By Corri Peterson
Underactive thyroid symptoms are most common in women over age 50. It’s a condition caused by an underproduction of thyroid hormone and it affects women six times as often as it does men.
It’s estimated that roughly 13 million people in the U.S. struggle with underactive thyroid symptoms, although many experts believe that number to be closer to 20 million.
However, low thyroid or underactive thyroid symptoms, also known as hypothyroidism, are on the rise in women of childbearing age, plus more young children are showing development issues linked to an underactive thyroid.
An Underactive Thyroid Can Trigger Many Illnesses and Diseases
The thyroid gland is linked to the immune system and metabolism. Everything from an inadequate diet to heavy metal poisoning to pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables can affect it. The thyroid can be linked to just about any condition.
This small, butterfly-shaped organ regulates our metabolism in every body cell and is linked to many organ system dysfunctions. (We are focused on sharing information and solutions to improve your health and quality of life. If you purchase through the links in this post, we may receive a commission.)
The thyroid produces about one teaspoon of hormone per year. However, too little of this hormone results in fatigue, weight gain, cold intolerance, appetite loss, recurrent infections, muscle cramps and weakness, constipation, a slowed heart rate, depression, and dry and scaly skin.
Two common symptoms people complain about are fatigue and always feeling cold.
For women, painful periods, problems with fertility, and discharge from the breasts can commonly occur. Hormonal imbalances also occur when excess estrogen dominates over progesterone. Typically, a women’s ratio of progesterone is about 10:1 to estrogen. Too much estrogen has been shown to slow thyroid production. Progesterone, on the other hand, encourages it.
These providers also may suggest antidepressants, cholesterol-lowering drugs, anti-anxiety medications, and weight-loss aids when diet and lifestyle changes make a huge difference.
Many women who are going through menopause also develop problems with their thyroid glands. These women have several hormone disruptions that cause all kinds of symptoms, however, many conventional healthcare providers don’t link the two. Your provider may suggest HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) to ease hot flashes, but keep in mind, that HRT is known to cause blood clots. Plus, no one will tell you that when you stop HRT, it’s like starting the hot flashes all over again.
FYI-Adding progesterone helps ease several symptoms of both low thyroid and menopause.
If you are suffering from the above symptoms, check with your health care provider for a TSH test. Be aware that you may have symptoms, but your TSH test will be normal.
Many times, those with underactive thyroid symptoms will experience discomfort and illness symptoms but don’t show concrete evidence they are sick, known as subclinical hypothyroidism. Many women will experience hypothyroidism symptoms – fatigue, constantly feeling cold, low heart rate, weight gain – however, the disease is within normal ranges when medically tested. However, the results will most likely be at the high or low end of the acceptable levels.
Health care providers can be hesitant to prescribe thyroid hormone for subclinical hypothyroidism. Many believe exterior factors have affected the thyroid and will straighten itself out. However, other providers believe it is the beginning of full-blown thyroid disease.
The standard treatment of hypothyroidism is to prescribe thyroid hormone replacement drugs. Those can include Synthroid, Armor thyroid (the natural form of the thyroid), or levothyroxine. All three are effective at eliminating symptoms; treatment, however, will be ongoing for a lifetime.
Self-Testing for An Underactive Thyroid
If you have fallen into the category where your provider doesn’t believe you have a thyroid problem and there are millions who have, there is a standardized self-test for detecting an underactive thyroid developed by Dr. Broda Barnes.
After years of extensive research, Dr. Barnes concluded the TSH tests used by standard medical practitioners weren’t reliable indicators of thyroid function. Instead, he found that a six-day average of one’s basal temperature was a more accurate indicator of the thyroid’s ability to regulate the body’s function and metabolism.
How to Take Your Basal Temperature
Start with a thermometer next to your bed. First thing in the morning, before rising, place the thermometer under your arm for 15 minutes. Do not move while doing this, as movement can alter the reading. Do this for a minimum of at least five days and record the readings. Temperatures of 97.6 F or lower may indicate an underactive thyroid, or subclinical or borderline condition, especially if the readings are consistent.
If you suspect hypothyroidism, start by having your hormone levels in the blood tested. For blood tests come back within the normal range, but you are still experiencing symptoms, you may have a subclinical condition, this occurs when TSH levels in the blood are elevated, but T4 and T3 levels are normal.
