One of the most common reasons patients visit my office is because they are chronically tired and fatigued. Although there are many causes of fatigue, a poorly functioning thyroid gland is often the culprit behind their low energy levels.
If you’re fatigued, this may be your problem as well. Low thyroid function or hypothyroidism not only can zap your energy levels—it can also be to blame for other symptoms such as:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Pale, dry skin
- A puffy face
- Hoarse voice
- Elevated blood cholesterol and liver enzyme levels
- Unexplained weight gain
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
- Muscle weakness
- Heavier than normal menstrual periods
- Brittle fingernails and hair
Hypothyroidism also is associated with an increased risk of heart disease—and new research indicates that the reason why may be because hypothyroid patients have a higher level of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein and a higher level of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to heart disease.
Conversely, hyperthyroidism—when your thyroid goes into overdrive—can also cause fatigue as well as the following symptoms:
- Heat intolerance
- Increased bowel movements
- Light or absent menstrual periods
- Fast heart rate
- Trembling hands
- Weight loss
- Muscle weakness
- Warm, moist skin
- Hair loss
- Staring gaze
If you have any of the symptoms above, it’s possible you may have an overactive thyroid.
Pinpointing the Cause
If your test results indicate you’re hypothyroid (we’ll talk more about hyperthyroidism later), it’s important to ask: What is causing the sluggish thyroid? Because, without addressing the cause of the problem, we can’t find a true solution.
A one-size fits all approach doesn’t work. In fact, in the Colorado Thyroid Disease Prevalence Study, 60 percent of the subjects taking thyroid medication still didn’t have normal TSH levels.
First, we need to look at the factors that inhibit proper production of thyroid hormones. One of those factors is stress, which increases the conversion of T4 to rT3 and suppresses the production of T3 and TSH. Extreme exercise can have the same effect.
Environmental toxins also inhibit proper production of thyroid hormones. Perchlorate, a toxin found in rocket fuel, pesticides, herbicides and household bleach, is commonly found in the water supply and in food. Researchers have linked increased urinary perchlorate to higher levels of TSH in women with normal serum T4.
Bisphenol A, found in canned foods and even cash register receipts, as well as phthalates, which are found in cosmetics, shampoos and other common products, both disrupt thyroid gland function.
Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers examined whether there was a connection between phthalate and BPA levels and thyroid function in 1,346 adults and 329 adolescents. Among adults, researchers observed that the higher the metabolites of a particular type of phthalate, the lower the levels of total T4, free T4 and total T3. High phthalate metabolites also were associated with higher thyroid-stimulating hormone.
The results further confirmed that there is indeed a link between the toxins we’re exposed to every day and altered thyroid.
People who have celiac disease are often plagued by thyroid problems, possibly due to the fact they have a hard time absorbing selenium, a nutrient essential for proper thyroid function. Celiac disease also occurs more often in people with autoimmune thyroid diseases.
Chronic infections are also known to decrease blood levels of T4, T3, TSH and selenium
Additionally, certain foods (called goitrogens) may inhibit thyroid function. Soy is possibly the worst offender. It can interfere with thyroid hormone absorption to the point where people taking thyroid hormone replacement for underactive thyroid continue to be hypothyroid until they either stop consuming soy or significantly increase their doses of thyroid hormone.
In humans, infants fed soy formula developed goiter. However, in post-menopausal women and healthy young men, soy intake did not affect thyroid function.
Helping the Thyroid Thrive
Now that we’ve discussed the factors that inhibit thyroid function, let’s look at what the thyroid needs to stay healthy.
Most importantly, the thyroid craves balanced levels of iodine. Even mild iodine deficiency is associated with multinodular goiter (enlarged thyroid).
Iodine deficiency is more common than you would think. This is because the amount that’s added in salt isn’t enough to compensate for the fact you’re exposed regularly to substances that compete with iodine. Bromide is one of those substances.
Bromide is found in sodas like Mountain Dew in the form of brominated vegetable oil. It also lurks in pesticides (methyl bromide), some breads (as potassium bromate), hot tub cleansers, some asthma inhalers and prescription drugs, plastic products, personal care products, fire retardants and some fabric dyes.
Selenium is another nutrient crucial to a healthy thyroid. The human thyroid gland contains one of the highest selenium contents of any tissue in the body. Selenium is present in thyrocytes (cells in the thyroid gland) and thyroid tissue and helps provide antioxidant defense against significant amounts of hydrogen peroxide resulting from thyroid hormone production.
Vitamin D deficiency also spells trouble for the thyroid. The prevalence of vitamin D deficiency was significantly higher in patients with autoimmune thyroid disorders compared with healthy individuals (72 percent versus 30.6 percent), as well as in patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis compared to patients with non-autoimmune thyroid disorders (79 percent versus 52 percent).
Other nutrients important for thyroid function include iron, tyrosine, zinc and vitamin C. Consuming a good detoxification supplement also can help rid the body of thyroid-disrupting toxins.
For some people, the problem isn’t a sluggish thyroid, but rather a thyroid that has gone into overdrive, causing hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is a serious condition, and left untreated, it can be life threatening.
Protect Your Thyroid, Protect Your Health
Having your practitioner perform thyroid testing can help pinpoint the true cause of your fatigue. If your thyroid is the cause of your plummeting energy levels, weight gain, depression and other problems, giving this gland what it needs to stay healthy will make a huge difference in how you feel.