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Thinking About the Thyroid Gland?
Thinking About the Thyroid Gland?
Centered at the front base of the neck is a large, butterfly-shaped gland that plays an active role in virtually every system of the body—from mood to reproduction, skin health to kidney function. The thyroid secretes hormones, which are messengers that direct many aspects of the body’s function. The hormones secreted by the thyroid regulate the rate at which the body burns fuel, a process better known as “metabolism.”
If the body were a car, the thyroid would be the gas pedal. An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroid) makes the car drive too fast. Underactive (hypothyroid) means the car drives too slowly. The goal is to put the car on cruise control at an optimal speed and keep it there.
Some of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism include trouble sleeping, racing heart rate, unplanned weight loss, difficulty concentrating, tremors and even bulging eyes. The most common cause is the autoimmune disorder, Grave’s disease, in which the thyroid gland becomes enlarged and makes too much thyroid hormone. Medical treatment involves decreasing the function of the thyroid gland. In mild cases, drugs may be prescribed to interfere with thyroid hormone production. In more serious cases, doctors use radiation to destroy the thyroid gland, which generally means people will need thyroid hormone replacement for the rest of their lives.
The most common thyroid problem is hypothyroidism. In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone to maintain an optimal metabolic rate. Hypothyroidism risk increases with age and is higher in women than men. Caucasian and Hispanic Americans have more than double the risk of African Americans.
There are many potential causes for hypothyroidism, including an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, radiation therapy to the neck, tumor removal, pituitary gland disorders, genetic conditions, some types of drug therapy (especially lithium), pregnancy and iodine deficiency.
Many clinicians feel that thyroid problems are underdiagnosed, and that many individuals have symptoms even though their blood test numbers are in the normal range. This has led to an understanding that suboptimal thyroid function, though not fully hypothyroidism, can detract from quality of life and increase health risks for a number of diseases, especially heart disease.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism and suboptimal thyroid function are the same, though they may vary in severity. They include lethargy, weight gain, depression, hair loss, increased sensitivity to cold, rough skin, diminished intellectual function, brittle fingernails, heavy and/or irregular menstrual periods, elevated blood cholesterol, puffiness in the face, constipation, muscle weakness and pain and hoarseness.
The treatment for hypothyroidism is replacement thyroid hormone therapy, often for the rest of the person’s life.
In evaluating thyroid function, clinicians look at blood levels of three specific hormones: thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), T4 and T3. The pituitary gland makes TSH, which tells the thyroid to make other hormones. The higher the level of TSH, the louder the body is calling out for thyroid hormones. Therefore, a high TSH indicates a low-functioning thyroid.
T4 and T3, made by the thyroid gland, are the hormones that determine rate of metabolism (the speed of the car). However, the thyroid makes 20 times the amount of T4 as it does T3. T3 is the active and more potent form of thyroid hormone. The body must convert T4 to T3 for optimal functioning.
The prescription drug levothyroxine is a synthetic form of T4. Many integrative practitioners believe synthetic thyroid hormone is not the best choice, as it relies on the body’s ability to convert the T4 into T3, a process which may be impaired in some individuals. They instead prescribe natural thyroid hormone, which is extracted from either bovine or porcine sources, because it contains both T3 and T4. Both natural and synthetic thyroid hormones are prescription drugs.
Because a person cannot live without thyroid hormones, an individual who has a completely non-functional thyroid gland must be on prescription thyroid hormones for life. However, when a person has a partially functioning thyroid gland, some natural treatments can help.
Iodine is essential for thyroid hormone production, so most effective formulations include some level of this important mineral. The thyroid uses two raw materials to create thyroid hormone: iodine and the amino acid L-tyrosine. When provided with optimal amounts of these two raw materials, the thyroid gland can make thyroid hormone naturally. The dosage of L-tyrosine is generally 400 to 1,000 mg per day. Integrative doctors’ advice on iodine recommendations varies, from 6.25 to 50 mg per day.
The herb bladderwrack is often recommended for thyroid function, mostly because of its iodine content. Some traditional Chinese medicine formulations are also used for thyroid support, and the herb Coleus forskolii has shown some promise in preliminary research.
Natural interventions for hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) are more problematic as the excessive levels of thyroid hormones may need to be brought down quickly. However, some integrative practitioners are using iodine for this disease as well, as they believe low levels of iodine and environmental chemicals that mimic iodine are a root cause of this disorder.
Regardless of your thyroid concern, it is always best to work with your healthcare practitioner to determine the best interventions for your individual needs, to get your metabolism back to where it needs to be.
By: Cheryl Myers, RN
Cheryl Myers, RN, is recognized as an expert in the health and dietary supplement field. She writes, gives public appearances, and acts as a research and media consultant. She graduated from Purdue University, and also has clinical certifications in oncology and gerontology, and has a second degree in psychology. Cheryl's nationally published articles have addressed a variety of health applications for natural products, and Cheryl has been a featured guest on radio shows, and is frequently interviewed by a variety of periodicals, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Prevention Magazine, and Healthy Living. Myers is head of Scientific Affairs and Education for EuroPharma, Inc.
August 2nd, 2012