Your thyroid gland is located just below your Adam’s apple and is responsible for producing the hormone thyroxine, which stimulates your metabolism – regulating your heart rate and bowel movements, and also affecting your appetite and ability to lose weight.
For this process to function properly, your thyroid gland relies on iodine to help it produce sufficient levels of thyroxine. Without iodine, your thyroid soon becomes thyroxine-deficient which can cause a disorder known as hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid. If left untreated, an underactive thyroid can result in more than just your inability to lose weight and can, in fact, cause life-threatening conditions such as heart failure, anaemia, depression, and even dementia or coma in extreme cases.
Your chances of developing an underactive thyroid increase with age. And, disturbingly, it is thought that up to 40 per cent of all people over the age of 60 suffer from an underactive thyroid to a certain degree – although the condition can affect people of any age.
Are you suffering from an underactive thyroid without even knowing it?
There are several variants of the hormone thyroxine, but the most important are called T4 and T3. The T4 variant is the actual hormone produced by your thyroid gland. This needs to be activated by your liver and other organs in your body into the more energetic form, called T3. Your body then uses T3 as and when required.
Thyroxine does not work on its own, but is controlled by other hormones, which are produced by a gland in your brain called the hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus gland regulates and balances the amounts of thyroxine produced. If, for example, your thyroid does not produce enough thyroxine, this is picked up by your hypothalamus gland which sends messages to your thyroid to increase its production. If, however, your thyroid works overtime and produces too much thyroxine, then your hypothalamus signals to your thyroid to slow down.
This process can become unbalanced due to a variety of reasons, including infections, a genetic predisposition, neck operations, auto-immune disorders (where your body ends up attacking your thyroid gland and depletes its hormone-producing cells), tumours or increasing age.
Sufferers of an underactive thyroid typically experience symptoms such as constipation, fatigue, a slow heart rate, swollen and puffy face, dry skin, thinning hair and brittle nails, weight gain and increased difficulties in losing weight, poor memory, confusion and depression. However, it is possible for some sufferers to have no symptoms at all, or symptoms so subtle that the sufferer does not attribute them to a thyroxine deficiency.
Conventional tests for detecting an underactive thyroid are not always accurate
An underactive thyroid can normally be detected by a blood test, which checks the concentration of thyroxine in your blood. However, because some sufferers only experience very subtle symptoms, these tests are not always able to pick up on mild cases.
Many health practitioners believe this is because conventional tests are based on a ‘normal’ range that is simply too low. In addition, slightly low levels do not officially qualify as a low score on the tests, so mild disorders are often missed.
Conventional medicine treats an underactive thyroid using synthetic thyroxine hormone tablets. Regular blood tests are necessary to check that the amount of thyroxine given is sufficient. If too much thyroxine is used, the patient may be over-stimulated and experience.
unpleasant side-effects such as palpitations, sweating, diarrhoea and anxiety. To avoid the risk of side-effects caused by overdosing or under-dosing it is vital that this treatment is regularly monitored by your GP, and that the treatment is not interrupted – as this can result in relapses.
Natural alternatives can provide effective relief from debilitating symptoms
The amino acid tyrosine (found in soya products) has shown successful results in helping to increase the production of thyroxine in your body. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E – together with co-enzyme Q10 found in deep-coloured fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots and broccoli – can also bring significant improvements. These prevent age-related damage to your thyroid cells by protecting them against free-radical attacks.
Supplementing with minerals such as selenium, manganese and zinc can also be very effective. At the recent 83rd Annual Meeting of the Endocrine Society in Denver, Colorado, the findings of research into selenium and its potential for regulating thyroid problems were reported on. German physician, Barbara Gasnier, of the Medizinische Klinik University, and her team, found that a deficiency of selenium was linked to the development of auto-immune-related thyroid problems, because of the mineral’s impact on certain immune system enzymes. And taking 200mcg of selenium a day could help correct this underlying problem.
As mentioned, iodine is an essential compound necessary for the production of thyroxine. Including more iodine-rich foods in your diet, such as seaweed or kelp, can be beneficial. However, too much iodine, if taken for too long or in large quantities, can cause further problems such as thyroid swelling (goitre).
Thyroid extracts can help boost your sluggish thyroid gland
For sufferers with a mild case of hypothyroidism, taking dry extracts of the thyroid gland in supplement form can be an effective measure in helping to improve symptoms. Extracts are taken from the thyroid glands of animals (usually the thyroid glands of pigs are used). These specially prepared extracts contain natural amounts of thyroxine, as well as other beneficial nutritional factors. And, unlike synthetic variants, these extracts are almost identical to human thyroid hormones.
It is important to take a high-quality product that guarantees standardised extracts. Armour Dessicated Thyroid and other forms of dry thyroid powder, such as Thyroplex, are available on prescription. Alternatively, you can purchase these products from the Life Extension Foundation (www.lef.org ) although you should consult your doctor first. The dose is usually a quarter to half a grain a day.
In addition to thyroid extracts, the hormones DHEA and melatonin can also help stimulate a sluggish thyroid. These do not have a direct effect on your thyroid gland itself but, if used with the other natural treatment options, they can provide hormonal support to other glands in your body — which help re-establish the optimal functioning of your thyroid.
These natural alternatives can promote significant improvements in the symptoms associated with your underactive thyroid gland. However, it is important that, if you are currently under-going hormone replacement therapy, you do not self-treat with the natural treatments mentioned – always consult your doctor first. You can gain more information on the different range of thyroid disorders from: The British Thyroid Foundation, P.O.Box 97, Clifford LS23 6DX.
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Am J Med Sci 1998, 315 (4) 230-232
Horm Metab Res 1996, 28 (5) 223-226