Hypothyroidism: Many Symptoms, One Disease

If you have been experiencing persistent fatigue or sadness, it may be more complicated than simply shifting your attitude or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.  Fatigue and depression (and many other problems) may be signs of a physical medical condition: hypothyroidism – a decrease in the function of the thyroid gland that results in lower levels of thyroid hormone throughout the body.  It may even be possible to have low thyroid function while blood test interpretations say that all is normal.

Thyroid hormone is produced by the thyroid gland; a subtle butterfly shaped gland found in the neck below the Adam’s apple and on either side of the trachea.  Thyroid hormone is important to many parts of the body.  It sends a message to cells in the body to increase activity, function, and energy consumption.  The more thyroid hormone that is present, the faster body systems and organs will run.  It is possible to have too much (hyperthyroidism) or too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism).

Effects of Low Thyroid Function:

The symptoms of low thyroid function are diverse and vary considerably from person to person.  The manifestations of hypothyroidism can be vague or subtle, slowly getting worse over months or years.  Patients with hypothyroidism often experience some of the following symptoms: fatigue, depression, poor memory, unclear thinking, low body temperature, cold hands and feet, sensitivity to cold, dry skin, constipation, frequent infections, weight gain, premenstrual syndrome, or hoarseness.

Having hypothyroidism is also associated with several medical conditions; low thyroid function can cause or contribute to infertility, menstrual irregularities, elevated cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, heart disease, anemia, and carpel tunnel syndrome.

Diagnosis and Treatment:

Thyroid function is first assessed by checking a hormone that tells the thyroid gland to make more hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone or TSH.  Elevated TSH levels are a sign of low thyroid function while low TSH levels are indicative of hyperthyroidism.

The predominant medical view is that in the absence of elevated TSH, hypothyroidism cannot be diagnosed.  However, the possibility of hypothyroidism that is not detected by current lab tests and current standards does exist.  The standards for normal thyroid function have changed over the years and some endocrinologists believe that current standards miss many patients suffering from low thyroid function.  

The easiest treatment for hypothyroidism is supplementation with synthetic or animal derived thyroid hormone.  Improvement in symptoms usually takes as little as a few days or as long as six months.  However, excessive thyroid hormone replacement can cause high levels of thyroid in the body – hyperthyroidism – and result in anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, chest tightness, diarrhea, and osteoporosis.  So, thyroid hormone should be used carefully and with medical supervision – appropriate diagnosis and monitoring are important.

Addressing the Cause:

Iodine used to be a common cause of hypothyroidism.  Today, in our society iodine deficiency is rare.  Conversely, very high doses of iodine can cause hypothyroidism in as short as a few weeks and long term high daily intake seems to increase the risk of hypothyroidism over the years.

In today’s medical practice, hypothyroidism is most commonly caused by one of two issues: 1) an auto-immune attack on the thyroid gland; or 2) the thyroid gland puttering out – not functioning as well as is should or used to.  In either case, supplementation with thyroid hormone is helpful.

While the medical literature states that the causes of both types of hypothyroidism are unknown, there are numerous drugs and chemicals that are definitively known to cause auto-immunity or to hamper thyroid function.  Some of these substances include: food coloring; mercury; numerous solvents; and even some prescription drugs.  Some chemicals contribute to low thyroid hormone levels by increasing the liver’s breakdown of thyroid hormone.

Avoidance of these harmful substances and enhancing the body’s ability to get rid of them can be helpful.  Selenium (200 mcg daily); zinc (15 mg daily); iron (18 mg daily in absence of high iron levels); and the amino acid cysteine help the body make thyroid hormone and convert it to its most active form.  Cysteine is also important anti-oxidant that helps the body handle toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

Other supportive natural therapies include the far eastern Indian herbs ashwaganda and bacopa which support thyroid function and the action of thyroid hormone throughout the body.  Some patients benefit from supplementation with food grade thyroid gland products that supplement thyroid hormone levels.

While hypothyroidism can sneak up on people, accurate diagnosis and treatment often helps to relieve the symptoms and provides dramatic improvement quality of life.

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