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Health Gain - Weight Loss - Part 11: The Thyroid Factor

     Many difficulties controlling weight as well as an array of health issues may originate from an undetected glandular imbalance.  One particular hormone, secreted by the small thyroid gland located at the base of the throat, plays a large role in controlling the rate at which calories are either burned for energy or stored as fat.  Although often undiagnosed, it is estimated that one in five women (and one in ten men) struggle with a slow metabolism that results from a sluggish thyroid.  When this important gland is unbalanced, it can throw the body’s entire metabolism off balance.

 Seeing Only Part of the Picture

      Conditions related to poor thyroid function are on the rise though many go unrecognized as such. People with thyroid imbalance may eat right and exercise regularly yet still struggle with weight gain or the inability to lose weight, in addition to other unexplained symptoms of impaired health. However, based on conventional blood tests, these same people are often told that their thyroid function is within normal parameters. 

      The primary reason for this is that conventional blood tests only measure the amount of circulating thyroid hormone in the blood.  However, monitoring blood levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) may not necessarily give the whole picture of what is happening with thyroid function.

      Dr. David Brownstein, author of Overcoming Thyroid Disorders, states in his book that reliance on blood tests alone for diagnosing hypothyroidism (low or inadequate thyroid function) can result in a 30% failure rate of accurately detecting those with a hypothyroid condition.  He believes that the true amount of people suffering from hypothyroidism is closer to 40% of the population, rather than fewer then 10% as indicated by mainstream medicine. 

      Another medical doctor, Dr. Broda Barnes, was a pioneer in the treatment of thyroid disorders over 30 years ago. He authored 100 published papers and several books on the subject, including Hypothyroidism, the Unsuspected Illness.  Dr. Barnes strongly believed that standard blood tests for thyroid dysfunction failed to tell the whole story and that observing the clinical signs and symptoms of low thyroid function in a person was more indicative of the true problem. He also maintained that undiagnosed thyroid dysfunction was far more widespread than commonly viewed and often the underlying cause of many health problems.

Understanding Thyroid Hormones and Tests

     A basic knowledge of thyroid hormones is necessary to understand how tests for and treatment of low thyroid function differs from these two vantage points. First of all, TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) released by the pituitary gland, stimulates the thyroid to produce two thyroid hormones - T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (triodothyronine). The thyroid gland takes up iodine from the blood and incorporates it in the thyroid hormones it produces. T4 has four molecules of iodine and T3 (obviously) has three.  T3 is converted from T4 in the liver and is considered to be the more active form of thyroid hormone, although both hormones increase the metabolic rate of certain cells and tissues.  It is ample levels of T3 that increase a person’s resting metabolism rate and ability to burn fat, both of which are key to successful weight control.

      Conventional blood tests primarily test for the amounts of TSH and T4 in the blood. A diagnosis of hypothyroidism is then based on whether or not levels of TSH are outside of normal established parameters. Up until 2003, normal was considered anywhere between .5 and 5.0. At that time, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists narrowed the parameters to .3 to 3.0, although many doctors still use the former parameters. One reason for so much undetected hypothyroidism is that these reference ranges are too broad and not necessarily based on people with optimal thyroid function. Consequently, individuals tested who fall on the edge of the upper or lower limits may not necessarily have good thyroid function.

      If TSH levels are elevated above normal parameters, conventional medical doctors typically give the person a synthetic hormone replacement medication to boost T4 levels in order to lower the level of TSH.  However, the degree to which the pituitary gland releases TSH is more dependent on how much T4 is converted into T3, rather than by how much T4 and T3 are circulating in the blood. Because the body is not always able to convert the inactive T4 into the more active T3 thyroid hormone, many symptoms of hypothyroidism can still be present even when the blood test appears “normal."

      According to holistic or alternative medicine physicians, the standard treatment for low thyroid function only addresses part of the picture. Rather than relying solely on standard blood tests, these doctors would tend to look more to a person’s history and clinical symptoms along with performing a broader spectrum of testing that would include measuring levels of free T3 and T4 (active and inactive forms).  If TSH levels were not in what they would consider an optimum range (generally between 1 and 2), a more natural form of thyroid hormone replacement therapy that includes T3 would commonly be recommended (generally Armour Thyroid). Supporting better thyroid function with diet, supplements and lifestyle changes would also be a major part of the therapy. Unfortunately, much of the information concerning more effective ways to treat the thyroid gland is not yet commonplace in modern mainstream medicine.

