Understanding Natural Thyroid Balance and Treatment

supporting your body's ultimate multi-tasker
© Can Stock Photo / Emily_frost

Your thyroid may appear to be just a small butterfly-shaped organ that sits at your windpipe, but it’s the ultimate multi-tasker! It’s responsible for a variety of different functions including your metabolism, body temperature, pulse rate, menstrual cycle and sex hormone production, digestive function and bile acid release, hair and nail growth, cholesterol production, how much energy you store and utilize (thus weight management), and so much more!

The thyroid can be involved in a number of health problems that are not always easy to diagnose, so understanding its needs and how it functions is key to avoiding or treating these issues.

How the thyroid works

The hypothalamus (a region at the base of the brain) releases thyrotropin releasing hormone (TRH) which signals to the nearby pituitary gland to make thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is sent to the thyroid gland, which tells it to make thyroxine (T4). T4 is then converted to triiodothyronine (T3). Adequate levels of T3 are necessary to decrease inflammation, obesity, insulin resistance, and to help with general metabolism. Your body also contains an inactive form of T3 called “reverse T3” (rT3), which controls the amount of free T3 that’s available in your system. If rT3 levels get too high—for instance, when you’re not eating enough, or if you have chronic stress issues—it can lead to symptoms of hypothyroidism.

The thyroid, like most other organs in your body, works on a negative feedback loop similar to a thermostat. When a thermostat detects that it’s reached the temperature you have set, it shuts off the heat production until the temperature changes, at which point it kicks into action again. When there’s enough T4 (and thus T3) in the body, the pituitary gland decreases TSH production, and it boosts production when you don’t have enough. With a thyroid disorder, this negative feedback loop is usually disturbed.

Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism

Hyperthyroidism indicates that the thyroid gland is overactive and is producing too much thyroid hormone. Most cases are due to Graves’ disease or toxic multinodular goitre. Conventional treatment involves radiation, ablation, presciption of naturally desiccated thyroid, or surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid.

Symptoms include:

  • weight loss or difficulty gaining weight

  • diarrhea

  • high pulse rate and high blood pressure

  • constant feeling of irritability and anxiety

  • heart palpitations

  • excessive sweating and heat intolerance

  • hair loss, thinning skin

  • irregular menstrual cycles

  • vision problems

  • trembling hands and/or muscle weakness

  • thyroid nodules or goitre

Hypothyroidism means the thyroid gland is underactive and isn’t making enough thyroid hormone for the body’s needs. Over 80 percent of hypothyroid cases are due to Hashimoto’s disease. Conventional treatments include treatment with T4, a combination of T3 and T4, or surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid.

Symptoms include:

  • weight gain or difficulty losing weight

  • constipation

  • low pulse rate and low blood pressure

  • persistent fatigue and brain fog

  • low mood

  • always chilly

  • hair loss, dry skin, brittle nails

  • irregular or changing menstrual cycles

  • high cholesterol and fatty liver

  • infertility (decreased conception and increased early miscarriage)

  • thyroid nodules or goitre

Is your thyroid at risk?

There are a variety of factors that increase your risk of developing thyroid conditions. These may include: family history and genetics; certain medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS); radiation exposure; vitamin and mineral deficiencies and insufficiencies; under- or overeating; certain medications, including those for birth control; autoimmune conditions, such as celiac disease; liver and kidney problems; trauma; inflammation; high levels of fluoride, bromine, or other heavy metals; and increased stress levels. Hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy, such as breastfeeding, miscarriage, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and/or menopause may also affect thyroid functioning for many women.

Testing for thyroid disorders

Thyroid disorders are common and often go undetected or are underdiagnosed. While weight change, hair loss, irregular menstrual cycles, and fatigue can be the result of a thyroid disorder, they may also be due to deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, or hormonal imbalances. Some thyroid issues can be transient due to stress, inflammation, decreased caloric intake, and nutrient deficiencies, so a thorough accounting for all relevant factors is key! Appropriate testing could look like a full thyroid panel, including TSH, FT3, FT4, and antibodies, ferritin/iron, B12, inflammatory markers, cholesterol panel, vitamin D, iodine, zinc, and your sex hormones. Antibodies which work against the thyroid are also often missed on testing and can shed light on any autoimmune conditions present, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Even poor dietary choices and vitamin deficiency itself can impair thyroid function, proving the necessity of a holistic approach and thorough assessment. Some of the parameters that should be tested along with a full thyroid panel include ferritin/iron, B12, zinc, inflammatory markers, cholesterol panel, vitamin D, urinary iodine (and other halides), zinc, and your sex hormones.

Also keep in mind that a result of “within normal range” for thyroid testing doesn’t always mean optimal! For example, in subclinical hypothyroidism, which is when your thyroid is just starting to be underactive, the results shown from blood testing may not be out of range, but can nevertheless be a common cause of early miscarriage and infertility, factors often missed unless you’re seeing a fertility specialist or naturopathic doctor. This makes discussing your situation with your healthcare provider the best option.

Is it cancer?

Thyroid nodules are more common in women than men and are typically asymptomatic, so you may not even know you currently have them or have had them in the past! Rarely, symptoms of discomfort, difficulty swallowing, or a deeper voice may be experienced if nodules are really big, numerous, or are located close to nerves. The good news is that roughly only 5 percent of nodules are cancerous.

People with Hashimoto’s disease, those who are under 25 or over 60 years of age, those who have a history of radiation exposure, and/or a history of repeated endocrine neoplasia have a higher risk of nodules becoming cancerous. When one or more nodules are discovered in your thyroid, your doctor will requisition further imaging (and possibly a biopsy) to determine whether it is benign or not.

Once you’ve had a thorough workup, your doctor may recommend medications like Synthroid (levothyroxine), natural desiccated thyroid, or recommend a thyroidectomy, if need be. Or, they might recommend a wait-and-watch approach. Whatever the case, it’s important to incorporate other supportive nutritional and lifestyle measures to address the thyroid using a holistic approach that is tailored for you by your healthcare provider.

5 natural treatments for thyroid balance

Nutritional needs: Iodine (found in iodized salt or sea vegetables), selenium and zinc (found in Brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds), and antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies are all easy and delicious ways to get your nutrients.

Digestive dedication: Make sure to stay hydrated, get adequate fibre, and perhaps supplementation with probiotics to keep your gut healthy and regular!

Deficiency dissolution: Correct vitamin and mineral deficiencies and insufficiencies, which could include taking B vitamins, vitamin D, iron, selenium, zinc, and iodine. This could be done with food or supplements, depending on your situation.

Inflammation elimination: Reduce inflammation and antibodies if present with a diet high in antioxidants, supporting your immune response, getting restful sleep, and addressing any blood sugar issues. Removing trigger foods from the diet can also be helpful (gluten is a common aggravating factor to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis). Helpful foods, herbs, and compounds could look like green leafy veggies, dark-coloured berries, omega-3s, rehmannia, ashwagandha, and curcumin. Further decrease inflammation with adequate protein intake, the above improved diet, and liver-supportive herbs like dandelion root and milk thistle.

Stress less: Implement a stress management plan that includes self-care, good quality sleep, regular physical activity or exercise, and perhaps discussing adaptogenic herbs like cordyceps and ashwagandha with your doctor.

Understanding how your thyroid works and implementing a few simple changes to your diet and lifestyle are great first steps. Talk to your healthcare provider to come up with a customized plan to give your hardworking thyroid the holistic help it needs!

Want to learn more? Check out more EcoParent, including the importance of iodine for healthy thyroid function and the role of the environment in thyroid health