Thyroid Dysfunction – the ‘Great Pretender’

What might the inability to lose weight, low body temperature (Raynaud’s & cold extremities), lack of energy, depression, chronic constipation, elevated cholesterol, hair loss (eye brow and body hair), sub optimal immune function, varicose veins, skin problems, haemorrhoids, infertility, blood sugar and sex hormone imbalances all have in common? The thyroid…..

The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland that is located just below the ‘Adam’s apple’ in the neck. Optimal function of this gland is central to well being with its primary role being that of controlling metabolic rate. All cells in the body are influenced by thyroid hormones. This is why thyroid dysfunction has been described as ‘the great pretender’ masquerading as almost any condition that you can imagine.

Low thyroid function is the most common form of dysfunction (10 times more common in women). 90% of low thyroid dysfunction is caused by Hashimoto’s (an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland).

The production and balance of thyroid hormones is an intricate process that depends on a multitude of nutritional and environmental factors that need to be in balance. The simplistic version goes like this: The thyroid gland is stimulated to produce its main hormone T4 (thyroxine) by the action of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). T4 (the storage hormone) circulates round the body and has to be converted into T3, the ‘active’ hormone. Without T3 the cells would not respond. Here lies the problem. Efficient conversion of T4 to T3 is dependent on the presence of key nutrients and optimal gut health. Nutritional deficiencies (selenium, iodine, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc, chromium, calcium, vitamins A, B, C, D and E) and the presence of toxic metals (mercury, cadmium, arsenic, aluminium), BPA and certain medications are known to impact thyroid performance. Stress, adrenal health and systemic inflammation also play a significant role. So optimal thyroid health is dependent on a raft of key variables that unsurprisingly include a balanced microflora/ecology in the gut, a low toxic load and a nutrient dense diet.

Dr Broda Barnes (an eminent endocrinologist who dedicated most of his professional career to thyroid dysfunction) noticed that average body temperature is significantly lower if you are presenting with low thyroid function (as metabolic rate (which controls temperature) is controlled by thyroid hormones). He devised a simple test that effectively measures the cellular response to thyroid hormones and not simply levels of thyroid hormones in the blood. The Barnes Basal Temperature test can be done in the comfort of your own home with the only requirement being the ownership of a mercury or modern day analogue thermometer (digital thermometers are not accurate enough). I often suggest this test with clients that I feel maybe presenting with thyroid dysfunction and use the results to support a request for further comprehensive evaluation (not just levels of TSH – but the full array of thyroid hormones and antibodies) via their GPs. If the GP does not oblige, then there are a number of comprehensive thyroid panels that can be run privately.

Unfortunately the modern medical general practice approach to thyroid dysfunction is too simplistic. Research suggests that measurement of TSH levels alone is not always sufficient to diagnose dysfunction (you can have normal TSH levels and still have thyroid dysfunction) and the prescription and monitoring of only T4 (for those taking prescribed medication to help manage low thyroid function) may well work for some, but as I see regularly in my clinic, it often does not work for others.

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