The thyroid gland is a small, but absolutely essential gland located in the lower portion of the front of the neck. The main functions of the thyroid gland are to regulate metabolism, and in younger persons, growth of bones and sexual development.
Thyroid dysfunction can occur in two ways: over-activity of the thyroid gland, and, more commonly, under-activity. This dysfunction is defined by levels of thyroid hormones under laboratory examination, meaning that a person may be diagnosed with thyroid illness without necessarily experiencing thyroid-associated symptoms.
Over-activity of the thyroid gland, or hyper thyroidism, is relatively rare, affecting approximately 1-2% of persons according to laboratory results (with fewer than that actually experiencing symptoms).
Under-activity of the thyroid gland, or hypo thyroidism, is more common, affecting approximately 10% of persons older than 65 years, women more often than men, again, with fewer than that actually experiencing symptoms.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism are caused by anything that results in the thyroid gland producing excessive amounts of thyroid hormones (referred to as T-3 and T-4), most commonly
As mentioned above, a person may have abnormal levels of thyroid hormone detected by laboratory testing without experiencing thyroid illness symptoms. Symptoms that a person with hyperthyroidism may experience can be conceived of as “speeding up” of body functions and may include
Hypothyroidism symptoms are caused by either under-production of thyroid hormones, or compromised availability of thyroid hormones that have been produced, by
Symptoms of hypothyroidism are a “slowing down” of function, and may include
Assessment of Thyroid Health
Usually, a problem with thyroid gland will be identified when person has some of the symptoms listed above, and their physician orders blood testing to determine thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels.
Thyroid function responds to a “feedback loop,” not unlike a house thermostat. If the blood has high levels of thyroid hormones, TSH will be “turned down” (because the thyroid gland does not require “stimulating”); therefore, low TSH levels indicate hyperthyroidism. High levels of TSH suggest increased attempts at “thyroid stimulating,” indicating low thyroid activity, hypothyroidism.
(With regard to fertility, the conventionally accepted “normal” range for TSH is quite wide, and women planning to become pregnant should have “optimal” thyroid function, reflected by TSH values of lower than 2.5 mIU/L to minimize risk of miscarriage). T-4 (T-3 often remains at normal levels until much later) is then measured to confirm that thyroid function is increased or decreased.
Other testing, including tests for antibodies that may be damaging or stimulating the thyroid gland or hormones are used to identify causes of compromised thyroid function (e.g., measurement of antibody levels to confirm an immune system cause for compromised thyroid function, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis).
Practical Assessment Thyroid Function
Sometimes, a person experiencing symptoms of thyroid dysfunction will have “normal” laboratory values for thyroid hormones (perhaps because of the wide “normal” TSH-range). In these cases, a naturopathic doctor may suggest measuring your basal body temperature (BBT).
Measuring your BBT involves measuring your body temperature immediately on waking over a period of at least three days. If the average body temperature is higher than 37 °C, hyperthyroidism may be present, and if less than 36.4 °C, hypothyroidism is suggested.
Natural Treatment of Hyperthyroidism
Conventional treatment of thyroid over-activity includes use of radioactive iodine or surgery, both of which are used to reduce the mass/volume of the thyroid gland, but which may result in thyroid under-activity (which will itself require treatment).
Treating hyperthyroidism using natural medicines can be complicated, but the starting point, specifically in immune system and inflammation-related conditions, is to remove triggers of immune activity and inflammation in the diet using IgG antibody testing to identify potential trigger foods. Research also supports using meditation to reduce inflammation.
Once excessive immune system activity and inflammation is under control, herbal medicines can be used to further reduce inflammation, “re-balance” immune system activity to reduce the likelihood of immune system “flare-ups”, and reduce thyroid hormone production.
Natural Treatment of Hypothyroidism
Conventional treatment of hypothyroidism usually includes the synthetic thyroid hormone, levothyroxine.
Naturopathic treatment of thyroid under-activity, if caused by immune system “attack” on thyroid gland or hormones, begins with identifying and eliminating dietary triggers of autoimmune activity and inflammation, possibly with further support of a meditation practice. Herbal medicines can be used to further manage inflammation and immune system dysfunction, and also to stimulate thyroid hormone production. A final, important consideration in treating hypothyroidism naturally may be supplementation with iodine, providing an essential “building block” of thyroid hormones.
Poor thyroid function responds well to natural treatment, particularly when preparing for pregnancy, or when combined with conventional approaches as a means of minimizing or avoiding side effects of conventional therapies.
If you suspect you may have thyroid dysfunction, or are planning to become pregnant, it is important to get a professional assessment, as untreated, compromised thyroid health can have serious consequences, ranging from deceased quality of life to vision loss or even death.