The thyroid gland -- which weighs only about an ounce -- plays a big role in your body's day-to-day functioning. From how quickly your heart beats to how effectively you burn calories, this butterfly-shaped gland in your neck regulates all aspects of your metabolism by releasing hormones. So when your thyroid slows down, a condition called hypothyroidism, your health suffers.
"Fatigue is among the most common complaints of patients with low thyroid function," says Angela LaSalle, M.D., an Indiana-based integrative physician. Additional common symptoms include weight gain, mood changes, constipation, or even seemingly unrelated conditions such as infertility and heart disease.
Diagnosing Thyroid Problems
For the past three decades, conventional physicians have assessed thyroid function using blood tests that measure a patient's level of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) -- a hormone released by the pituitary gland -- and, sometimes, the level of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (known as T4). In general, patients with high levels of TSH and low levels of T4 were considered to have hypothyroidism.
But some people whose hormone levels didn't fall within these clinical ranges still complained of symptoms -- and were often turned away by physicians. Treatment became the bailiwick of alternative practitioners who called attention to low-grade, or "subclinical, hypothyroidism a diagnosis roundly dismissed by many mainstream doctors. Differences in the way we use tests to determine thyroid function have long been a sticking point between alternative and conventional doctors," says LaSalle.
That's now changing. Subclinical hypothyroidism has become a legitimate diagnosis in the past few years due to several large studies that have shown a link between the condition and illnesses such as heart disease, says Wolfgang Dillmann, M.D., chief of the division of endocrinology and metabolism at the University of California, San Diego. In fact, subclinical hypothyroidism -- marked by normal levels of T4 and T3 (another thyroid hormone) but higher-than-normal levels of TSH -- affects about 10 percent of Americans, according to the American Thyroid Association.
If you suspect a problem with your thyroid, ask your doctor for a comprehensive exam. While full-blown hypothyroidism usually requires treatment with thyroid hormones, doctors have debated whether or not subclinical hypothyroidism merits medication. In either case, along with a doctor's care, you can optimize your health by following an integrative program designed to support the gland, says endocrinologist Ridha Arem, M.D., author of "The Thyroid Solution." This four-step plan will get you started.
1. Eat Right
The right foods may improve hormone balance and address the side effects of low thyroid function, like weight gain. Following these dietary recommendations will also help reduce inflammation in your body.
- Eliminate refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and sugar, and replace them with complex carbs, such as whole grains.
- Increase your intake of produce, and skip foods high in unhealthy saturated and trans fats, instead eating those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, and flaxseed).
Those already diagnosed may have been told to avoid goitrogens, substances found in foods such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale), peanuts, and soybeans. Although goitrogens can interfere with your thyroid's ability to produce hormones, most patients can tolerate small amounts, says LaSalle. Arem notes that cooked goitrogen-rich foods are less problematic.
2. Take Supplements
"To help support the thyroid's function, you can take some nutrients in supplement form," says LaSalle. Take supplements at a different time of day from thyroid medication.
- Selenium and zinc, which help to maintain a healthy thyroid gland. Arem recommends 50 to 100 mcg of selenium and 10 to 15 mg of zinc daily.
- Vitamin A as beta-carotene (2,000 to 4,000 IU), which helps the body convert thyroid hormones (and helps ensure that medical treatment is effective)
- Vitamin C (750 to 1,000 mg) and vitamin E (200 IU), which may protect against heart disease triggered by hypothyroidism. Many experts recommend natural vitamin E supplements that contain tocopherols and tocotrienols.
- B vitamins (B1, B6, B12, and folic acid), which help prevent mood and cognitive problems that often accompany low thyroid function; you can get adequate amounts in a "B-100" B-complex and a folic acid supplement.
- Vitamin D3 (800 IU) is recommended by LaSalle, since people with hypothyroidism are often deficient.
- A fish-oil supplement with at least 600 mg of EPA and 400 mg of DHA will help protect the heart and brain.
Because an iodine deficiency can trigger hypothyroidism, some alternative practitioners recommend iodine-rich kelp supplements. Our experts caution that this can lead to excess iodine, which may actually worsen thyroid function; they recommend talking to your doctor about possibly taking iodine supplements instead.
Just because your thyroid is sluggish doesn't mean you have to be. Regular physical activity can boost your mood, improve heart function, and rev up your metabolism.
Start slowly. Until lab tests show that your thyroid hormone levels have improved, exercise only moderately, like walking 20 minutes a day. Since thyroid imbalance can affect your heart function, it's important not to overdo it. After your hormone levels have normalized, add strength training, says Arem, which can also boost metabolism. Try yoga; some poses, like Shoulder Stand, may improve thyroid function.
Chronic stress can worsen thyroid function, while having hypothyroidism can itself create stress. LaSalle says she's often seen low thyroid function occur in patients who've experienced emotional traumas like divorce or job loss.
To help calm yourself and relieve anxiety, practice relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and meditation. Those suffering from severe stress might consider talk therapy; some holistic practitioners view low thyroid function as the result of a blocked throat chakra, or feeling like you can't speak your piece. LaSalle also suggests exploring creative ways to "find your voice," such as singing, writing, or creating art. You'll find your point of calm, and perhaps improve your thyroid health, too.
Do you have hypothyroidism? Read our head-to-toe signs.
Text by Jessica Cerretani