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Hypothyroidism: Causes, Symptoms, & Natural Treatments

Hypothyroidism affects an estimated one in 300 people in the U.S., though the symptoms are mild or unnoticeable in most cases. (1) In this guide, we'll define hypothyroidism and discuss causes, symptoms, and natural treatment options.

What is Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism or under-active thyroid is when this gland does not make enough thyroid hormone to meet the body's needs. (It is the opposite of hyperthyroidism or an overactive thyroid gland, where this gland produces too much thyroid hormone.)

thyroid disease

What is the Thyroid Gland?

The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped organ located in the front lower part of the neck. Its primary purpose is to produce two thyroid hormones: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).

Thyroid Function

The thyroid is known for its effect on the metabolism -- they don't call it the "master gland of metabolism for nothing!!! -- which, of course, helps regulate weight. But its responsibilities go far beyond that.

You see, it regulates your "metabolism and bodily function by transporting energy in the form of glucose to your cells." (2)

Therefore, thyroid hormones are responsible for promoting and regulating numerous critical functions, including: (3)

  • Body temperature
  • Cognitive function
  • Reproductive function
  • Cardiovascular function and health
  • Absorption and digestion of food
  • And so much more.

Indeed, thyroid hormones are responsible for promoting, maintaining, and regulating every organ, gland, tissue, and cell function in your body!

Keep this in mind when we discuss the symptoms of hypothyroidism.

thyroid treatment


How Does the Thyroid Control Hormone Levels?

The brain's hypothalamus and the pituitary gland regulate thyroid levels. When the hypothalamus senses these levels are too high or too low, it tells the pituitary gland to release appropriate amounts of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), telling the thyroid how much or how little of T3 and T4 to produce.

In this way, the thyroid gland produces and maintains a healthy T3 and T4 balance. But if thyroid hormone production runs low and this balancing act is disturbed, it can trigger chronic hypothyroidism.

Signs and Symptoms of Hypothyroidism

When thyroid hormone levels run low, symptoms can include:

  • Weight gain
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Fatigue
  • Dry skin
  • Brittle nails
  • Dry hair
  • Hair loss
  • Joint pain or swelling, pain, or stiffness
  • Constipation
  • Puffy face
  • Muscle aches, stiffness, weakness, or pain
  • Increased sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Lethargy
  • Inability to concentrate
  • A short temper
  • And more

Types of Hypothyroidism Disease

There are three types of hypothyroidism.

  • Hypothyroidism: The gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone, the subject of this guide.
  • Cellular hypothyroidism: The gland produces enough thyroid hormone, but the cells cannot utilize it properly.
  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis: An autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your thyroid gland. Hashimoto's is the most common type of hypothyroidism. (4)

Causes of Hypothyroidism

Several factors can cause hypothyroidism. (7)

Autoimmune Disease

The immune system is responsible for fighting off infections, but it can mistakenly turn against the body's cells and tissue in some cases. For example, in Hashimoto's disease, the most common type of hypothyroidism, the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland cells and their enzymes as foreign invaders and destroys them, leaving the gland unable to produce thyroid hormones.

Thyroid Surgery

If surgery is performed on the thyroid to remove a nodule, cancer, or other reasons, it can negatively affect thyroid hormone production. Surgically removing the entire thyroid will always lead to hypothyroidism. But if it is just partially removed, there is a chance that the part left will still be able to produce enough thyroid hormone.

Thyroiditis

Thyroiditis is the medical term for an inflamed thyroid. This condition can be caused by an autoimmune attack, such as Hashimoto's disease, or a viral infection. When this happens, the thyroid can empty all its stored hormones into the bloodstream, initially causing brief hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) before switching to hypothyroidism.

Iodine Intake

To function correctly and to keep hormones in balance, the thyroid needs a precise amount of iodine. This mineral is critical for making thyroid hormones. Taking in too much or too little iodine through the diet can cause hypothyroidism. It can also be dangerous to your health.

According to the National Institutes of Health:

"Getting high levels of iodine can cause some of the same symptoms as iodine deficiency, including goiter (an enlarged thyroid gland). High iodine intake can also cause thyroid gland inflammation and thyroid cancer. Getting a huge dose of iodine (several grams, for example) can cause burning of the mouth, throat, and stomach; fever; stomach pain; nausea; vomiting; diarrhea; weak pulse; and coma. (8)

The recommended amount for male and female adults is around 150 mcg of iodine per day, which you should be able to quickly get through your diet by adding iodized table salt to your foods. However, consuming too much sodium can create health problems. (Iodized salt contains roughly 45 mcg per gram. Other great food sources of iodine include: (9)

  • Cod (3 ounces ) - 158 mcg
  • Plain nonfat Greek yogurt (1 cup) - 116 mcg.
  • Oysters (3 ounces) - 93 mcg
  • Fish sticks cooked (3 ounces) - 58 mcg

 

Pituitary Gland Damage

The pituitary gland plays a crucial role in thyroid hormone production, telling the thyroid how much hormone to make. Consequently, if the pituitary is damaged by surgery, a tumor, or radiation, it may not give proper instructions to the thyroid gland. The result is often hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.

Radiation Treatment

Any time radiation therapy is applied to the head, neck, or thyroid, it can damage the thyroid gland. There are also situations where doctors will use radioactive iodine to purposely destroy the thyroid to treat thyroid cancer or other conditions.

Medications

Several medications can interfere with the thyroid's ability to make thyroid hormones. These medications include lithium, interfering alpha, and amiodarone. Each of these affects the thyroid gland differently. For example, lithium increases the iodine within the thyroid gland, thus reducing its ability to produce both significant hormones.

