patient has hypothyroidism is to perform blood tests such as which looks for the levels of TSH, T4, and T3.
An ultrasound scan may be done in addition to blood tests to detect any physical damages to the thyroid gland.
Treatment of hypothyroidism:
The conventional treatment of hypothyroidism usually is to treat with synthetic thyroid hormones like levothyroxine (T4), also known as Synthroid. Many times, conventional doctors only test TSH and T4 to check how thyroid function is working, leaving out important information about the active thyroid hormone, T3.
Naturopathic medicine and functional medicine look at the thyroid holistically and naturally. Testing for a full thyroid panel, Naturopathic doctors look at many different factors that relate to thyroid dysfunction. Diet, lifestyle, nutritional deficiencies and exposures of environmental toxins are taken account for overall thyroid health.
Some may do better with synthetic hormones, but there are also natural hormones that may have better results, balancing both T4 and T3. Sometimes, hormones are not necessary. Correcting nutritional deficiencies and supporting the thyroid with herbs and minerals can correct a low functioning thyroid.
A full naturopathic intake can help uncover the cause of hypothyroidism and treat the underlying dysfunction for optimal health and a well balanced thyroid.