Feeling fatigued? Poor memory and concentration? Cold hands and feet? Weight gain? Struggling to conceive? These are common symptoms of hypothyroidism or subclinical hypothyroidism. Commonly, a doctor will request a TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) test. If that is within the normal range of 0.4 - 4.00 mU/L, you are usually told there is nothing wrong.
So why is it that when you go to see your naturopath or nutritionist, you are told a different story?
Put simply, we are looking at the test in a different way than your GP. A doctor is looking at the blood test result from a disease perspective and will write a prescription if the result warrants it. If you are diagnosed with hypothyroidism (your TSH is higher than 4 mU/L and your T4 and/or T3 is low), thyroxine is usually prescribed. A naturopath looks at it from a preventative health perspective. Reversing it before
it becomes a disease. If there is one thing I love about naturopathy and herbal medicine, it is the ability to provide a solution to a person's symptoms before they become so severe that medication is required. Often a change in diet and lifestyle and supplementation can produce profound changes in the path of a person's health and wellbeing. If thyroxine is prescribed, that person will have to take medication for the rest of their life. An optimal TSH level is between 1.0-2.5 mU/L and optimal T4 is higher than 14 pmol/L. You may have a sluggish thyroid if your TSH is higher than 2.5 mU/L and T4 and/or T3 is low.
T4 and T3, Thyroid Hormones
When the level of T4 drops (usually due to a lack of iodine in the diet) then the pituitary gland pumps out higher levels of TSH to produce more T4. T4 converts to T3 and T3 is the more “active” hormone in the body. If there is a deficiency of zinc and/or selenium, T4 doesn’t convert efficiently and there may be a decline in T3 levels. Foods high in iodine include eggs, seafood, iodised salt and Himalayan crystal salt. Oysters and brazil nuts are high in zinc and selenium respectively. A naturopathic prescription includes iodine, zinc and selenium as part of a multivitamin.
Controlling stress is important as high cortisol levels interfere with optimal thyroid function
I love the herb withania, otherwise known as ashwaghanda. Withania should be taken at night after dinner as it may cause drowsiness. It is excellent for thyroid support as it supports T4 levels. It is renowned by medical herbalists for being the best herb to reduce cortisol levels. and helps reduce the effects of stress and anxiety on the body. Herbs to support energy levels may be taken during the day and it is best to work with a fully qualified medical herbalist to determine which herbs are appropriate for you. An active lifestyle is another important factor in healthy thyroid function. Exercise helps increase the thyroid hormones T4 and T3 and decreases TSH as shown in this study.
A subsequent test (TSH, T4 and T3) is performed 6-8 weeks later if the patient hasn't responded well to this simple protocol. Further investigations include a thyroid antibodies test. If thyroid antibodies are high it indicates the person has Hashimoto’s Disease. Hashimoto's is an autoimmune condition in which immune cells attack the thyroid. This causes inflammation and eventual destruction of the gland. Unfortunately, there is no medication to treat Hashimoto’s other than thyroxine. I like to prescribe a high-quality echinacea supplement to help keep thyroid antibodies under control.
Bovine thyroid extracts
A randomised controlled trial
showed patients preferred dessicated thyroid extract to thyroxine and found it contributed to more weight loss. Although these are not available over the counter in Australia, they may be purchased online from the U.S.
Although hypothyroidism is more common, sometimes women suffer from hyperthyroidism. Symptoms associated with this condition include rapid heartbeat, insomnia and weight loss. If a woman’s TSH is lower than 1, her T4 or T3 is high and she has symptoms of an overactive thyroid, I have found that herbal treatment can successfully reverse this condition before it gets to the stage where medication is needed. Some herbs I have used in clinic for hyperthyroidism include lemon balm and bugleweed. Soy milk in the diet is beneficial as this is known to interfere with thyroid function. Of course, if a person has an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), then they should avoid
soy milk, lemon balm and bugleweed. Lemon balm is commonly used in herbal formula’s for sleep and anxiety so check your herbal teas or herbal sleep medication and avoid taking this if you have a sluggish thyroid. According to the Blood Type Diet
, O blood types are more likely to suffer from an underactive thyroid. Interestingly, O blood types should avoid grains and dairy, the two foods a naturopath would cut out of a diet for someone suffering from hypothyroidism. I would love to see more research in this area and in the connection of blood types with disease in general.