Symptoms of Low Thyroid Function

     Numerous indicators point to low thyroid function from a clinical standpoint, which was the way hypothyroidism was primarily diagnosed before physicians begin to solely rely on newer blood tests. In his book Ultrametabolism, Dr. Mark Hyman provides a self-test anyone can take to determine if their thyroid gland is not functioning adequately. Some of the signs to look for that may point to low thyroid function included in this test are:

  • Dry skin
  • Hoarse voice
  • Thinning hair, hair loss, or coarse hair
  • Loss or thinning of hair in the outer third portion of eyebrows
  • Thick fingernails or skin
  • A tendency to be cold when others are warm
  • Cold hands or feet
  • General fatigue (difficulty getting out of bed in the morning)
  • Low blood pressure and heart rate
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Muscle fatigue, pain or weakness
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding or other menstrual problems
  • Worsening PMS or severe menopausal symptoms (hot flashes, mood swings, etc.)
  • Infertility
  • Decreased libido
  • Fluid retention (swelling of hands and feet)
  • Trouble losing weight or significant weight gain
  • Problems with memory and concentration (“brain fog”)
  • Problems with depression, anxiety or apathy
  • Exposure to radiation treatments
  • Exposure to environmental toxins
  • Family history of thyroid problems
  • Consumption of tap water with chlorine or fluoride
  • Diagnosis of autoimmune disease, allergies, or yeast overgrowth

     If you have several or more of the above indicators, you may wish to investigate further into more complete types of testing to confirm if your thyroid gland is functioning up to par or not. If you have applied the weight loss principles covered in this series and still struggle with unexplained weight gain and/or the inability to lose weight, a low functioning thyroid may very well be the problem.

      One simple test you can do easily and inexpensively at home to give you a good indication is to take your basal temperature reading for a week first thing in the morning. Average the numbers from each day’s reading and if that numerical average is 97.8 or less, there is a good possibility that your thyroid function is low. To get an accurate reading, the thermometer must be a basal one, it must be inserted in the armpit the second you wake up and it must remain there for ten minutes (less with digital type thermometers) without any movement by the body. Women who are menstruating should take their basal temperature at the beginning of their cycle since temperature would naturally be more elevated due to hormonal changes in the second half of a cycle.

Properly Supporting the Thyroid Gland

      Because even subtle changes in thyroid function can significantly affect health and an efficient metabolism, it is important to support good thyroid function in every way possible.  Although thyroid hormone replacement therapy prescription may be necessary to increase levels of thyroid hormone in more advanced and prolonged cases, simply taking a pill does not necessarily provide the body everything it needs to rebalance the thyroid gland and improve health.

      When considering steps to take to improve thyroid function, it is important to first eliminate factors that may impair it. Environmental toxins (particularly pesticides), stress, infections, allergies and the presence of mercury are all factors that may block the conversion of T4 into T3.  Certain drugs can bind T4 in the blood, which makes it less available for conversion to T3. Increased estrogen levels from use of birth control pills also lower circulating thyroid hormone levels.

      Even some foods can decrease or inhibit thyroid function. Too much non-fermented soy protein interferes with thyroid function, especially with people that have hypothyroidism and take thyroid medications. Gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, oats, kamut, and spelt is also known to be a root cause of thyroid disorders in some cases, particularly auto-immune thyroid conditions. Dr. Mark Hyman suggests going off all foods containing gluten for at least three weeks to see if any clinical symptoms improve.  If they do, gluten could be a significant part of the problem.

 The Problem of Iodine Deficiency

      The primary nutrient used in the production and synthesis of thyroid hormones is iodine. Iodine nourishes and feeds the thyroid gland. With all of the iodized salt used in this country, one would not suspect that people are low in this important trace mineral found in every tissue and organ of the body. Yet the fact that iodine levels have fallen 50% over the last 30 years indicates that people are indeed deficient.

Several factors account for this trend. For one thing, iodized table salt does not provide a source of iodine that the body can easily digest, assimilate or absorb. Not only is this form of iodine synthetic but it is added to another synthetic substance that is bleached with toxic chemicals and void of natural minerals (refined salt). Studies suggest that iodized salt is only 10% bioavailable to the body.

      A lack of natural iodine in our food supply can also be attributed to modern farming practices, which has drastically reduced trace minerals in the soil. If the minerals are not in the soil, then they obviously will not be in the foods we eat. Moreover, people eat less fish and sea vegetables in this country, all of which are rich in iodine.