Hypothyroidism Risk Factors

thyroid pituitary axis

Risk factors for developing hypothyroidism include:

  • Gender: Women are eight to 10 times more likely to develop hypothyroidism than men. (10)
  • Age: Hypothyroidism is more common in those 60 and older.
  • Genetics: A family history of this disease appears to increase your risk.
  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions spur hypothyroidism, such as viral infections or autoimmune diseases.
  • Diet. An iodine deficiency can lead to this disease.
  • Pituitary disorder: This can decrease the production of thyroid-stimulating hormones, making hypothyroidism more likely.
  • Radiation treatment. Applying radiation treatments to the head or neck to treat cancer or other conditions can damage the thyroid gland, contributing to an underactive thyroid.
  • Medications. As referenced above, some medications can increase the risk for this disease.
  • Pregnancy. An estimated one in 10 women gets postpartum thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland. (11) Pregnancy can also worsen hypothyroidism.

How is Hypothyroidism Diagnosed?

According to the Mayo Clinic: "Diagnosis of hypothyroidism is based on your symptoms and the results of blood tests that measure the level of TSH and sometimes the level of the thyroid hormone thyroxine." (12)

The TSH test is the best screening tool for hypothyroidism.

What is the Medical Treatment for Hypothyroidism

The standard medical treatment for hypothyroidism is thyroid hormone therapy using synthetic thyroid hormone levothyroxine. (13)

Taken orally, this medication reverses hypothyroidism along with its symptoms. Thyroid hormone levels are periodically checked to ensure the correct dosage amount. 

Treating Hypothyroidism Naturally

There are several natural ways to treat hypothyroidism symptoms. Most of them involve diet and nutrition, as they play a significant role in these diseases.

Reduce Stress

Chronic stress and thyroid disease are intimately linked. How?

When you're stressed, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. Ideally, cortisol levels will diminish when you are no longer worried. But unfortunately, many people are chronically stressed, leading to constantly elevated cortisol levels.

Too much cortisol in the bloodstream taxes the thyroid gland, making it work harder to produce enough thyroid hormone for your body's needs. If it goes on long enough, it can lead to thyroid hormone imbalances that increase the risk of hypothyroidism.

The solution is to learn to manage your stress healthily.

Easy Ways to Manage Your Stress

There are many enjoyable ways to manage stress. Here are just a few of them.

  • Take leisurely walks, preferably outdoors. Combining exercise and breathing the fresh air is guaranteed to ease stress and improve your mood.
  • Get a dog or cat. Pet ownership is associated with lower stress levels.
  • Meditate. Whether you decide to meditate for 5 or 30 minutes, the act of closing your eyes, relaxing your body, clearing your mind, and taking slow deep breaths has been shown to reduce stress and improve health.
  • Stream or rent a comedy movie or TV show. Research shows that laughter really is the best medicine, as it reduces stress and strengthens the immune system! (14)
  • Practice yoga
  • Participate in aerobic exercises, such as jogging, bicycling, or swimming.

Get More Vitamin B-12

An underactive thyroid can significantly reduce your body's B-12 levels leading to one of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism -- fatigue.

To combat this issue, try to consume more foods that contain vitamin B-12 or take a daily supplement.

Vitamin B-12 Foods

Foods rich in vitamin B-12 include:

  • Salmon
  • Shellfish
  • Nonfat plain Greek yogurt
  • Egg
  • Swiss cheese
  • Ham
  • Chicken
  • Animal organ meats like beef and liver
  • Sardines

Eat Selenium-Rich Foods

Selenium is a trace element that plays a critical role in the body and is essential for thyroid gland function after iodine. (15, 16)

To ensure you get enough thyroid-supporting selenium, be sure to include some of these foods in your diet:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Chicken
  • Oats
  • Beef
  • Tuna
  • Oysters
  • Salmon
  • Sunflower seeds

If you have an underactive thyroid, please check with your doctor to see how much selenium you need each day.

Get an Adequate Intake of Iodine

As iodine is essential for thyroid function, you must get enough through your diet. As previously mentioned in this guide, you can get iodine by consuming cod, seaweed, eggs, green beans, bananas, dried kelp, and iodized salt.

Do not go overboard, though. Consuming too much or too little iodine can hamper thyroid function.

Reduce Sugar Intake

Sugar causes systemic inflammation that can negatively affect thyroid hormone levels, potentially leading to hypothyroidism.

Please remember that most of your sugar intake comes from processed foods, so reducing sugar means reducing or eliminating processed foods from your diet.

This isn't too bad, though, as you can replace them with health-supporting choices, such as mouth-watering salmon, lean proteins, healthy fats, and various nonstarchy vegetables.

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References

1- https://www.aafp.org/afp/2021/0515/p605.html

2- https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/ug1836

3- https://www.healthcentral.com/slideshow/How-the-thyroid-works

4- https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases/hypothyroidism

5- https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-Consumer/

6- https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-HealthProfessional/

7- https://www.thyroid.org/hypothyroidism/

8- https://www.verywellhealth.com/lithium-and-thyroid-disease-3233148

9- https://www.verywellhealth.com/lithium-and-thyroid-disease-323314

10- https://academic.oup.com/bmb/article/99/1/39/298307

11-

https://www.winchesterhospital.org/health-library/article?id=19629

12- https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothyroidism/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350289

13- https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothyroidism/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350289

14- https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/

15- https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/

16- https://www.healthbeckon.com/selenium-rich-foods/

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