The butterfly-shaped thyroid at the front of your neck may be small, but its importance to your overall health is enormous. Read on to discover what are thyroid problems, how your thyroid may be affecting your energy levels, and how to care for your thyroid:
If you’re anything like me, the pandemic of 2020 has had a few lingering effects. You’ll have been steadily loosening your waistband thanks to lockdown snacking, suffering from mood swings, and generally feeling fatigued.
However, as spring turns into summer and the world opens up again, those symptoms should be fading. Sunny days encourage outdoor exercise, boosting your mood and energy levels. The heavy comfort foods of winter have made way for sustaining salads and fresh fruit snacks. And the earlier dawn makes arising from a night’s slumber feel less of a home and more of a pleasure.
But what if you’re still feeling sluggish and can’t shift the extra weight, even with a healthier routine? This could be a big indicator that your thyroid is underachieve and in need of some TLC.
Chances are you’ve never even noticed it because it’s difficult to see or feel. But sitting just below your larynx is your thyroid, a small, soft endocrine (hormone-producing) gland. Fuelled by the iodine we ingest from foods such as seafood, eggs, and dairy, the thyroid produces the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). And they are vital to our wellbeing at every stage of life.
“All tissues in the body depend on thyroid hormone for optimal function,” says Professor Creswell Eastman, leading endocrinologist and principal medical advisor for the Australian Thyroid Foundation.
“It controls our metabolism, which is how we use and create energy. You need it to speed up. You need it to create enough energy so your heart can beat, you can breathe, you can walk, you can control your body temperature. And it is the master controller of growth and metabolism. This little gland produces the most important chemicals which regulate these functions in your body.”
Produce too little T4 and T3 and your thyroid will become underachieve (hypo), causing your body’s metabolic functions to slow down. If you produce too much, it becomes overactive (hyper), causing your metabolism to speed up – leading to extreme weight loss, tremors, nervousness, and a racing heart. But it’s the former that is far more common – and it’s a problem that, for reasons scientists are yet to deduce, affects women a whopping 10 times more than men.
“I wish I knew why – I’d probably get a Nobel Prize for it,” Professor Eastman tells The Weekly, adding that certain foods, chemicals, and stress can inhibit our ability to absorb iodine. “Iodine deficiency is the commonest form of thyroid problems worldwide, but another major cause is autoimmunity – when something goes wrong with your immune system and you reject your thyroid.”
For months, Shelley McKenzie had been feeling tired. Not just the “I need a nap” kind of tired, but a bone-deep, can’t-think-clearly kind of exhaustion. Her skin was also dry, her hair had begun thinning, she had digestive issues, and her weight was fluctuating.
Shelley had done the rounds of doctors and specialists when she finally received a diagnosis: Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid gland.
“I was really sick,” she says today about what led her to seek treatment nine years ago, before going on to retrain as a nutritionist to help other with thyroid dysfunction. “But my body was giving me warning signals before I was diagnosed. I was going, ‘Oh, that’s just some normal digestive health problems.’ Or, ‘Oh, I’ve got irregular periods and that’s normal for me.’ As women, we do often put things down to being hormonal.”
Far from being a rare disorder, Hashimoto’s is the leading cause of hypothyroidism in Australia. And while Shelley was just 24 when she was diagnosed, for most women, it’s far later in life that they will openly display the effects.
“Hashimoto’s is slow, it’s insidious,” Professor Eastman says.”And as you get older, you blame everything on ageing. If you have an underactive thyroid, your skin gets dry, you may get some yellowing of the skin – most noticeably on the soles of your feet and palms of your hands. Your hair gets coarser, it falls out. You put on weight. You don’t think as well. Hypothyroidism mimics the ageing process, so unless you test for it, you won’t pick it up.”
“A lot of the symptoms are similar to perimenopause or menopause,” adds Shelley, explaining why so many women suffer in silence. “Another time that is common [to experience symptoms] is the postnatal period. Many symptoms can be put down to postnatal depression, or the fatigue of just having had a baby. It’s this times when we’re having massive hormonal shifts. Those symptoms paint a hormonal picture, but it could be your body giving you a warning signal.”
Think you may have an underactive thyroid? Before you head to the GP, it’s important to know exactly what to ask for, advises Professor Eastman. “Ask for a thyroid function test and say to your GP: ‘Please test me for thyroid antibodies’,” he says. “It’s a simple blood test and it’s really exquisitely sensitive, so it’s very easy. If you have swelling in the neck, ask the GP to consider an ultrasound.”
And while your doctor may prescribe thyroid hormone replacement therapy, there are some additional ways to help your body get back on track.
Focus on iodine-rich foods, such as salmon, mackerel, and seaweed. “Buy seaweed in flake form and sprinkle it on salads and soups,” Shelley says.
Just make sure that the seaweed you buy, warns Professor Eastman, has the iodine amount clearly labelled. And remember that excess iodine can also do harm, so don’t go overboard!
Check the label on your salt – if it’s not iodised, buy a brand that is. Eggs and dairy are also good sources of iodine.
Professor Eastman recommends that pregnant women should take an iodine supplement as the thyroid steps up production by up to 50 per cent, passing on the thyroid hormone to the unborn baby.
Brassica vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and other cruciferous veggies contain goitrogens – substances which can inhibit the uptake of iodine. But, says Shelley, cooking or steaming them can help with absorption levels.
“Smoking also inhibits the uptake of iodine because of the thiocyanates in the tobacco leaf,” warns Professor Eastman. “Too much soy and cassava can also make things worse.”
“If I have a burst of stress, the first thing to go is my thyroid,” Shelley says. “I walk every day because I find it calming. I also recommend night-time routines – have a magnesium and lavender bath, or drink herbal teas.” Shelley says that vitamin B and magnesium-rich foods, such as leafy greens, can help ease stress, too.
Text: Bauer Syndication