What is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a thyroid problem caused by an underactive thyroid gland that produces insufficient amounts of thyroid hormones. This common condition affects millions of people.
Because the symptoms may be varied and difficult to define, often mimicking other conditions, many people with an underactive thyroid gland may be completely unaware of the problem.
To get a basic understanding of hypothyroidism, you need to familiarize yourself with the thyroid. The thyroid is a small gland found in the middle of the lower neck (below the larynx or Adam’s apple).
This gland manufactures thyroid hormones which enable the body to carry out a variety of very important functions. The thyroid works in conjunction with pituitary gland which produces thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).
TSH in turn stimulates the thyroid gland to produce the thyroid hormones, T3 and T4. These thyroid hormones play a vital role in the body, influencing metabolism and all the organs in the body. They determine how fast or how slow the organs should work and how the body generates and uses energy.
When the thyroid is under-active and doesn’t produce enough of these hormones, hypothyroidism can develop. Metabolic rate and energy levels decrease and the body uses energy slower than it should.
Who Suffers from Hypothyroidism?
Underactive thyroid is a very common medical condition and statistics suggest that 1 in 50 women and 1 in 1000 men will develop symptoms of hypothyroidism. It is more common in older women and can also occur more frequently during pregnancy.
Conventional treatment usually involves the administration of synthetic or animal derived thyroid hormone replacement drugs.
A blood test is needed to confirm the diagnosis of an underactive thyroid gland, but does not necessarily tell you the cause. The patient’s clinical history and results of antibody screening tests and thyroid scans can help to determine the underlying cause.
Blood tests will measure the levels of TSH, the thyroid stimulating hormone, and T3 and T4, the thyroid hormones - as well as their interactions with each other.
The results of these tests will tell you where the problem lies - in the pituitary gland, where TSH is produced, the hypothalamus (which controls the pituitary gland) or in the thyroid gland itself. This will in turn help physicians to determine the correct management for you.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
The symptoms of hypothyroidism are not always easy to distinguish from other conditions, which makes a proper diagnosis very important. Some of the symptoms of underactive thyroid gland include:
- Allergies, e.g. Itching Eyes, Rashes, Hives
- Heart Palpitations
- Sore Breasts
- Stomach Bloating/Digestion Problems
- Itching Skin
- Low Sex Drive
- Skin Problems, e.g. Wrinkles & Age Spots
- Aching Joints & Muscle Soreness, e.g. Aching Legs & Backaches
- Motion Sickness
- Dry, Tangly Hair Or Hair Loss
- Fatigue & Exhaustion
- Weight Gain Or Difficulty Losing Weight
- Brittle, Split Nails
- Swelling & Puffiness in the Eyes, Face, Arms and Legs
- Poor Concentration
- Menstrual Problems, e.g. Heavy and/or Infrequent Flow
What Causes Hypothyroidism?
There are several potential diseases and conditions that can cause of Hypothyroidism.
- Hashimoto’s disease - This an auto-immune disease, where your antibodies, which usually ward off foreign infections or substances, turn on your own body and attack the thyroid gland, This causes inflammation in the thyroid gland, gradually affecting its ability to function and produce thyroid hormone.
- Hypothyroidism caused by thyroid gland inflammation – also called thyroiditis. This is caused when inflammation of the thyroid gland leaves a large percentage of the thyroid cells damaged and unable to produce enough hormones. This inflammation could be due to things like infection or trauma
- As a Consequence of treatment for hyperthyroidism – People who suffer from hyperthyroidism are often treated with radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications to reduce their thyroid function. When the function is reduced too much, hypothyroidism can result.
- Thyroid surgery – Removing all or a large portion of your thyroid can diminish hormone production. If there are not enough thyroid producing cells to satisfy the body’s needs, you will develop hypothyroidism.
- Pituitary/hypothalamic disease – You could also be at risk of developing hypothyroidism if the pituitary gland fails to produce enough TSH – the hormone responsible for ‘instructing’ the thyroid to produce T3 and T4.
- Iodine deficiency – Iodine is found primarily in seafood, seaweed, plants grown in iodine-rich soil and iodized salt and is essential for the production of thyroid hormones. Some areas of the world experience a severe iodine deficiency, for example India, Chile, Ecuador and Zaire.
- Radiation therapy – Radiation used to treat cancers of the head and neck can affect your thyroid gland and may lead to hypothyroidism.