      Another factor is that the food industry replaced iodine with bromine in commercially baked goods around 1980. Not only is bromine toxic but it is in the same chemical family as iodine as is chloride and fluoride, all of which are known as halogens. These halogens attach to the same receptor sites as iodine and displace it, blocking its use by the body. This is an additional reason to avoid drinking tap water that is treated with fluoride and chlorine.

     Other ways people may get too much fluoride is by using toothpastes and mouthwashes that contain it. The use of fluoride by European doctors as a thyroid suppressing medication to treat those with hyperthyroidism (over active thyroid gland) prior to 1970, illustrates that it does indeed reduce the activity of the thyroid gland.  Since all of these halogen elements compete for absorption and binding to receptors in the body, the more that harmful ones can be avoided, the more iodine will be available to support normal thyroid function.

      Foods and herbs rich in iodine are an excellent support for the thyroid gland.  Natural food sources of iodine include fish (especially sardines and wild caught salmon), sea vegetables, dark leafy greens, garlic, asparagus, lima beans, summer squash, and sesame seeds to name a few. Seaweeds like kelp and dulse are particularly high in natural iodine as are herbs such as black walnut, Irish moss, bladder wrack, chlorella, spirulina and white oak bark. Unrefined sea salts such as Celtic salt or Himalayan salt are excellent choices for supplying trace minerals, including iodine, to the body.

Other Ways to Support the Thyroid

     Iodine is not the only nutrient needed for good thyroid function. Besides eating an overall healthy diet and avoiding refined and processed foods, omega-3 fatty acids are especially important for the production of thyroid hormones. Other nutrients that are important for the effective conversion of T4 into T3 are the minerals selenium and zinc and vitamins A, C, D, E and B-12.

     Supplements with high quality herbs combined with a natural raw glandular thyroid extract also can be quite beneficial for those who are not taking thyroid medication but want to strengthen their thyroid function.

     Exercise is essential for stimulating thyroid gland secretion and increasing tissue sensitivity to thyroid hormones throughout the body. Because toxins in the body (such as pesticides) lower T3 levels and slow down metabolism, detoxifying the body is a must as well for improving thyroid function. It must be remembered that fat cells release stored toxins when weight is loss and these released toxins negatively impact the thyroid gland (please read my article “Health Gain – Weight Loss – Part 9 – How Toxins Affect Weight and Health” for more understanding of how this works).  In his book Ultrametabolism, Dr. Mark Hyman highly recommends saunas, steam baths or any other method that encourages sweating, which enables stored toxins to be released from the body more quickly.

Concluding Thoughts

     I would encourage those of you who have any of the signs of low thyroid function to obtain additional information as you may be among the thousands of people with undetected hypothyroidism. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, a board-certified practicing physician and editor-in-chief of “Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine” (a peer-reviewed professional journal in the fields of integrative medicine and alternative medicine), prolonged untreated thyroid problems are often the hidden factors in many diseases including depression, heart disease, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, PMS, menopausal symptoms, muscle and joint pains, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and obesity.  A thyroid imbalance can frequently be reversed if it is caught early and treated effectively.

      For these reasons, I would like to recommend to you an invaluable resource for learning how to support thyroid health with the right lifestyle and nutritional changes in addition to obtaining guidelines for getting it properly diagnosed and treated. This successful integrative and holistic approach developed by Dr. Hyman and implemented with his patients over the last 10 years is called “The Ultra Thyroid Solution: A Seven Step Plan to Reverse Hypothyroidism Permanently”.  It is available in a downloadable manuscript, workbook and video form from www.thyroid.ultrawellness.com.

     You will learn to identify common core system imbalances associated with thyroid disorders and what can be done to correct them. Information on how to work with your doctor to safely and effectively resolve thyroid symptoms and enhance your health is also covered. (Please note that the “Ultra Thyroid Solution” is not written for those who are hypothyroid due to surgery, radioactive iodine treatment, or congenitally.) 

      Correcting thyroid imbalances will go a long way towards improving your metabolism and helping you to naturally lose weight and gain better health.



  • Overcoming Thyroid Disorders by Dr. David Brownstein
  • Ultrametabolism by Dr. Mark Hyman
  • Iodine – Why You Need It – Why You Can’t Live Without It by Dr. David Brownstein

Copyright © 2008-2015 Lucinda Bedogne, CNHP, CNC

Reader Comments...
2011-01-06 12:29:23
"GREAT article Lucinda!! Even after the other readings you've given me I still learned more from your informative article. Thanks!!"
        - Beth

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