The Problem: You are Not Alone!
One of the most common health conditions I encounter in my profession is thyroid disease. In fact, the American Thyroid Association estimates that over twelve percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition in their lifetime with over 60% of those affected not knowing they have a problem to begin with (1). Women, you need to be particularly careful as you are ten times more likely to develop a thyroid problem when compared to your male counterparts. What’s even worse is that up to ten percent of women develop problems after pregnancy (2). It is essential to understand what the thyroid is and how it impacts your body. The consequences of an ill-managed dysfunctional thyroid can be detrimental to both your health and quality of life.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland located in the lower front portion of the neck which holds the primary role of manufacturing thyroid hormones. These thyroid hormones are secreted into the blood and carried to almost every cell in the body where they affect metabolism and orchestrate a multitude of critical functions (1). Thyroid hormones help regulate your temperature, and it also keeps the brain, heart, gut, muscles, and other organs working like a well-oiled machine. With the thyroid having its fingers in almost every aspect of your body, your entire body feels the consequences when it is off!
Trust our Gut!
Having a thyroid condition can be incredibly frustrating, especially if it is not being managed appropriately. I have met patients on numerous occasions who are told by their doctor “It’s all in your head”, “You are just getting older”, “Nutrition has no effect on your thyroid”, or “There is nothing you can do about an autoimmune thyroid disease, you just have to take this thyroid medication the rest of your life and increase the dose every so often while your immune system destroys your thyroid”. I am here to tell you this is not the case. You can feel better; I see it every day! You know your body better than anybody, and if you feel as though something is not right, then something is not right! A thyroid condition does not have to be a life sentence where feeling horrible is the new state of normalcy. Through optimizing your nutrition, removing inflammatory triggers, and reducing physical and emotional stressors, you can get back to the state of wellness we all deserve.
How do I Know if I have a Thyroid Condition?
Multiple thyroid problems can manifest with the most common being autoimmune in nature. For those of you who are not familiar with what autoimmunity is, autoimmunity occurs when the immune system (which is designed to protect your body against foreign invaders like bacteria, fungus, viruses, and parasites) inappropriately decides that the body's own cells are the enemy and proceeds to attack various organs. When this happens in the joints it is called Rheumatoid Arthritis when it happens to the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord it is called Multiple Sclerosis or MS, and when it occurs in the thyroid, it is called Hashimoto’s or Graves’ Disease. Currently, there are over 80 autoimmune conditions that have been identified, and this number continues to rise (3). Hashimoto's is the most common autoimmune thyroid condition and typically results in hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone). Hashimoto's can be diagnosed by testing blood for one of two different antibodies, Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO) Antibodies and Thyroglobulin (TG) Antibodies. Graves’ Disease is less common and typically results in hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone). A blood test that can be helpful for identifying Graves’ Disease is the TSH Receptor Antibodies (TRAb) test.
Common Symptoms of Hypothyroid (too little thyroid hormone):
- fatigue/low energy
- weight gain
- cold intolerance (especially in hands, feet, tip of nose)
- joint and muscle pain
- constipation (less than one bowel movement a day)
- dry, thinning hair or hair loss (especially outer third of eyebrows)
- heavy or irregular menstrual periods
- irregular heart beat/palpitations/slow heart rate
- memory problems/brain fog
Common Symptoms of Hyperthyroid (too much thyroid hormone):
- increased appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- excessive sweating
- inability to concentrate
- irregular heartbeat/palpitations
- difficulty sleeping
- fine, brittle hair/hair loss
- nausea and vomiting
How Does This Happen to Me?
One of the reasons I believe many people with thyroid conditions do not get better is the result of medical practitioners failing to ask "why." When it comes to an autoimmune disease, asking "why," and correcting the "why" is the most effective way to get a resolution of symptoms. The conventional treatment for autoimmunity in our current medical model typically involves either shutting down the immune system with potent drugs that have nasty side effects (often worse than the original problem) or removing the organ that is involved (i.e. a thyroidectomy). My approach to autoimmunity is a little…a lot different. Now with that being said, in certain situations, I do recommend conventional treatments because depending on the progression of the disease and severity of symptoms, these options may be necessary. But if time permits and it is safe, why wouldn’t we try a less aggressive more holistic approach before jumping to the big guns?
When evaluating the "why," you need to consider the three primary ingredients to creating an autoimmune condition: genetic predisposition, leaky gut, and a trigger. Although you can’t change your genes, we can change their expression. A common saying within the Functional Medical community is that your genes load the gun and your environment pulls the trigger. By altering your environment (healing a leaky gut and removing inflammatory triggers), there is a good chance you can encourage your genetics to express themselves in more of a positive light. The other benefit to healing your gut and reducing inflammation is that you also reduce your risk of developing another autoimmune condition (a common problem for people with autoimmune conditions). You also reduce your risk for other deadly disease processes linked to inflammation like heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, etc.
Another problem with conventional thyroid treatment is the fact that every person typically gets one universal treatment. The reality is each individual with autoimmune thyroid disease got there for different reasons. To expect everyone to get one treatment and do well is a little unrealistic. This is why I spend over 80 minutes’ with individuals at their initial appointment to dissect their medical history in an attempt to identify and correct potential causative factors. Although every treatment plan is different, the basic concept is the same. Give the body the fuel it needs (nutrition, sleep, spirituality, purpose), and take away the factors that hinder healing (stress, infections, toxins).
Does This Really Work?
I have worked with individuals from around the world with complex autoimmune conditions and have seen people make some pretty amazing recoveries despite being told from multiple medical practitioners they were out of options. I would like to tell you the story of one patient's journey who I remember well; I will call her Rachel. Rachel came in with her mother to get to the root cause of her Hashimoto’s disease. Rachel was diagnosed with Hashimoto's by her local endocrinologist with TPO antibodies >2500 IU/ml (Normal range <9 IU/ml) and placed on Synthroid (a synthetic thyroid hormone). Rachel’s mother asked the doctor what she could do to improve her condition? He responded by saying there was nothing particular that could be done; she would have to stay on the thyroid hormone for the rest of her life and continue to increase the dose as her thyroid became increasingly dysfunctional. Rachel came in for a consult after refusing to accept the pessimistic outlooks she received from her doctor. After a compressive medical history was obtained and a functional laboratory workup was completed, we found out that Rachel was sensitive to gluten and dairy, had a pathogenic bacteria in her gut, multiple nutritional deficiencies (some of which were essential for thyroid function) and mercury toxicity. Over the course of a year, and implementing a plan that incorporated dietary changes, natural herbs to kill the bacteria, supplements to chelate the mercury, a tremendous about of hard work and dedication on her part, this 12-year-old girl made some pretty miraculous changes. She had improvements in sleep, energy, school performance, and her chronic constipation she had struggled with since being an infant was completely resolved. She weaned off of her thyroid medication completely while maintaining optimal hormone levels and her TPO antibodies decreased from greater than 2,500 IU/ml to less than 300 IU/ml (not perfect but significantly better). Both she and her mother worked incredibly hard over that year, and her thyroid overall health is in a much better place now because of it.
If you have a thyroid disorder or are simply not feeling well and feel as though you are no getting any answers, take the first step gaining your health back and set up a consult at GrassRoots Functional Medicine. Life is too short not to feel optimal. Let’s partner together and get you on the state of having the physical, mental, and spiritual health you deserve!
In good health,
Dr. Seth Osgood
About the Author: Seth Osgood is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certified Practitioner. Seth received his post-graduate training in Functional Medicine through the IFM and from working with Dr. Amy Myers. He has helped people from around the world improve their health utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.