The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ located within the neck, just below the adam’s apple. Its main function is to generate and release thyroid hormones, which regulate the body’s metabolism. The thyroid plays a role in controlling energy, temperature, growth, development, digestion, mental clarity, and basal metabolic rate. When the thyroid is functioning optimally, people tend to feel well and energized. However, if the thyroid becomes compromised, it can release either too much or too little thyroid hormone, which has downstream implications on many parts of the body.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid releases higher than normal levels of thyroid hormones. Symptoms are often linked to increased metabolic rate, and can include weight loss, rapid or irregular heart rate, warm/flushed skin, sweating, heat intolerance, loose stools, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, tremors, and changes in hair, eyes, or skin.
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid releases lower than normal levels of thyroid hormones. Since this state is linked to a slower metabolism, symptoms often include fatigue, weight gain, cold intolerance, constipation, dry skin or hair, alterations in mental clarity, or menstrual cycle abnormalities.
Thyroid function can be altered by several different mechanisms, and the best treatment and support depend on the root cause behind the imbalance. Often there is an autoimmune component where the body’s immune system mistakenly generates antibodies that attack different components of its own thyroid gland, thereby compromising its function and leading to levels of thyroid hormones that are either too high or too low. Depending on the severity of imbalance, a combination of natural treatments with or without medications may be appropriate. Below are a few key areas to focus on when optimizing thyroid function.
The thyroid gland requires certain nutrients for optimal function and production of healthy levels of thyroid hormones. Iodine and the amino acid tyrosine are required as building blocks in thyroid hormone synthesis. Selenium and zinc act as antioxidants in the thyroid to quench free radicals made during thyroid hormone production, and also play a role in converting thyroid hormones into their active form. Selenium has an additional benefit in autoimmune thyroiditis, and can be helpful in lowering the antibodies that are compromising thyroid function.
Several botanical medicines can be helpful for the thyroid gland, and different combinations can be formulated depending on the specific goals of treatment. Ashwagandha and Coleus forskohlii are two herbs that can positively affect thyroid function in certain cases. Herbs are a wonderful treatment option if thyroid function is borderline and not requiring medication, or may be used carefully alongside medication under the supervision of a licensed practitioner.
Prescription medications are often required with thyroid gland dysfunction, and can be combined with diet, lifestyle and herbal treatment for optimal results. There are several different medications for thyroid support. In the case of hypothyroidism, thyroid hormone replacement is beneficial for replacing the body’s deficiency. Thyroxine (T4) is the primary hormone released by the thyroid gland and can be given as a prescription medication in the form of Levothyroxine or several brand names including Synthroid and Tirosint. Triiodothyronine (T3) is primarily converted from T4 at the level of the body tissues, and has a much stronger action than T4. It is also available as a prescription medication, often under the brand name Cytomel. Dessicated thyroid medications such as Armour Thyroid, NP Thyroid, or Naturethroid are also available and include a combination of T4 and T3 in the form of porcine thyroid glandular extract. The most appropriate selection is made as needed, based on a combination of clinical signs, symptoms, and lab results.
Chronic high stress can influence many areas of the endocrine system, and the thyroid is one of many hormone-secreting glands that can be affected. Balancing stress and the adrenal glands is another important part of treating thyroid function and the intricate hormone system as a whole.