In my two previous posts on thyroid health, I discussed the potential problems associated with diagnosing and treating thyroid issues. As I stated in my first post, thyroid problems are frequently under diagnosed, primarily because of inadequate testing and incomplete understanding of the complexities of thyroid function. At the same time, thyroid problems are often treated in ways that further compromise function.
My approach is fundamentally different. By layering the ‘lenses’ and applying the ‘tools’ of the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System (ETMS), I consider each individual on many levels, including a careful appraisal of symptoms, review of appropriate diagnostic testing, and evaluation of lifestyle and environmental factors. It is only within the context of a thorough assessment that a truly effective plan for restoring thyroid health can be determined. As I discussed in part 2 of this series, I rely on a combination of botanicals and nutrients that naturally encourage thyroid health, along with lifestyle modifications that support the entire hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid (HPAT) axis.
The Whole Body Influence of the Thyroid Gland
Despite its small size, the thyroid—through the hormones it produces—affects virtually every cell in the body, including basic physiological processes such as development, growth, and metabolism. Thyroid hormones stimulate diverse metabolic activities that regulate basal metabolic rate. One consequence of this activity is an increase in body heat production, which seems to result at least in part from increased oxygen consumption and an accelerated rate of ATP hydrolysis (the release of energy stored in cells). As a simple analogy, the action of thyroid hormones is similar to blowing on a smoldering fire. If thyroid hormones are not sufficient, the fire will merely continue to smolder, without progressing to clean burning flames. Besides inefficient energy transfer, a second problem is increased oxidative stress/damage as a result of either hyper or hypothyroidism, including excessive generation of hydroxal radical. To increase redox/antioxidant support, be sure to get enough selenium in your diet by consuming foods such as brazil nuts or tuna, or supplement with selenium (organic form at 100-200 mcg. daily). 1
Although hypothyroidism is often treated as an isolated problem, in reality the neuroendocrine glands are linked together and are in constant communication with one another. For example, the adrenal glands dispense hormones primarily for mediating stress and for carbohydrate metabolism. The thyroid specializes in regulating basal metabolic energy while the adrenal system specializes in emergency energy production. Because of this relationship, the adrenal system can up-regulate in compensation for the thyroid down-regulation. But there’s always a price to pay when one part of the system is overworked in this way.
An underactive HPAT axis is a common condition that is a major underlying cause of many chronic diseases, and can result in a shortened lifespan. I stated this in my first post, but it bears repeating: If thyroid disease goes undiagnosed or is not appropriately treated, significant health problems can arise, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, depression, and elevated cholesterol, estrogen, and insulin levels–which in turn lead to further biochemical imbalances. Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are two common degenerative conditions that are strongly linked to impaired thyroid function. There is also a link between breast cancer and thyroid disease.
Breast Cancer and Thyroid Function
There has been a lot of research demonstrating an increased prevalence of autoimmune thyroid disease in patients with breast cancer. Iodine-rich seaweed (and not an isolate of iodine) has been shown to improve thyroid health and inhibit breast tumor development. This is supported by the relatively low rate of breast cancer in Japanese women who consume a diet containing iodine-rich seaweed.2
Although woman with autoimmune hypothyroid disease have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, woman with autoimmune thyroid disease who have breast cancer have improved outcome compared to woman who do not. Also, it is becoming very clear that over-active thyroid can be either self-induced or caused by over-treatment with thyroid medication. 3, 4
I give all my patients with mild low thyroid ½ to ¾ tsp. of sea vegetable powder, made up of several seaweeds hand harvested the coast of Oregon. This not only supports good thyroid health, but is also alkalizing, mineralizing, and detoxifying.
Cardiovascular Disease and Thyroid Function
Hypothyroidism is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease because it causes abnormal lipid metabolism. The body requires thyroid hormone for using and eliminating cholesterol.5 Increased amounts of thyroid hormones stimulate fat mobilization, which leads to increased concentrations of fatty acids in plasma. Higher levels of thyroid hormones also cause oxidation of fatty acids in tissues. Finally, plasma concentrations of cholesterol and triglycerides are inversely correlated with thyroid hormone levels. One diagnostic indicator of hypothyroidism is an increase in blood cholesterol levels.
