The thyroid is a gland in your neck that produces hormones (TS3 and TS4) responsible for growth and overall metabolism in every cell in your body. If trouble starts with your thyroid, therefore, there are implications for whole-body imbalance.
Over-production of thyroid hormones is known as hyperthyroidism; under-production or decreased effect of thyroid hormones on body tissues is hypothyroidism, which is the more common condition. The most common cause of an imbalance of thyroid hormones is an autoimmune condition, in which the body mistakes normal cells for foreign invaders and attacks them. (1)
Causes of Underactive Thyroid
The amount of hormones that the thyroid produces is regulated (in part) by the pituitary gland that sits in your head under your brain.
Hypothyroidism is often inherited, however, the increase of disorders of the thyroid worldwide suggests that there are other factors as well.
Carcinogens and toxic compounds in the environment, including exposure to radiation, have been identified as probable causes for thyroid dysfunction. (2)
The following conditions present higher risk for hypothyroidism:
- family or personal history of autoimmune disease
- women in the post-partum period
- personal history of neck or head irradiation
- primary pulmonary hypertension
- Turner’s and Down syndromes
- medications: amiodarone, interferon-alpha, aminoglutethimide, thalidomide, sunitinib, sorafenib and lithium
- people over 65 years of age
Other causes of hypothyroidism:
- Gland damage from surgery, radiation, atrophy
- Iodine deficiency or excess (3)
- Hypothalamic or pituitary disease (4)
Autoimmune disease is responsible for about ninety percent of adult hypothyroidism. (5) Thyroid dysfunction is one of the most common endocrine disorders worldwide, affecting four to twenty percent of the population, depending on the country. (6) It’s estimated that two hundred million people have some kind of thyroid disease and almost half of them don’t know it! (7)
Symptoms of Thyroid Disorders
Because the hormones secreted by the thyroid affect entire body metabolism, the symptoms of imbalance are diverse. Above-normal levels of thyroid hormones manifest much differently than low levels. Hyperthyroidism can lead to:
- sensitivity to heat/feeling hot
- excessive perspiration
- disrupted sleep
- cognitive issues: difficulty focusing and forgetfulness
- loose or more frequent bowel movements
- elevated heart rate and/or palpitations
- anxiety, nervousness, irritability
- unexplained weight loss
- increased appetite
- tremors in the hands and fingers
- thinning of skin
As hypo- is the opposite of hyper-thyroidism, many of the symptoms are, too:
- unexplained weight gain
- cold intolerance
- slowed heart rate, movements, and speech
- decreased perspiration
- pins and needles in the hands and/or feet
- high cholesterol
- puffy face, feet, and/or hands
- balance and co-ordination issues
- loss of libido
- recurrent urinary and respiratory tract infections
- thinned or missing eyebrows
- hearing loss
Symptoms that can appear for either condition:
- dry skin
- thin, brittle hair and/or fingernails
- joint and muscle pain, cramps, and weakness
- menstrual irregularity
Children with an under-active thyroid can experience poor growth and delayed development. (8)
Getting to the Root Cause
So if autoimmunity is the primary reason for hypothyroidism, why does that happen? The incidence of the collection of autoimmune diseases has steadily increased worldwide over the last thirty years by over nineteen percent. A meta-analysis of the phenomenon found a distinct correlation with socio-economic status and disclosed three major contributing factors: infections, ecology, and nutrition.
As a society, North American culture has become obsessed with germs. Antibacterial chemicals are added wholesale to cleaning and personal care products. Antibiotic resistance due to mis- and over-use has become a global health crisis. This has made us MORE susceptible to chronic illness because our natural immunity doesn’t develop or perform properly.
Exposure to low-level pathogens (including allergens) beginning in childhood is critical for developing the necessary antibodies for long-term immunity. We’ve evolved over time to live symbiotically with a host of micro-organisms. Without them, we get sick. The hygiene hypothesis is the idea that because we eradicate the “good” germs with the “bad”, our immune systems are unable to generate the appropriate response. (9) This has implications for the genesis of autoimmune disease and allergies. So while the spread of infectious diseases has declined over the last three decades, the flip side is the rise of autoimmunity and allergic diseases. (10)
Both internal and external environments affect our health. Gut microbiota play an integral part of our immune systems, most of which lives in the digestive tract. Leaky gut is the condition in which intestinal linings become perforated and undigested food and toxins move through the bloodstream. This causes inflammation (among other things); chronic inflammation is a precursor to disease.
