Updated: May 28
An under active thyroid, medically known as hypothyroidism, seems to be quite common in the United States, with as many as 10 million people experiencing some form of lowered thyroid function. In fact, estimates report that up to 10% of women have some degree of thyroid dysfunction .
Low thyroid function can wreck havoc on the body in both children and adults alike. As I've written before here and here, children with Down syndrome are far more likely to have hypothyroidism, but adults can have this devastating disorder as well.
Since thyroid dysfunction is so common in the United States, how would you know if you are experiencing it? Here are some signs and symptoms to watch for to indicate that you may be suffering from hypothyroidism.
If you find that you are experiencing any of these symptoms, then contact your naturopathic doctor or primary care provider for further testing.
What is Hypothyroidism?
As mentioned above, hypothyroidism is low thyroid function but what does that mean?
The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland located near the base of the neck. This gland is an extremely important part of the endocrine system as it regulates metabolism, heart and digestive function, brain development, muscle control and even mood.
The thyroid gland secretes hormones called T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (triiodothyronine). T4 is the most abundant form of thyroid hormone between the two. It acts almost as a stepping stone for the creation of T3. When T4 reaches the organs and tissues of the body, it is converted into T3.
Interestingly, the thyroid is the only gland in the body that absorbs iodine which it uses to make T4 and subsequently T3. Therefore adequate iodine intake is extremely important for thyroid health. Conversely, too much iodine intake can create an acute decrease in thyroid hormone synthesis and release. This phenomenon is known as the Wolff-Chaikoff effect. This is why it's always best to consult with your naturopathic doctor before starting on any supplements.
While T4 may be the more plentiful hormone (about 90% more than T3), T3 is more metabolically active which means that it has more of an effect on the body. T3 increases and controls the rate of metabolism in many of the body's tissues.
Low thyroid function means that your body has less thyroid hormones, like T4 and the powerful T3 to utilize efficiently. Less thyroid hormone can lead to a lowered metabolism, mood, and a whole host of unpleasant side effects.
What are the Signs You May Have An Under Active Thyroid?
Hypothyroidism can show up in many subtle ways since T3 has such a universal and important role throughout the body. Some of symptoms to watch for include:
1. Low Energy Or Fatigue
Do you find that you just can't keep your eyes open, even after a good night's sleep? What about feeling tired and lethargic even though you know that you are eating properly and trying to exercise?
Low energy despite eating well and sleeping properly is a huge red flag that you may have hypothyroidism.
Why? Because the thyroid is responsible for metabolism and energy production. Low amounts of thyroid hormone mean that the body is less able to produce and use energy the way that it should and therefore, you feel more tired and lethargic. Lethargy can be attributed to other disorders like chronic disease or even stress but if you're experiencing fatigue, it's a good idea to get your thyroid hormone levels checked.
2. Difficult/ Nonexistent Weight Loss
Have you been dieting for as long as you remember but you haven't lost an ounce? Maybe you eat one muffin and find that you gain 5 pounds?
Difficulty losing weight can be a sign of hypothyroidism because weight loss requires not only a decrease in calorie intake but an increase in your body's metabolism. If you can't increase your rate of metabolism, your body won't burn the extra calories needed to reduce weight.
Low thyroid hormone is a really big culprit for a lowered metabolism.
If you've been unsuccessful with your weight loss efforts, despite adequate exercise, dieting and nutrition, then consider having your thyroid hormone levels checked.
3: Hair Changes.
Do you try to keep your hair healthy by eating right and taking multivitamins? You buy the most expensive hair shampoos and conditioners and your strands are still brittle and dry? It seems like no matter what you do, your hair doesn't respond to the tender care you are giving it.
This could mean that you have low thyroid function.
Dry and brittle hair is a telltale sign that you may have hypothyroidism. You may even be experiencing hair loss, especially at the outer 1/3rd of your eyebrows.
Why does hypothyroidism cause hair loss?
T3, the metabolically active form of thyroid hormone, stops apoptosis (programmed cell death) of hair follicles.
Hair follicles nourish and grow new strands of hair.
If you have less T3, then your hair follicles will die more quickly, causing lackluster strands and an increased loss of hair.
4: Change In Mood
Do you find that you are more sad than normal? Perhaps you're feeling depressed but you're attributing it to a cold or illness that you had over a month ago?
You may need to have your thyroid hormone levels checked.
There is an established link between mood and thyroid hormones. Unfortunately, mood changes are common with hypothyroidism.
A mild form of thyroid failure, subclinical hypothyroidism, was found to be in up to 40% of people with mood disorders although it wasn't clear whether the mood disorder preceded lowered thyroid function or if it were the other way around.
Though the mechanism of mood disorders and lowered thyroid function is still being researched, some believe that mild depression could be due to a reduced conversion of T4 to T3.
How Can I be Sure that I have Hypothyroidism?
If you find yourself suffering from any of the above signs and symptoms, then you may have low thyroid function.
To find out whether you are experiencing lowered thyroid function, the first thing to do is have your TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) checked. This hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland in the brain and it tells your thyroid to make more T3 and T4 when their levels are low.
Clinically a high TSH reading and a low T4 reading means that hypothyroidism is present. If you have a high TSH reading but a normal T4 level, then that indicates subclinical hypothyroidism.
Most primary care providers don't address subclinical hypothyroidism and choose instead to wait until there is an overt hypothyroidism at play.
This isn't the case with naturopathic doctors. We have many tools in our toolbox to address subclinical hypothyroidism, from herbs like withania somnifera (ashwagandha) and bacopa monnieri, to diet (avoiding goitrogens like raw cruciferous vegetables and glyphosate saturated foods like conventional wheat and processed foods).
If you find that you have subclinical hypothyroidism, contact your naturopathic doctor and start on the path to total healing and wellness.
Your turn! These are some of the signs you may have an under active thyroid. Have you been experiencing any of the symptoms of hypothyroidism? Have you done anything about it?
Let me know in the comments!
2.van Beek N, Bodó E, Kromminga A et al. Thyroid Hormones Directly Alter Human Hair Follicle Functions: Anagen Prolongation and Stimulation of Both Hair Matrix Keratinocyte Proliferation and Hair Pigmentation. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2008;93(11):4381-4388. doi:10.1210/jc.2008-0283.
3. Hage MP, Azar ST. The Link between Thyroid Function and Depression. Journal of Thyroid Research. 2012;2012:590648. doi:10.1155/2012/590648.