Do you need a thyroid tune-up?

by Dr. Joseph Debé

Either your thyroid is normal or it's diseased. Right? Wrong. The level of thyroid function in the body follows a continuum. Your thyroid function may be normal, extremely low, very high, or anywhere in between. In other words, thyroid levels are not black and white; there are shades of gray. If your thyroid function is not optimal, you're probably experiencing fatigue and difficulty losing weight and you are not as healthy as you can be. It is important to understand that what matters with regard to thyroid is function - how well the thyroid hormones do their jobs - not how much hormone is measured on a blood test. Thyroid function can be optimized through natural approaches.

Low thyroid function is a very common condition, as attested to by the fact that Synthroid (synthetic thyroid hormone) is the number 4 prescribed drug. Synthroid is levothyroxine or T4. T4 is the main hormone produced by the thyroid gland but it is not the most active.  T4 is converted to T3 and to reverse T3 (rT3). T3 is 3 to 8 times more potent than T4 and rT3 has only 1% the potency of T4. This fact makes it easy to understand why some people with normal blood levels of T4  (including individuals on Synthroid) can display all the symptoms of low thyroid function. Stress hormones, nutrient deficiencies (especially selenium), mercury, lead, and cadmium toxicity and certain medications can impair the enzymatic conversion of T4 to T3, while producing more rT3.  Other aspects of thyroid hormone metabolism can be impaired and ultimately result in low thyroid function. Inadequate thyroid stimulatory hormones from the brain and pituitary gland due to stress, very low calorie diets, inflammation and environmental toxins, can produce low thyroid function. Other facets of thyroid-related dysfunction include impaired production of hormone in the thyroid gland by iodine deficiency (which is the rule, not the exception), toxins (including chlorine, bromine and fluoride), certain medications, excessive intake of certain foods, very high doses of the nutritional supplements alpha lipoic acid and carnitine, and autoimmune reactions, which can be initiated by food intolerances and other environmental factors. Thyroid hormone transport and delivery to the cells can be altered by the drug Tamoxifen and by high levels of estrogen, including estrogen replacement medication like Premarin. (This brings up an interesting statistic. For every dollar Americans spend on medication, they spend another dollar to counter the adverse effects.) Lastly, binding of thyroid hormone to cell receptors can be impaired by toxins, certain anti-inflammatory medications, and by insufficiency of vitamin A and the fatty acids EPA and DHA.  Also, acidic cellular pH impairs hormone and enzyme activity in general.

The thyroid hormone receptor is where the action is. These receptors are found on the nucleus of cells. The nucleus contains the genes. When thyroid hormone binds to nuclear receptors, it signals select genes to become active and produce certain proteins.  Thyroid hormone receptors are also found on the mitochondria of cells. The mitochondria are the structures where food and oxygen are combined to produce energy and heat. Not surprisingly, suboptimal thyroid action is associated with fatigue and low body temperature. Thyroid hormone contributes to larger and more numerous mitochondria. It is important to realize that cellular energy is critical for all bodily functions. Therefore, when thyroid action is low, the physiologic consequences are widespread. When thyroid action is excessive, too much energy is produced and sweating is one of the symptoms.

Blood tests are very insensitive in picking up low thyroid states. False negative results for suboptimal thyroid function are common. One reason for this is that there is no feedback mechanism to respond to suboptimal thyroid receptor stimulation. Whereas low levels of T4 in the bloodstream will cause the pituitary to produce more TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) to make the thyroid work harder, there is no such compensation for poor receptor function.

I recommend doing a comprehensive battery of thyroid lab tests as part of a good work-up. The other equally important pieces of information to be considered are symptoms, physical examination findings, and axillary body temperature.  Some of the more common findings in people with suboptimal thyroid function are fatigue (worse in the morning), weight gain/difficulty losing weight, depression, constipation, cold hands and feet, joint pain and stiffness, impaired concentration and memory, and elevated cholesterol levels. Axillary body temperature refers to measuring body temperature from the armpit as a gauge of the thyroid's influence on mitochondrial function and heat production. Normal values are 97.8 to 98.2º F. Low readings indicate some impairment of thyroid-related function - not necessarily low thyroid hormone levels.

Taking thyroid hormone medication does nothing to improve thyroid metabolism and actually causes the body to stop making its own hormone. Suboptimal thyroid function can be improved with natural approaches, including stress reduction, exercise, dietary modification, metabolic detoxification, and nutritional supplementation.  Additionally, Bladderwrack is a good algae source of iodine that also chelates mercury, lead, and cadmium. Ashwagandha, sometimes referred to as Indian Ginseng, appears to increase T4 levels. Plant compounds called guggulsterones increase T4 conversion to T3.


* This article should also be of interest: Reviving Your Thyroid


* Click here to go to Dr. Debé's YouTube recording of the webinar:Hypothyroidism: Diagnosis and Natural Treatment