Easing Underactive Thyroid Symptoms
Dr. Mark Ladner, a co-author of, The Encyclopedia of Women’s Health, believes nutritional deficiencies and stress are two significant factors of hypothyroidism. He also argues that iodine deficiencies, the main factor in hypothyroidism, are rare since common table salt, found in most people’s diets, has been supplemented with iodine.
However, some practitioners believe the use of healthier forms of sea salt leads to iodine deficiencies since many home cooks tout rink Himalayan salt as the ultimate mineral-rich seasoning, but this salt has no iodine, so the debate goes on.
Stress is known for slowing thyroid function and is a deterrent to maintaining a healthy thyroid. Ongoing stressful events strip many vital nutrients from our body and hinder the immune system’s functioning.
If you have ongoing stress on the adrenal glands, excessive cortisol amounts are secreted into the bloodstream. Over prolonged periods, high cortisol secretion levels suppress our immune system by making disease-fighting leukocytes less effective, weakening their ability to detect and kill off viruses and even cancer.
In addition, this shifting of immune function slows thyroid functioning by decreasing levels of active T3, causing underactive thyroid symptoms.
Since a slow-functioning thyroid is linked to sluggish immune function, finding ways to reduce stress is crucial.
Exercise, deep breathing, meditation, aromatherapy, journaling, listening to music, and long nature walks help manage stress levels.
High blood sugar from excessive carbohydrates and processed foods can also be a factor. High blood sugar increases cortisol production, causing blood sugar swings that alter the body’s thyroid hormone production.
Additional culprits Dr. Lader implicates To Underactive Thyroid Symptoms:
1 – Minimal calorie intake in women
2 – Diets high in caffeine
3 – Food allergies and sensitivities
4 – Imbalances in intestinal microflora, as the gut is where many problems can start, and thyroid hormones are broken down for absorption
5 – A stressed, abused, overworked liver, where enzymes that break down and help detoxify toxins also break down thyroid chemicals
6 – Certain medications, like antidepressants, affect thyroid function
Correcting Nutritional Deficiencies
Many times underactive thyroid symptoms are triggered by poor diet and other environmental factors. Improving nutrition and adding natural resources can help ease bothersome symptoms.
I share the danger of environmental toxins in this post – https://knowyourthyroid.com/improving-your-thyroid-gland-function-17-toxins-to-avoid/
Now that you know why you feel the way you do, what can you do to improve your thyroid health and function?
The following suggestions may help:
Keep in mind, that everyone has different triggers to their thyroid disorder, so what will help you feel better may not help someone else and vice-versa. The best way to supplement is by having your levels tested, so your specific deficiencies can be addressed.
The nutrients and supplements covered below are commonly recommended to those with underactive thyroid symptoms.
Selenium, glutathione, and zinc– These three nutrients are required for converting T4 to T3, the thyroid hormone form used in tissues.
Although the link between selenium and hypothyroidism is unclear, many hypothyroid patients are deficient.
Glutathione-The Web Site, mindbodygreen.com, states that glutathione is a critical component because of its powerful antioxidant capacity to modulate and regulate the immune system. It also calms autoimmune flare-ups and protects and heals the thyroid.
Kelp-A natural way to increase the amount of iodine in your diet is to take a kelp supplement. Kelp is seaweed naturally rich in iodine. This may be beneficial if you are on an extremely low-salt diet. You can safely take up to 3,000 mg. daily.
Beware! If you have hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease, avoid adding iodine to your diet. Your body is already producing too much thyroid hormone, so adding iodine will only compound the problem.
B-vitamins-These vitamins are essential to immune function and healthy thyroid function. In addition, they are vital in fighting stress. Several nutritional supplements contain the entire vitamin B complex, plus you may need additional vitamin B12. Functional medicine or holistic practitioners use blood tests to reveal any nutrient deficiencies to recommend the correct supplementation.
Omega-3s-Adding more omega-3’s to your diet helps optimize thyroid health and eases symptoms linked to thyroid disorders. Essential fatty acids support thyroid function; studies have found that omega-3s can decrease inflammation that causes thyroid function. EPA and DHA, two fatty acids that help makeup omega-3s, create resolvins that ease inflammation and promote healing. In addition, omega-3 fats offer cellular membrane integrity, which protects them from damage and enables your cells to communicate well.
