This issue of particular personal interest to me because I have some family members and friends with thyroid issues. And it is not uncommon- about one in 13 Americans has some type of thyroid disorder. That means approximately 20 million people in this country deal with issues related to improper thyroid function. Another 13 million may have undiagnosed disorders of this gland.
Since a poorly functioning thyroid can lead to a host of symptoms and can affect your body’s ability to control your metabolism and regulate your weight, diagnosing and treating thyroid disorders is extremely important in maintaining your overall health.
Thyroid Anatomy and Function
Your thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland that sits in the front of your throat just below your larynx. In yoga philosophy, it sits right in your fifth, or vishuddha chakra. It is part of the endocrine system, working in conjunction with your pituitary gland to control the metabolic function of every cell in your body by converting iodine to the hormones thyroxine (T4) and trilodothyronine (T3). The thyroid is the only iodine-absorbing structure in your body. As it absorbs the iodine from the foods you eat, it combines them with tyrosine, which is an amino acid, to produce T3 and T4.
Your pituitary gland sits at the base of your brain. It controls the thyroid gland, producing thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) whenever the levels of T3 and T4 drop too low. Another gland, the hypothalamus, sits above the pituitary gland in the brain. It also plays a role in production of thyroid hormones by producing and releasing TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH), which stimulates the pituitary to release TSH.
So now you know how thyroid hormones are released, but the question remains. What do thyroid hormones do in your body?
Your body releases T4 and T3 at a ration of about 80 percent to 20 percent; however, T3 is much stronger than T4. When your thyroid releases these hormones, they travel through the body to help all of its cells convert oxygen into energy. When these hormones are out of balance, then your cell metabolism either works less efficiently or goes into overdrive. Either of these conditions disrupt your body’s balance and can lead to a number of problems. Since imbalance can mean either too many thyroid hormones or too few thyroid hormones, it helps to look at each condition separately.
Hypothyroidism – Too Few Thyroid Hormones
When you are diagnosed as being hypothyroid, it means your body does not produce enough T3 and/or T4. Deficiencies can exist in one or both of these hormones, leading to a number of symptoms including:
- Weight gain or inability to control weight
- Cold sensitivity
- Heavy or prolonged menstruation
- Joint and muscle pain
- Dry skin
- Brain fog
- Brittle fingernails
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Thinning eyebrows
- Thickened skin
- Difficulty concentrating
Hypothyroidism can occur as the result of birth defects, radioactive iodine used to treat an overactive thyroid, removal of the thyroid gland, genetics, or an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Endocrinologists, who maintain knowledge about thyroid disorders, can diagnose the condition via physical examinations and blood tests that test levels of TSH, T3, and T4. Treatment usually involves replacing thyroid hormones via natural or synthetic medications, and most people with hypothyroidism need to take these medications every day for the rest of their lives.
Hyperthyroidism – Too Many Thyroid Hormones
Also known as an overactive thyroid, hyperthyroidism arises due to a number of conditions including too much iodine intake, thyroid inflammation resultant of viral infections, non-cancerous growths on the thyroid or pituitary gland, and the autoimmune condition known as Graves disease.
With too many thyroid hormones coursing through your body, you may notice a number of symptoms including:
- An enlarged thyroid gland known as a goiter
- Thyroid nodules
- Poor concentration
- Heat intolerance
- Increased appetite
- Weight loss
- Nervousness or anxiety
- Increased bowel movements
- Menstrual irregularity
- Clammy skin
- Hair loss
- High blood pressure
- Bulging eyes
- Difficulty sleeping
- Racing pulse
Physicians can diagnose hyperthyroidism with blood tests and physical examination. Once diagnosed, typical medical treatment may include antithyroid meds, radioactive iodine to destroy the thyroid, and surgical removal of the gland. In most cases, this creates medically induced hypothyroidism, and patients will need to take thyroid hormones daily for the rest of their lives.
Thyroid Issues on an Energetic Level
With all that physical information being said, the fact is that we aren’t just physical beings. We are souls that possess spiritual, emotional, mental and physical aspects of our being, and I truly believe that all these aspects are interwoven and can’t be mechanically separated from each other. In other words, every dimension of our being affects the others.
The thyroid is part of the fifth vishuddha chakra in the throat region, which is related to communication and self-expression. It is believed in yogic philosophy that keeping this energy area healthy is related to how openly and honestly a person expresses herself or himself. Repressed anger and other emotions or involvement in falsehoods (ie telling half-truths, or feeling deep down one is “living a lie”) can have negative energetic consequences that can manifest as physical ailments in this region of the body, including in the thyroid. The best way to correct this on an energetic level is to fully live your inner truth. Speak up, express yourself, and if something in your life isn’t right, take action to change it.
Natural Thyroid Support
If you suspect a thyroid disorder, you should always talk with your doctor; however, there are steps you can take to naturally support your thyroid in conjunction with any treatment you receive.
- Eat sea vegetables. Foods like dulse and wakame are high in iodine, which your thyroid converts to T3 and T4. This is a more natural source of iodine that that contained in iodized salt, which is a processed food that leads to many health consequences.
- Avoid soy products. Soy is a goitrogen, a substance which promotes thyroid enlargement and can interfere with thyroid function. In fact, overconsumption of goitrogenic foods can even trigger thyroid disease by continually disrupting thyroid hormone production.
- Use coconut oil for cooking. Coconut oil contains medium chain fatty acids, which provide a metabolic boost to your body.
- Eat foods high in selenium. This mineral regulates thyroid hormone synthesis and helps convert T4 to T3. Selenium rich foods include brazil nuts, mushrooms, and sunflower seeds.
- Eat foods high in zinc, copper, and iron. These three trace elements improve your body’s production of TSH and oxidation of iodine to form T4. Foods rich in these nutrients include pumpkin seeds, blackstrap molasses, spinach, lentils, mushrooms, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, whole grains, and almonds.
- Practice self-expression and honest communication. Venture outside of your comfort zone, allow yourself to be free from any limitations. One day you may want to take a spiritual hike, meditate in an open meadow, or indulge yourself with exotic fruits.