Thyroid: The Body’s Furnace
What You Need to Know
Experiencing fatigue and a general lack of vitality, Jennifer is concerned about her health. She eats well, exercises regularly, and sleeps 7-8 hours a night. Jennifer and her husband, Todd, have a lovely life together. Married for three years and comfortable in their careers, they are ready to start a family. However, after a year of unsuccessful attempts, Jennifer is concerned that she or Todd may be infertile. A battery of tests confirm that they are fertile, leaving the couple stumped. “Sometimes poor thyroid performance can inhibit conception,” suggests Jennifer’s healthcare provider. They run some TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) tests and determine that her thyroid hormone level is perfectly fine. Jennifer will be 33 years old in August. What if this mystery is not solved before it is too late to conceive?
The thyroid is a comprehensive part of our health. Treating it requires healthcare professionals who can look at the whole picture, not just the isolated symptoms. It’s time for Jennifer to search for answers.
The Thyroid: The Body’s Furnace
The thyroid — small butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck — serves as the body’s furnace, helping to convert consumed nutrients into useful energy. The thyroid is also responsible for transforming cholesterol into hormones. And thyroid hormones are essential for producing energy in each and every cell in the body. Many health-related problems have thyroid implications — the challenge lies in knowing how to detect and treat them.
Under normal circumstances, the thyroid makes the right amount of two important hormones, T4 (Thyroxine — the inactive form of the thyroid hormone) and T3 (Triiodothyronine — the active form of the thyroid hormone). The thyroid produces T4 in response to Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), which is made in the pituitary gland. T4 is then sent to the liver and large intestine where it is converted to T3. Digestive health is extremely important for healthy thyroid function, since 20 percent of this critical transformation occurs in the digestive tract.
It is important to understand how T4 and T3 interact with each other and with the body. Though T4 is the main hormone produced by the thyroid, T3 is the most active — anywhere from three to eight times more potent than T4. Many of our thyroid issues result from factors that either block or overstimulate this conversion process.
In general, our body’s cells increase their rate of activity with an increase in available thyroid hormones. These hormones regulate aspects of our metabolism, such as how many calories we burn, how much we weigh, and how warm we feel. They influence the heart, which pumps harder and faster with increased thyroid hormones. As the most potent and active thyroid hormone, T3 affects every single function in the human body. It affects the brain’s cognitive function, mood, concentration, memory, attention span, and emotions. And T3 has a direct impact on a woman’s ability to conceive and carry a fetus to term. Perhaps Jennifer’s inability to conceive could be a result of insufficient or ineffective T3.
The Thyroid Continuum
Like a furnace, the thyroid functions on a continuum. When the thyroid is underperforming, the furnace cannot utilize available nutrients and convert them into useful energy. When the thyroid is overperforming, the furnace is producing too much energy. In this article, we will discuss the two opposite ends of the continuum — hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
What Causes Thyroid Dysfunction?
There are four main causes of thyroid dysfunction:
- Over- or under-production of thyroid stimulating hormones (TSH) from the pituitary gland
- Over- or under-production of thyroid hormones (T4, T3) from the thyroid gland
- The body’s inability to convert T4 into T3 efficiently
- The body’s inability to utilize T3
1. Causes of Over-or Under-Production of TSH in the Pituitary Gland
High TSH indicates hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), while low TSH indicates hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid).
- Gluten intolerances
- Autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s or Graves’ disease
- Low-calorie diets
- Inflammation and environmental toxins
2. Causes of Over- or Under-Production of T4, T3 in the Thyroid Gland
- Iodine deficiency
- Chlorine, bromine, and fluoride
- Certain medications (beta blockers for cardiac arrhythmias, lithium, phenytoin, theophylline, chemotherapy)
- Immune reactions to food intolerances
- High doses of nutritional supplements, such as alpha lipoic acid and carnitine
3. Causes of Poor Conversion of T3 from T4
- Stress hormones (cortisol)
- Nutrient deficiencies (especially selenium, iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamins B2, B6 and B12)
- Mercury, lead, and cadmium toxicity
- Certain medications
4. Causes of Poor T3 Utilization
- High levels of estrogen, including estrogen replacement medications like Premarin
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Vitamin A deficiency
- Fatty acids EPA and DHA
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism (Underactive Thyroid)
When a person’s thyroid is underperforming (hypothyroidism), the loss of cellular energy and hormones is felt throughout the body. These issues become more acute and apparent with age.
- Chronic fatigue
- Immune system problems (frequent colds and flu, asthma, bronchitis)
- Woman-specific health issues (PMS, cyclic migraines, mood swings, fibrocystic breasts)
- Low blood sugar
- Increased cholesterol
- Weight gain or inability to lose weight
- A before-rising basal temperature below 97.8 F
- Autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease
Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism (Overactive Thyroid)
Many of the causes of hyperthyroidism are similar to hypothyroidism. Additional factors include Graves’ disease (an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid), thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland, which leads to a release of excess amounts of thyroid hormone), and excessive doses of thyroid hormone, especially those that contain T3. An overactive “furnace” that produces a surplus of energy can drastically affect physical, emotional, and mental state.