Our external environment is fraught with toxins in our food, water, air, and soil. Agricultural and geoengineering chemicals, food additives, heavy metals, fluoride, and endocrine disruptors in home and personal care products are known to cause inflammation and disease. Excessive stress is common as the result of lifestyle pressures. One of the consequences of stress is adrenal insufficiency; this is relevant because the hormones produced by the adrenal glands interact with the thyroid.
“Given the constancy of genetics, growing attention has focused on environmental factors, and in particular, the western lifestyle. Indeed, over the last few decades significant changes in western dietary habits, environmental surroundings and pollution exposure, infectious habitat and stress load, have led to a parallel rise in autoimmune diseases.” (11)
The typical Western diet has been shown to be at the bottom of countless varieties of illness and disease.
“Living in westernized countries has not fundamentally changed the genetic basis on which these diseases emerge, but has strong impact on lifestyle and pathogen exposure. In particular, nutritional patterns collectively termed the ‘Western diet’, including high-fat and cholesterol, high-protein, high-sugar, and excess salt intake, as well as frequent consumption of processed and ‘fast foods’, promote obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease…Genetic factors clearly predispose to the development of inflammatory autoimmune diseases, but a relatively low concordance rate for most of the diseases between monozygotic twins suggests environmental factors as important triggers of disease. ” (10)
What you don’t eat is as important as what you do eat. Thyroid dysfunction has been linked to nutrient deficiencies, specifically:
- minerals (iodine, zinc, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and chromium)
- vitamins (A, B1, B5, B6, and C)
- certain proteins
It’s almost unimaginable that in our affluent society that malnutrition can exist. There’s an important distinction between having enough to eat to satiate hunger and taking in adequate nutrition.
Obesity has been linked to metabolic and autoimmune diseases (e.g., diabetes) and is linked to hormone function and balance.
“Proper diet helps to reduce the symptoms of the [autoimmune thyroid] disease, maintains a healthy weight and prevents the occurrence of malnutrition.” (11)
Daily Thyroid and Hormone-balancing Tonic Recipe
Since the cause of thyroid dysfunction is largely environmental, it is often reversible by changing diet and lifestyle.
Below is a recipe for a delicious tonic to support the thyroid and reset hormone balance.
- 1 organic lemon, juiced
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger (or ½ teaspoon fresh)
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric (or ½ teaspoon fresh)
- 2 cups filtered water
- 1 teaspoon spirulina powder
- 1 dropperful ionized liquid zinc
- 1 teaspoon barley juice extract powder
- 3 grams L-Glutamine powder
- 1 tablespoon cold-milled flaxseed or chia seeds
Optional: active probiotics (1 liquid dropperful OR powder from one 50-billion capsule)
- Hand-squeeze the lemon juice into a large jar with a tight-fitting lid.
- Add all remaining ingredients and shake briskly to combine. Drink immediately. Makes one serving.
Other Thyroid-supporting Foods
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, also known as Indian ginseng. It’s been found to regulate cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands.
Selenium is a mineral found in trace amounts in foods we eat. Selenium deficiency is linked to impaired thyroid function. You can find selenium in:
- nuts and seeds
- grass-fed beef and liver
- poultry and eggs (free range, organic)
Probiotics promote a healthy digestive system and, as we’ve seen, your internal environment and ultimate health literally depends on these micro-organisms. (12) Plain yogurt, water kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented foods, kombucha, natto, kvass, and organic miso all contain gazillions of probiotics.
If you are having trouble with your thyroid, avoid cruciferous vegetables and other goitrogenic foods, as these can interfere with thyroid function: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, soy, etc.
The little butterfly-shaped gland that hugs your trachea may require special attention.
With a few tweaks (including this new tonic recipe!), you can help to ensure optimal metabolism and hormone balance.
If you think your thyroid may be compromised, consult your healthcare provider.