Vitamin C– is vital to immune function. Low vitamin C levels are linked to a risk of memory and thinking disorders like dementia. Conversely, a high intake of vitamin C from foods and supplements has been shown to have a protective effect. Those with adequate levels have fewer colds and viruses, less risk of chronic disease, lower blood pressure, and lower heart attack risk.
Foods to Limit or Omit
Because of their thyroid-blocking actions, there are foods to eat in moderation or omitted, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage. In addition, holistic nutritionist and author Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, recommends cutting out kale, mustard greens, peaches, pears, radishes, spinach, and turnips.
Many practitioners recommend eliminating gluten from the diet. According to some researchers, the cellular makeup of gluten is similar to that of thyroid tissue. Many doctors will also recommend limiting or eliminating dairy from the diet.
Focus on removing foods that cause an inflammatory reaction. Inflammation-triggering foods cause stress on the body, asking it to work harder to fight the inflammation. With less stress, your body and liver aren’t working as hard, freeing your immune and endocrine systems, and making them more efficient.
Improving Liver and Gut Health
I can’t stress the health of your liver enough. This organ has more than it can handle detoxifying chemicals from our food and the environment. An overworked liver can work against someone with thyroid problems because when the liver becomes overtaxed, the enzymes working overtime then trigger thyroid hormone elimination. One more reason why a healthy liver is so important.
Foods to limit or eliminate include high sodium processed foods, caffeine, sugar, trans and saturated fats, and all foods containing synthetic chemicals for color, freshness, or texture.
Improving and maintaining a healthy gut with healthy intestinal microflora can significantly affect overall well-being and improve thyroid health. Your body detoxifies and eliminates thyroid hormones through the gut, where enzymes break down the thyroid hormones to absorb them into the bloodstream.
Individuals with inadequate or poor diets can have intestinal problems that lead to imbalances in microflora, reducing their body’s ability to absorb active thyroid hormone.
A probiotic is helpful, along with a diet rich in dark greens that supply plenty of digestive-friendly vitamin K. Look for fruits and vegetables that aren’t on the “Dirty Dozen” produce list. Many thyroid patients find that adding digestive enzymes may also be beneficial in aiding thyroid hormone absorption.
Nutritional supplementation can be tricky, let alone knowing how to supplement when working with a complex health condition. I can’t stress enough how important a customized supplementation program is; everyone has different chemistry, and everyone’s reaction to nutritional supplementation can vary.
Therefore, it may be necessary to be evaluated by a qualified professional. Personally, my health was declining from my Graves’ disease until I saw a functional medicine doctor. He tested my blood, urine, and saliva, and then he laid out a complete treatment plan from the test results.
Any time you are dealing with a chronic disease, there is always room for the positive aspects of the experience and opportunities for lifestyle improvements. People suffering from hypothyroidism and subclinical hypothyroid symptoms can view this chapter of their life as one that opens doors to enhancing well-being.
Balch, Phyllis, A., and Balch, James R.; Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2000
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“Alternative Treatment for Hypothyroidism – Help for low thyroid and hypothyroidism.” Womentowomen. Pick, Marcelle, OB-GYN-NP. <http://www.womentowomen.com/hypothyroidism/alternativetreatments.aspx>
“Can Hypothyroidism Be Treated Naturally?” About, 9 Nov 2006. <http://thyroid.about.com/b/2006/11/09/can-your-hypothyroidism-be-treated-naturally.html>
“Hypothyroidism.” MedlinePlus. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothyroidism>
“Hypothyroidism: Diet & Exercise.” Livestrong.
“13 Ways to Treat Hypothyroidism Naturally.” Mindbodygreen, Grunewald, Jill.
“Thyroid Disease: A natural/herbal perspective.” About. Shomon, Mary. 12 Aug 2009. <http://thyroid.about.com/cs/expertinterviews/a/shasta.html>
Randi Meares Brodmann, ND, MFA, CNC
Integrative Wellness Services for Women
Holistic Health – Nutrition – Women’s Wellness