- Medications – A number of medications (such as lithium which is often used for psychiatric disorders) can contribute to hypothyroidism. Consult your doctor about the effect of your medications on your thyroid gland.
Disorders Similar to Hypothyroidism
I have hypothyroidism symptoms but the tests say my thyroid is normal. What could be the problem?
Your symptoms may be related to another condition and the tests may be correct in indicating that your thyroid is functioning normally. However, it is also possible that the tests are not providing a true picture of the functioning of your thyroid. Thyroid tests can often come back 'normal' although the thyroid is not functioning as it should be.
This is because a 'normal' result on tests only tells you that your thyroid functioning falls within the 'average range'. Because thyroid functioning can vary from person to person, what may be 'normal' for one person is not necessarily so for the next person.
That is why the results of thyroid tests must always be seen in the context of symptoms experienced by the patient, which can provide valuable information which assists the diagnostic process.
Help for Hypothyroidism
Conventional treatment usually involves taking a synthetic or animal derived thyroid hormone medication on a daily basis.
Levothyroxine is the most common conventional medication used to treat hypothyroidism and treatment is life-long.
Patients have to be aware that they understand their condition thoroughly and how to take and adjust their medication.The doctor will check TSH levels to determine the right dosage of levothyroxine. If the correct dosage is not administered side effects could occur, like heart palpitations, shakiness, an increased appetite and insomnia can occur.
If you suffer from heart disease, your doctor will probably start you on a smaller dosage and gradually increase it. Thyroid hormone levels should be monitored on a regular basis (approximately every 6 weeks) and TSH levels checked to determine whether the correct amount of thyroid replacement hormone is administered.
There are other treatment options that can also be explored and may well be more suited to you. These include alternative and natural remedies for hypothyroidism and are especially for those who want to avoid the side effects of prescription drugs.
There are a variety of natural therapies that can be included in the treatment plan for thyroid disorders. Natural remedies for hypothyroidism with herbal and homeopathic ingredients can help to promote steady hormone levels, as well as maintain and restore the health of the thyroid gland.
Some herbal remedies commonly recommended for hypothyroid conditions include Equisetum arvense, Avena sativa, Centella asiatica, Coleus forskohlii and Fucus vesiculosis. There are also herbal and homeopathic remedies that can be used supportively to address some of the troublesome symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Correct use of natural remedies for hypothyroidism may allow patients to take less medication and achieve greater symptomatic relief. Discuss this option with your doctor, homeopath or naturopath, who will be able to recommend a natural treatment option.
Natural Treatments for Hypothyroidism
There are steps that you can take to make your condition manageable at home. Try some of these suggestions to help you cope more effectively:
- Surround yourself with a good support system
- Educate yourself on your condition
- Involve doctors, homeopaths, naturopaths, specialists, therapists, family, friends etc in the management of your condition
- Try to maintain a positive ‘can-do’ attitude
- Eat a healthy well-balanced diet
- Include lots of salt water fish, shellfish and sea weed in your diet as these are rich in iodine – essential for healthy thyroid functioning
- Avoid cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale) as these contain a natural thyroid blocker
- Try to do regular physical activity or exercise
- Take and adjust your medications as necessary
- Have your hormone levels monitored on a regular basis
- Perform a daily thyroid self-massage. To massage the thyroid gland; gently stroke up and down the sides of the trachea (also known as windpipe).
Natural Diet for Hypothyroidism
The thyroid gland needs an array of nutrients to function optimally. Add essential fatty acids to your diet. Cold water fish such as salmon and cod as well as flaxseed, walnuts and almonds are great sources. Another option is to take a daily supplement such as fish oil. Seaweed, chlorella and algae should also be consumed frequently. They are rich in iodine and essential nutrients that maintain thyroid function balance.
Another important thing to keep in mind when it comes to a natural diet for hypothyroidism is that there are also foods that actually slow down thyroid function. These include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, spinach, turnips, soy, beans, and mustard greens. Also, take care to avoid overly processed food and limit dairy, sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, and alcohol intake. Natural remedies and herbs can also be used to support optimal thyroid function. Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) is a natural source of iodine, essential for healthy thyroid function. Shilajeet-Asphaltum puniabiunum is one of India’s most prized herbs and is considered a ‘wonder drug’ by many due to its high mineral content. Makandi (Coleus forskohlii) has been studied extensively for its use in supporting thyroid function. Clinical trials have shown that forskolin (a chemical found in coleus) may help to support thyroid hormone secretion.