In a recent study, oxidative stress in hypothyroid patients was found to enhance the formation of arterial plaque and was directly associated with atherogenic dyslipidemia.6 This finding suggests that screening for thyroid trouble could help prevent cardiovascular disease. When thyroid function is normalized, cholesterol levels also normalize without other intervention.
Diabetes and Thyroid Function
Thyroid hormones also stimulate almost all aspects of carbohydrate metabolism, including enhancement of insulin-dependent entry of glucose into cells and increased gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis to generate free glucose. As a result, people with low thyroid function suffer from poor glucose transportation and poor insulin response. This adds to the complex problems of sub-optimal energy transfer and the excess weight gain often observed in people with hypothyroidism.
When the HPAT axis is compromised, proper metabolism is impaired, including carbohydrate and fat digestion and utilization. For example, gall bladder problems are more common in people with hypothyroidism because reduced bile flow inhibits the digestion of fats.7
Supporting Adrenal Health Is Critical For Optimal Thyroid Function
In my practice, I’ve found that it is essential to address adrenal gland function when treating thyroid conditions. Prolonged stress can cause adrenal depletion, which, in turn, reduces thyroid function and increases oxidative stress. Most patients I see with sub-clinical hypothyroidism also have adrenal exhaustion—which is actually the primary issue—while the thyroid condition is really a secondary problem.
Many people who have HPA axis stress with adrenal exhaustion will eventually also manifest hypothyroidism. This is because the hormones commonly elevated during stress are immunosuppressive, and they alter thyroid hormone production. Impaired adrenal function and the resulting illnesses are a consequence of our inability to maintain equilibrium in response to constant stressors.
Mild adrenal insufficiency allows a person to function reasonably well if they have minimal stress and get plenty of sleep and sunlight. However, they will tire quickly and are more likely to develop problems such as hypoglycemia or anxiety. Under stressful conditions, a vast array of problems will surface, often starting with chronic fatigue. Chronic fatigue is the loss of normal adaptability caused by under-functioning adrenal glands accompanied by deficient hormone communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and thyroid glands.
In my practice, I’ve found that the most effective approach for helping the body regain endocrine balance—including optimal thyroid function—is to support the HPAT axis. This is best accomplished by providing the body with a foundation of adaptogenic herbs that gently restore harmony and bolster resistance to stress, plus herbs and specific nutrients that support healthy thyroid function. For detailed information on the botanicals, nutrients, and lifestyle suggestions that I recommend, please refer to my previous post, “Natural Strategies to Maximize Thyroid Function”, as well as my book, Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism.
- Mirela Petrulea, Adriana Muresan and Ileana Duncea, Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Status in Hypo- and Hyperthyroidism, Chapter 8, © 2012 Petrulea et al., InTech. http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/51018.
- Peter PA Smyth, The thyroid, iodine and breast cancer, Breast Cancer Res. 2003; 5(5): 235–238.
- Hypothesis: iodine, selenium and the development of breast cancer. Cann SA, van Netten JP, van Netten C. Cancer Causes Control. 2000 Feb;11(2):121-7.
- Fiore E, Giustarini E, Mammoli C, Fragomeni F, Campani D, Muller I, Pinchera A, Giani C. Favorable predictive value of thyroid autoimmunity in high aggressive breast cancer. J Endocrinol Invest. 2007 Oct;30(9):734-8.
- Ben Ameur Y, Yaacoub A, Haggui A, et al. Coronary disease in hypothyroidism. 10 case reports. La Tunisie Médicale 2003; 81(12): 944-948.
- Nanda N, Bobby Z, Hamide A, Koner BC, Sridhar MG. Association between oxidative stress and coronary lipid risk factors in hypothyroid women is independent of body mass index. Metabolism 2007; 56(10): 1350-1355.
- Laukkarinen J, Sand J, Saaristo R, et al. Is bile flow reduced in patients with hypothyroidism? Surgery 2003; 133(3): 288-293.