Updated: May 29
Thyroid is a small 5cm wide gland in the front of the neck and weighs 20-60gm.
Despite its small size, the thyroid gland synthesises a very important hormone in the body - the thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone controls many important physiologic processes such as development, growth and metabolism. There is not one organ and tissue in our body that is not affected by the thyroid hormone. Therefore, symptoms of thyroid disease can be varied and depend on the organ system affected.
HYPOTHYROIDISM - Thyroid hormone deficiency
An under-active thyroid causes "power shortages". Symptoms depend on the organ system having this power shortage. Classical symptoms are general malaise, unexplained fatigue, fluid retention, difficulty losing weight (or inexplicable weight gain), impaired memory or concentration, constipation, hair loss (including from the eyebrows), sensitivity to cold, coarse or ageing skin, puffiness around the eyes, depression, muscle weakness or pain, infertility and others. It may also result in elevated blood cholesterol, including the LDL (bad cholesterol).
1. Iodine deficiency: Iodine is part of the thyroid hormone. Without iodine, there can be no thyroid hormone. It used to be the most common cause of hypothyroidism (and still is in some parts of developing world). It has become less common because of iodine supplementation in salt.
2. Primary thyroid disease: e.g Hashimoto's Thyroiditis (an auto-immune disease in which auto-antibodies attack the thyroid). This is now the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the developed world (e.g. Australia). Its prevalence has risen progressively since the Industrial Revolution, most likely due to combination of increased environmental toxins (chemicals/heavy metals) and processed foods, i.e. stripping nutrients from grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Most cases of hypothyroidism are readily treated by oral administration of synthetic thyroid hormone. In the past, consumption of dessicated animal thyroid gland was used for the same purpose (e.g. Armour Thyroid). However, supplementing the thyroid hormone does nothing to address the cause of the problem.
HYPERTHYROIDISM - Thyroid hormone excess.
This is less common than hypothyroidism. Most common form is Graves disease (also an immune disease in which auto-antibodies stimulate thyroid to make more hormone).
Overactive thyroid causes "power surges" which can be harmful and quite uncomfortable. Classical symptoms of hyperthyroidism are basically the opposite of those seen in hypothyroidism: rapid heart rate, palpitations, chest pain, breathlessness, fever, sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weight loss, agitation, restlessness and anxiety.
It is most commonly treated with anti-thyroid drugs (e.g. propylthiouracil, carbimazole), which suppress synthesis of thyroid hormones. This strategy also does nothing to address the cause of the problem.
THE HOLISTIC VIEW
Thyroid hormone is synthesised from the amino acid Tyrosine (Tyrosine --> Thyroid hormone) and uses various vitamins and minerals in the process. Any deficiency of either the raw materials (e.g. Iodine, Tyrosine) or the tools used to manufacture thyroid hormone (e.g. certain vitamins and minerals - notably vitamins A, B complex and D, zinc, selenium) will lead to deficiency of thyroid hormone.
It is important to note here that the same tools (e.g certain vitamins and minerals) used to manufacture thyroid hormones, may be used by other organs to manufacture something else. Therefore, hypothyroid symptoms from iodine deficiency will be different than those from Zinc or Vitamin A/B/D deficiency or from Hashimoto's Thyroiditis.
About 70-80% of the immune system resides in the gut. Any disordered gut function may not only affect the absorption of the very vitamins and minerals that are required to produce thyroid hormone but may also trigger auto-antibodies that have far reaching effects not only for thyroid but also for other auto-immune diseases in the body.
At any given time, our body tries to do its best to give us the best chance of not only survival but also to lead a happy, healthy and productive life. When any system goes down, other hormones with similar functions are able to step in to take on the workload. However this only works to a limited extent.
This means that when thyroid hormones go up or down, other hormones will try to mitigate the effect by changing their own output. This causes symptoms too, which may be present over and above the thyroid symptoms, thereby confusing the whole presentation. It is also true in vice versa - problems in other organ systems can sometime cause a well meaning thyroid to change its output of hormones to compensate for the other problem, thereby also causing a variety of symptoms and perhaps reducing the symptom it was trying to cure. We lose the big picture if we only concentrate on replacing the thyroid hormone.
There are several causes of thyroid diseases and it is always important to look for and treat these causes and not just replace the missing hormones. Therefore, the Holistic/Integrative management of thyroid disease involves not only restoration of thyroid hormone balance, but also investigation and correction of any underlying causes, nutrient deficiencies, biochemical and/or other hormonal imbalances, supporting a healthy gut and correction of any immune system dysfunction.
Diet and lifestyle changes, in conjunction with targeted nutritional supplements are an important component of a holistic/integrative program to promote clinical improvement and the return to wellness.
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