Thyroid disorders are on the rise. Current statistics show that approximately 200 million people worldwide are affected by some form of thyroid problem. 1 in 10 Canadians will be diagnosed with a thyroid disorder at some point in their life. The scary part is that, due to insufficient and incomplete testing practices by medical doctors, about 50% of those with a thyroid disorder are walking around without a clue that they even have one.
Low thyroid functioning is almost always secondary to some other imbalance going on within the body, often adrenal stress. If you are not sure what the adrenal glands are and how stress affects them, check out my "Adrenal Fatigue - The Silent Epidemic" blog post for more information.
Long-term stress on the adrenal glands can wreak havoc on the thyroid by:
When thyroid functioning is low, it leads to a host of unpleasant symptoms within the body including:
What Can You Do?
First and foremost, if you have more than 3 of the symptoms listed above, you should have testing done on your thyroid to confirm whether or not you are dealing with a thyroid disorder. This isn't always easy though since most conventionally trained doctors will only run one test for Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) which does not give the complete picture of thyroid functioning. TSH is a messenger hormone produced by the pituitary gland to signal the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone. That's it. A TSH test doesn't tell us how our body is converting T4 to T3, how much T4 or T3 we have circulating within the body or whether or not our immune system is in overdrive and attacking our thyroid gland as is the case in thyroid autoimmune conditions.
Getting your family doctor to do a full thyroid blood panel is challenging to say the least. They are trained to look only at TSH as the "be all and end all" for diagnosing thyroid functioning. The problem with this is that, depending on the lab, the range of "normal" for TSH is 0.38 to 5.5 IU/ml. Some doctors will refuse to consider treating low thyroid symptoms until a TSH reading of 10 is reached. So many individuals suffer unnecessarily for years because of their doctors only testing this blood marker.
It is important to get a full spectrum thyroid test panel in order to have an accurate understanding of how the thyroid is functioning. Tests that I (and most functional health practitioners) recommend are:
I can tell you from my own personal experience and from the experience of my clients, getting your family doctor to run these tests for you is a serious uphill battle. It is easier to work with a functional healthcare practitioner such as a functional medicine doctor or naturopathic doctor to obtain these tests, but keep in mind that it will come at a cost. As part of my practice I often write letters to my clients' doctors with friendly requests for the above-tests with mixed response. Some doctors will be open and receptive to the request, others will not.
Supporting the Adrenals to Support the Thyroid
Low thyroid, whether properly diagnosed or not, is almost always connected to low adrenal functioning. Doctors will often put their patients on Synthroid, Levothyroxine or some other form of synthetic T4 medication in order to get TSH levels into "normal" range, but, more often that not, it isn't enough to get patients feeling fully restored. Especially in the case of autoimmune thyroid conditions where the problem doesn't lie with the thyroid but, rather, with the immune system. (Please do not take this paragraph as me telling you to stop taking your thyroid medication. Do not discontinue any medications without consulting your medical practitioner).
Supporting the adrenal glands is key to supporting and restoring thyroid functioning. If we don't take the time to reduce the stressors on the body and the mind, we cannot get to optimum thyroid functioning! The following are some fundamental practices to get both the adrenals and the thyroid purring like a kitten:
Avoid foods and chemicals that stimulate the adrenals to produce excess cortisol - Concentrated sugars, refined carbohydrates, coffee, energy drinks, nicotine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, allergenic foods, partially hydrogenated fats.
Get blood sugar balanced - When it comes to supporting the adrenals (and any body system for that matter), diet is critical. If your blood sugar is imbalanced and unstable, you'll have a really hard time achieving optimal adrenal health and, in-turn, optimal thyroid health. If you find that you crave sugary foods, get shaky, headachy or irritable between meals or find that eating relieves fatigue, your blood sugar is likely out of whack. To balance blood sugar:
Make sure you get enough essential fatty acids in the diet (EFA's) - These include EPA/DHA from fish oils, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and GLA from evening primrose oil, black current or borage oils. EFA's are essential for the synthesis of all hormones, including those produced by the adrenals and the thyroid.
Consider adrenal adaptogens - these are herbal remedies which have been used for thousands of years to balance and restore adrenal functioning. They help improve communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands which, in turn, improves how the brain communicates with the thyroid. Great options are Siberian ginseng, ashwagandha, rhodiola and holy basil. Be sure to work under the supervision of a qualified health professional before adding adaptogens to your daily routine, especially if you are taking prescription medications.
Exercise (keep it light) - Exercise is important but when we are adrenally compromised those Cross fit or HIIT workouts aren't our friend. Move your body daily but stick to exercises that won't create a cortisol dump - walking, slow jogging, slow cycling and yoga.
Incorporate stress management strategies and relaxation techniques into your day, EVERY DAY - Find what works for you but make sure you get it in each and every day, no excuses. Set time aside in your schedule as an appointment if it helps. This is a non-negotiable!
Laugh - It's the best medicine! Find things that make you smile or, better yet, bring on a full-on belly laugh whenever you can. Make pleasure a part of your everyday life.
Take time off - We often underestimate the power of true restorative time off. It is critical that we schedule downtime into our weeks and guard them fiercely. Do not use this time to do household chores, catch up on emails or run errands. Sit. Read. Relax. Watch a movie. Disconnect from social media and electronic stimuli.
Sleep - The human body can go weeks without food but only a couple of days without sleep. Our society brags of sleep deprivation like it's some badge of honour but we simply cannot sustain ourselves on inadequate levels of restful and restorative sleep. We need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep every night. Make sure you are getting enough. Sleep in on weekends as often as you can.
Jensen and Schauch, Stress and the Disease Connection, Jensen and Schauch, ActNatural Corporation (2015)
Kharrazian, Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms When My Lab Tests Are Normal?, Elephant Press (2010)
Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!