So what does the thyroid actually do? Well, everything! When the gland isn’t functioning our metabolism decreases and this causes problems with temperature control, mood, low energy, weight gain, constipation, dry skin and hair, poor fertility and memory, to name a just a few.
It’s a gland that sits at the bottom of the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. It’s a butterfly shape as it has two side lobes, connected by a bridge (isthmus) in the middle.
An individual problem
Conventional medicine diagnoses an underactive thyroid based on blood tests which show raised levels of TSH (the hormone secreted by the brain to stimulate the thyroid to work) and low levels of T4 (the hormone produced by the thyroid gland). T4 has to be converted to T3 to work. Blood levels of T3 are often not checked in the routine screen for hypothyroidism as it is assumed that T4 is being adequately converted to T3, although I think we should be checking T3 as not everyone converts T4 to T3 as well as they should.
Even then, diagnosis is not straightforward, because the range of thyroid tests that conventional medicine considers to be normal is very wide. In America, the range of normal TSH references has been reduced from 0.5-5 to 0.3-3. This unfortunately is not the case in the UK where a TSH of up to five is still considered normal. Then add to this that some people function best when their numbers are at the upper end of the population range anyway! This means that if you are told your results are normal but you still feel you are suffering from hypothyroidism, request the exact values and take them to a practitioner who pays close attention to your symptoms and uses a multi-factorial approach to treat them.
So let’s dig deeper and look at the top signs indicating something is wrong with your thyroid:
1. Weak bones
If you have weak bones, have your thyroid checked. Abnormal thyroid function can decrease bone mineral density. Serum calcium will typically be in the “normal” reference range with hypothyroidism, but outside of the functional, optimal range.
2. Gut problems
Low thyroid function can reduce the movement of your intestines, which is essential for healthy digestion. The ability of your body to absorb nutrients is also altered when your thyroid isn’t working well. Healthy thyroid function dampens gut inflammation, and low thyroid function is linked with gastric ulcers and leaky gut syndrome.
3. Low sex drive
Many people think their low sex drive is due to aging, when in fact it may be a symptom of a bigger hormonal problem that’s anything but normal. Thyroid function affects the metabolism of estrogen and testosterone in the body. Hypothyroidism in men is linked with erectile dysfunction and low libido in both men and women.
4. Weight gain
When your thyroid hormones are low, your body will be less able to break down fat, making you resistant to weight loss. Years of fad diets and grueling hours in the gym won’t fix the underlying problem. Weight gain isn’t the cause of your problems, but a symptom of something not being addressed. You have to get healthy to lose weight, not the other way around. When you deal with the underlying hormonal problem and heal, weight loss is the natural byproduct.
5. Low energy
In addition to slowing your ability to burn fat, hypothyroidism will also decrease your energy, causing debilitating fatigue.
6. Blood sugar problems
When your body is in a low thyroid state, it decreases your body’s ability to absorb glucose or blood sugar. You need glucose to get properly in the cell to create ATP, your cellular energy source. Despite sluggish glucose metabolism, many people struggling with low thyroid hormones can feel hypoglycemic, like they have low blood sugar. Because the cells are not getting the glucose they need, you can feel like you are hypoglycemic even with normal looking blood sugar labs. This vicious cycle of hormonal dysfunction can lead to metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance.
7. High cholesterol and triglycerides
A sluggish thyroid hormone levels decreases the breakdown of cholesterol, leading to elevated total cholesterol and triglycerides. While high cholesterol alone is a poor predictor for heart attack and stroke risk, elevated triglycerides is an accurate marker for increased risk factor.
8. Adrenal fatigue
When you have hypothyroidism, it puts stress on your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Because of the lack of glucose and energy getting to the cells, the brain-adrenal axis pumps more cortisol in attempts to get more energy to the cells. This further complicates your hormonal health, leading to HPA axis dysfunction or adrenal fatigue.
9. Toxin overload
Poor thyroid health will lead to your liver and gallbladder not working very well. This can significantly decrease your body’s ability to rid itself of toxins, and may also cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. I commonly see impaired detoxification pathways in patients dealing with thyroid problems.
10. Estrogen imbalances
Estrogen comes in the form of three metabolites: Estrone (E1, estradiol (E2), and estriol (E3). Estrogen balance is essential for your health. When your thyroid isn’t working well it can unbalance your estrogen metabolite ratio.
11. Brain problems
Hypothyroidism is linked with poor neurotransmitter expression and an increased risk of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. This is due to the fact that a predominance of thyroid receptor sites are found in the brain. One 2014 study found that people with depression had higher rates of thyroid conversion impairments, or low T3 syndrome.
12. Hot flashes or being cold
When your thyroid hormone levels are low, it affects your body’s temperature control. This can cause you to feel cold all the time, or have night sweats and hot flashes.
13. Hair loss
Since the thyroid determines your metabolism and absorption of nutrients, when your thyroid hormones aren’t functioning optimally this can lead to hair loss. Making sure your levels are optimal is essential to regaining hair health.
What To Do Now
As you can see, thyroid health is essential for you to feel and be healthy. Many people instinctively know that they have a thyroid problem despite “normal” labs. If this is you, educate yourself on the thyroid problems that won’t show up on standard labs.