Understanding the Thyroid Gland

Lately you’re feeling more tired than usual. Even with keeping the same diet and exercise regimen, the scale seems to go up each time you weigh yourself. Sleep was never good, but now, it’s just really bad. You wake up tired. You crave sweets and bread. And to top it off you’re losing hair. Does this sound familiar?

Many of us go through the movements of our day, not really being fully apart of it, or just hoping that bed-time is just around the corner. We’ve gone to the doctor, they said all our labs were normal. They told us we could take some meds for our depression. But we don’t want to. We eat right (or so we hope), we exercise (even though we don’t want to or have the energy to), and yet we feel so exhausted. What is missing?

There are millions of people like you, going through the movements of daily life, but not really involved in it. And these millions of people may have undiagnosed thyroid disease, specifically hypothyroidism. So …. what does that mean?

A little introduction to the thyroid gland

The thyroid gland sits in the front of your neck, and is split into two lobes on either side, connected by a bridge which we will call an isthmus. On the back side of the thyroid gland are the parathyroid glands which are ultimately important for calcium levels in the body. The word thyroid comes from the Greek word ‘Thyreos,’ which means a shield which we can easily see from the shape the thyroid gland takes.

The follicles of the thyroid gland produce a protein called thyroglobulin which is the basis for producing the thyroid hormones we need to function from day to day.  These two hormones are T4 and T3 which are inactive and active forms respectively. How does the thyroid gland keep control of its hormone production and effect on the body? The intricate system is controlled from the hypothalamus in the brain which acts on the pituitary gland as well located in the brain. The hypothalamus is important in linking the nervous system to the endocrine system – which is all our glands that control the entire body and includes the thyroid, adrenal, and reproductive organs.

The thyroid gland via the thyroid hormones stimulate the metabolic rate in cells and promote cell growth. They increase the production of ATP or as we call it energy. The thyroid hormones promote protein synthesis, increase the rate of carbohydrate absorption in the digestive tract, promote the breakdown of fats and encourage the cells to take in ATP for energy metabolism. Other cells in the thyroid produce a hormone called calcitonin which assists in the regulation of calcium levels in the body. To summarize, the thyroid gland is in control of the metabolism of the body, the energy of the body, and digestive process of the body, and the overall function of the body. SO…. IT IS IMPORTANT FOR DAILY LIFE!

What affects the Thyroid Gland?

The thyroid gland being an endocrine gland, can have various causes leading to disorders. There are many ways that an endocrine system can go astray. The endocrine tissues can either secrete too much or too little hormones. The causes can be due to various issues – infections, tumors, trauma, and lifestyle to name a few. We also live in a time when there are many endocrine disruptors that come from the external environment in forms of chemicals – pesticides and dioxins – which are found in our foods, our water and the air we breathe.

What happens when we have an imbalance of the thyroid?

When the thyroid gland is not working properly, it can affect almost every aspect of your health! When the thyroid gland is out of balance, we can see changes in many areas of the body. The areas most affected are:

Hair and SkinHair frequently becomes brittle, coarse and dry while breaking off and falling out easilySkin can become coarse, thick, dry, and scalyBowel changesPeople experience severe or long-term constipation and diarrhea or irritable bowel symptomsMuscle and joint PainThere is weakness in the armsOverall there is the sensation of soreness and pain in certain areas or all over the body
Cholesterol IssuesLab results show high cholesterolDepression and AnxietyPeople feel more down, depressed, with hard time making things seem possibleDepending on the severity and or stage of thyroid disease they can experience symptoms of abrupt panic attacks as wellWeight ChangesChanges in weight, either easily gaining weight or finding it hard to keep weight on can also be signs of a thyroid disorder
Menstrual Irregularities and Fertility ProblemsWomen experience heavier, more frequent and more painful periodsOr women experience the opposite with shorter, lighter and infrequent periodsThey may also experience problems getting pregnantNeck Discomfort or EnlargementAs the imbalance continues the size of the thyroid can increase creating a swelling on the front side of the neck creating discomfort with clothing and possibly with eating and drinkingFatigueOne of the biggest complaints for many people with thyroid disordersFeeling exhausted when waking up or being unable to function all day without a nap or caffeinated products to keep energy up enough to make it through the day

How do we test for it?

Many of us may have experience episodes of the above listed signs and symptoms. It doesn’t mean that you in fact have a thyroid disorder. Testing is key to determine the levels of thyroid hormone and the feedback loops of communication between our hypothalamus and pituitary glands can provide key insight in the health of your thyroid gland. Unfortunately testing today only relies on one key lab which is the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). While this can provide some insight, Naturopathic Medicine investigates what the cause of those symptoms may be. Testing should include TSH, T4, T3, rT3, and antibodies to the thyroid gland (Anti-TG, Anti-TPO).

What can we do about it?

Not only does the thyroid gland regulate the entire body, it can easily be affected by other systems. Stress and diet are key components of thyroid health. Stress will negatively affect the Thyroid gland, reducing its function, leading to symptoms of under-function. Diet can affect the gut which in turn results in more stress and inflammation on the body. This has led to the emergence of autoimmune changes on the thyroid gland, resulting in changes in the function of the gland, with either a hyper-active or hypo-active response. A balanced lifestyle with emphasis on diet and exercise are key players in the health of the Thyroid Gland.

How can Naturopathic Medicine help me?

If you are experiencing symptoms of fatigue, hair loss, changes in bowel and digestion, depression and anxiety, and weight issues it may be important for you to investigate the health of your thyroid. Naturopathic Medicine emphasizes prevention and wellness and understands the importance of investigating the cause of your symptoms and health concerns. Working with a Naturopathic Doctor may be the first step in changing your health for the better.

~Dr. Effy Germanis ND, R.Ac

Dr. Effy Germanis

Dr. Effy Germanis is a Naturopathic Doctor and Registered Acupuncturist and is a lover of gut health. She is the owner of Hygeia Naturopathic Clinic in Toronto, Ontario and helps both men and women achieve optimal health by addressing the foundations – the gut. With over 8 years of clinical experience she has helped those with gut issues reclaim their health and their relationship with food.