- Palpitations, fast heart rate
- Heat Intolerance; warm, moist skin
- Nervousness, trembling hands, breathlessness
- Increased bowel movements
- Light or absent menstrual periods
- Fatigue, muscle weakness
- Weight loss
- Hair loss
- Staring gaze
Testing Options: Finding Out the Truth
1. TSH Range
Standard blood tests look only at TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) and T4. Unfortunately, this data does not tell the whole story. In order to obtain a complete picture of thyroid health, it is important that any thyroid test also include:
- The body’s utilization of T3
- Thyroid antibody levels
There are tests that check T3 levels, but no blood test can test the body’s utilization of T3. This is why symptoms surveys are crucial components to assessing thyroid health. Thyroid antibody levels are indications of autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s disease or Graves’ disease. Though these autoimmune disorders are increasingly common, thyroid antibody levels are not frequently examined. The absence of these three elements in standard blood tests is why so many patients still do not feel better.
2. Oral Temperature/Resting Pulse Test and Thyroid Symptoms Survey
One of the easiest ways to test thyroid function is the oral temperature and resting pulse test paired with a comprehensive thyroid symptoms survey. By measuring basal metabolic rate, an indicator of how well the furnace is burning, it is possible to determine subclinical hypothyroidism, which does not show up in standard blood chemistry tests. Since the basic function of the thyroid is that of a metabolic “furnace,” body temperature is a key indicator of thyroid health. Oral temperature in the morning after rising should be at least 98 F. Half an hour after lunch, oral temperature should be between 98.6-99 F. Resting pulse after lunch or when not eating should be 85 beats per minute. This information, combined with a thyroid symptoms survey, can clearly and accurately indicate a poorly functioning thyroid.
Common Medical “Cures”: Expensive and Ineffective
There are three common medical “cures” utilized by most medical professionals today:
- Drugs for Hypothyroidism: Underactive thyroids are common and widespread throughout the U.S. So common, in fact, that Synthroid (Levothyroxine), a synthetic thyroid hormone which provides TSH and T4, is the fourth most-prescribed drug. Unfortunately, this drug is often ineffective because it does not supply T3, the active thyroid hormone.
- Drugs for Hyperthyroidism: Overactive thyroids are treated with three different kinds of medication. The first kind are called beta blockers, such as Propranolol and Metoprolol, that reduce rapid heartbeat, tremors, and nervousness. The second kind are antithyroid drugs, such as Tapazole (methimazole) or Propylthiouracil (PTU), that block production of thyroid hormones. Antithyroid drugs are known to lower white blood cell count, dropping the body’s resistance to potential infection. The third kind of drugs are radioactive iodine-131, which destroy the cells that make up the thyroid gland and prevent thyroid hormone production.
- Thyroidectomy: The surgical removal of the thyroid gland is sometimes utilized in cases of hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). Unfortunately, this can lead to the opposite problem: hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Patients may need to rely on artificial thyroid hormone supplements for the rest of their lives.
As nutritionist Dr. Joseph Debé points out in his article Do You Need a Thyroid Tune-up?, “thyroid hormone medication does nothing to improve thyroid metabolism and actually causes the body to stop making its own hormone.” Common medical cures often inhibit the body from healing itself.
- Accurate information is the first step on the path to wellness. Until it is known where and how the thyroid is failing, healing cannot begin. This is especially important in cases where thyroid antibodies are present because this can indicate an autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s disease or Graves’ disease. Treatments should be tailored to each individual’s unique needs.
- Armour thyroid is a complete bioidentical thyroid replacement hormone that contains TSH, T4, and T3. Bioidentical hormones are identical in molecular structure to the hormones humans produce naturally in their bodies. They are unlike Synthroid and other synthetic or pharmaceutical drugs that may have negative side effects. Additionally, Synthroid provides ONLY TSH and T4 hormones, and not T3.
- Thyroid glandular supplements, like desiccated thyroid, have T4 and T3, as well as other thyroid nutrients, to help support the thyroid gland.
- Iodine, magnesium, and selenium are three important nutritional supplements for general thyroid health.
- Bladderwrack, ashwagandha, and Indian ginseng are effective in making sure the body properly utilizes T3.
- Working with a clinician to measure basal metabolic temperature after lunch for four consecutive days will reveal how well these supplements are resolving the thyroid issue.
After over a year of frustration, Jennifer visited a practitioner who suggested she check her basal metabolic temperature to see if her thyroid was working properly. She was astonished to find that her temperature was much lower than normal. Despite inconclusive TSH tests at her regular healthcare provider’s office, Jennifer realized that her thyroid was underactive and her body was struggling to produce T4 and T3. She immediately began taking desiccated thyroid supplements and added foods containing selenium and magnesium to her diet. An ELISA food allergy panel indicated that Jennifer had a strong food allergy to dairy. She removed dairy products from her diet. Within months of making these changes, her body temperature returned to normal, and she and Todd were expecting a baby.
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