Fatigue is the number one complaint women have. Conventional medicine’s range of normal thyroid function is wide. When I was on the high end of normal, I was cold all the time, gaining weight (puffy in the face), exhausted but had trouble sleeping sometimes, my hair was falling out, my nails were brittle and skin dry, suffered from infertility, I was constipated all the time, achy, had headaches, and my mood was even down. But, the doctor said I was fine.
Millions of people suffer from thyroid disorders, with hypothyroidism being the most common and more common for women than men. This is a condition where the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormones to maintain the body’s normal metabolism. It is like the thermostat for the whole body!
Hashimoto’s disease is one form of hypothyroidism. It is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. The immune system often attacks the thyroid because the protein chains that make up the thyroid tissue are so similar to the make up of some foods we eat – like wheat/gluten and other grains. Leaky gut is believed to be a precursor in the triggering of autoimmune conditions. Partial food proteins are able to enter the blood stream through the leaky gut, interact with our immune system, cause autoantibodies to be formed and then the thyroid tissue to be mistakenly attacked thus reducing thyroid function.
Conventional Medicine vs Functional Medicine
Hormone supplementation to correct low levels of thyroid hormones is the conventional treatment for hypothyroidism. While it can be effective for treating hypothyroid patients, these medications do not address the root-cause of thyroid dysfunction. In Functional Medicine, we look to uncover what was causing the dysfunction in the first place and give the body what it needs to function optimally. If the root-cause is not addressed, a hypothyroid patient can end up with an autoimmune thyroid disease – Hashimoto’s. There is a need to control the inflammation and eliminate the triggers to prevent autoantibodies from forming. If one already has Hashimoto’s, the goal is to reduce the level of thyroid antibodies in circulation in autoimmune disease so they have as much optimal thyroid function as possible and not continue the damage being done. Also, once a person has one autoimmune conditions, their risk for others dramatically increases unless the root-cause is addressed.
Impact on Gut Health
Hypothyroidism slows down the metabolism to conserve energy. This means gut motility slows down too resulting in constipation. Slow transit time through the gut can mean that foods have time to ferment and feed harmful microbes in the gut. This can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria, gas, bloating, contributes to an inflamed gut, and can result in Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, called SIBO. Hashimoto’s also causes microbiome imbalance and gut inflammation. An overgrowth of harmful microbes into the small intestine can only be addressed through antimicrobials or a specifically targeted antibiotic regimen and a change in eating patterns. A Functional Medicine practitioner can test and treat SIBO, diet alone will not resolve this issue. However, one must change how they are eating or the problem will most definitely reoccur.
Impact on Hormones
Thyroid function impacts nearly every cell because it communicates system wide. And, because all hormones are tied together and affect each other, often women will see thyroid symptoms begin to surface after a change in hormones like after childbirth, and before and during menopause. Chronic stress also plays a role here because it drains the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis from its constant cortisol demand. This has a ripple effect on hormones throughout the body compounding any underlying thyroid deficiencies.
Elimination diets, like the Autoimmune Protocol, AIP, can help identify dietary triggers and help change how one eats to focus on nutrient density to support body function. Long term, the microbiome can be rebalanced by eating more vegetables, healthy fats, quality protein and staying away from sugary, processed, refined and packaged foods with little nutritional value. Cultured foods, probiotics, and diets like the Mediterranean diet, Whole30 and Paleo, are low in sugar, starch and carbohydrates and focus on real, quality, whole foods. This helps decrease inflammation and supports immunity.
Common Nutrient Deficiencies
Certain nutrients are essential, not only for thyroid function, but also to support proper immune system function. The immune system is a huge nutrient hog! It needs vitamins and minerals so it doesn’t malfunction and lose its ability to regulate itself. Nutritional factors that play an important role in optimizing the thyroid function include:
- Iodine deficiency is a big contributor to thyroid dysfunction and is more common now because the soil is depleted and we don’t eat as much seafood or seaweed as we should. We are exposed to cyanogenic compounds, pesticides and other endocrine disruptors, water treated with chlorine and fluoride (both halogens that can compete for iodine receptors, and other industrial pollutants. These have an adverse and cumulative impact on iodine metabolism and thyroid function.
- Vitamin B-12 plays a vital role in thyroid function. It helps to improve the cellular response to circulating thyroid hormones. It also helps boost energy production in cells,reducing fatigue. A good source is grassfed liver or desiccated liver pills.
- Selenium is another trace element that plays an essential role in the metabolism of thyroid hormones. It also reduces the level of thyroid antibodies in patients suffering from Hashimoto’s. Foods rich in selenium include brazil nuts and mushrooms.
- Zinc also helps improve thyroid function, supports immune health, and has also shown to increase the serum levels of T3 (this is the active hormone) in overweight hypothyroid women.
Eating gluten-free is a the first major step toward healthier eating for thyroid function. The next is dairy-free. Women are surprised to find their gas, bloating, anxiety, nasal congestion, skin disruptions and even their mood and sleep improve removing these two things alone. Then, to fine tune further, consider doing AIP.
I offer an online group health coaching program that helps women implement AIP over eight weeks – read more about that here. They gradually go gluten-free, then dairy-free and then the other eliminations are phased in. This slow transition is easier for most and they have the support and encouragement of the others going through the program at the same time. When they are through the program, I’ve had women tell me they feel the best they have in years. But, for others it takes longer for the body to recover. But, the good news is that they are addressing the root-cause and will continue to improve.
If the thyroid is not producing enough hormones to effectively run our metabolism, addressing the lifestyle, diet, and environmental factors are key to supporting optimal thyroid health. This multipronged approach includes assessing how well one sleeps, manages stress, gets in some movement during the day, eats, avoids and removes toxins, and is involved in activities that give them meaning and purpose in life. These all affect thyroid and overall hormone function. Once triggers are removed and better balance is achieved, nutrient needs are met, energy does start to return!
If you are overwhelmed at addressing all these areas at once, consider joining my AIP online group health coaching program. We talk about all these areas and layer on changes one at a time so you can begin making changes that positively impact your energy levels and overall health.
Start by addressing the root-cause of thyroid dysfunction!