Could you be suffering from hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism? Here are the symptoms to check for, and how to cope if you do have a thyroid disorder

By Kat Tancock

Do you have a hidden thyroid problem?

The thyroid gland, found in the neck, is a bit of a miracle worker. The hormones it produces manage our metabolism and organ function, and "directly affect body functions such as heart rate, cholesterol levels, body weight, energy, muscle contraction and relaxation, skin and hair texture, bowel function, fertility, menstrual regularity, memory and mood," says naturopath Natasha Turner, author of The Supercharged Hormone Diet.

Unfortunately, the thyroid doesn't always work as it's supposed to. If the thyroid gland stops producing enough hormones – or produces too much – it can affect the whole body. Could you have a hidden thyroid problem? Read on to find out what symptoms you might be experiencing – and what to do about them.

What does a thyroid problem mean?

"Without enough thyroid hormones, every system in the body slows down," says Turner. Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid disease, causes a variety of symptoms – and they vary in everyone. "Those who suffer from hypothyroidism feel tired and tend to sleep a lot," says Turner. "They can also experience extremely dry skin, hair loss, even slower mental processes. Their digestion is slow and weight gain typically occurs." While these symptoms can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons – even just a change of seasons – Turner recommends visiting your doctor for a blood test if you experience two or more of the following symptoms:

• Frequently feeling cold or having an intolerance of cold temperatures
• Dry skin, brittle hair and splitting nails
• Lack of or diminished ability to sweat during exercise
• Hair loss
• Irregular menses or heavy menstrual bleeding
• Poor memory
• Depression
• Decreased libido
• Constipation
• Unexplained fatigue or lethargy
• Unexplained weight gain or an inability to lose weight
• Many individuals with hypothyroidism have associated iron-deficient anemia and/or high cholesterol

Another thyroid problem, though less common, is hyperthyroidism – an overactive thyroid. "Every system in the body speeds up," Turner explains, resulting in symptoms including anxiety, an intolerance to cold, difficulty sleeping, increased appetite, weight loss and restlessness.

To determine whether you have a thyroid problem, your doctor will test your blood to determine the levels of thyroid hormones and antibodies. If they fall outside an accepted range, that indicates your thyroid isn't working well.

What causes thyroid problems?

"Hypothyroidism is a complex disorder that can stem from a number of different causes," says Turner. Some of these potential causes, she adds, include:
• Problems with the function of the thyroid gland, such as from an autoimmune response (Hashimoto's thyroiditis).
• Toxic levels of mercury
• High levels of estrogen, or a deficiency of progesterone, such as from hormone-replacement therapy (HRT)
• Excess consumption of soy-based foods and beverages (Turner recommends no more than one serving a day of soy products, sticking to minimally processed or fermented varieties such as tofu or tempeh)
• Nutritional deficiencies in minerals including iodine, tyrosine, selenium and zinc

How are thyroid problems treated?

While drugs containing synthetic thyroid hormones are available and commonly used – and Turner does recommend turning to drugs if natural treatment has had no effect after six months – there are some food-related remedies you can try, "especially if your TSH [thyroid-stimulating hormone] is between 2.0 and 4.7" (look at your blood tests). You may want to consult a naturopath with expertise in hormonal issues, Turner adds, especially if your TSH is 4.0 or higher.

Foods and supplements to help treat thyroid problems

Turner recommends trying the following three supplements to help support thyroid function – including if you're experiencing thyroid-related symptoms but have normal bloodwork. Speak to a health professional to ensure you're supplementing in a way that works with your body.

• Ashwaganda
An Ayurvedic herb, ashwaganda appears to affect the thyroid gland directly to contribute to an increase in thyroid hormones T4 and T3, says Turner. "Ashwaganda is my favourite choice for supporting the thyroid when stress is also a concern," she says. Try taking 750 to 1,000 mg twice a day.

• L-Tyrosine
"The amino acid tyrosine is necessary for the production of thyroid hormone in the body," Turner says, adding that it's a good idea to take this at the beginning of a weight-loss program, as it takes four weeks to reach its full effectiveness. Unless you have high blood pressure, in which case this supplement is not recommended, take 1,000 mg when you get up, before breakfast.

• Coconut oil
"Not all fats are created equal," Turner says – and "not all fats are unhealthy." Virgin, non-hydrogenated coconut oil is another way to boost a sluggish thyroid, she says – and promote healthy weight loss, too. Use it in cooking – it has a higher heat tolerance than olive oil, and you can find brands with less or more, even no, coconut flavour – or add a tablespoon to smoothies for fresh taste and better staying power.

Don't suffer undiagnosed

If you think you might have a thyroid problem, do go and get tested – and work with your healthcare provider to find a treatment that works for you. It may take some work and fine-tuning, but the improvement in quality of life will make the effort more than worthwhile.

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Web exclusive, January 2012

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