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Hypothyroidism can cause everything from cold hands to weight gain. But there are natural remedies that can help
For years, without any obvious reason, Janet always had cold hands and feet. Sue felt unusually tired as she approached her 50th birthday. John was constipated. Barb suffered regular headaches. These symptoms might seem totally unconnected, but they’re among most common signs of hypothyroidism, or low thyroid gland activity. Other common signs include hair loss, weight gain, dry skin, and reduced sex drive.
Located at the base of the neck, the thyroid gland secretes several hormones that regulate metabolism—that is, how efficiently the body burns food for energy. Metabolic rate also impacts energy levels, mental sharpness, and weight, as well as the ability to maintain muscle and bone mass and to heal after injuries. In other words: a well-functioning thyroid is crucial to overall health.
Unfortunately, getting your thyroid activity accurately measured can be a medical minefield. Your doctor may order the wrong tests, misinterpret the results, or prescribe an ineffective treatment. Odds are that traditional doctors will also ignore helpful nutritional therapies.
Regardless, if you’re feeling more sluggish than you should, it’s worth the time and effort to determine whether your thyroid gland is functioning at an optimal level.
Navigating Thyroid Tests
Basal temperature. The simplest test—and one of the most reliable—to assess your general thyroid activity is one you can do at home. It’s called the basal temperature test, and you can use it to justify further testing or to rule out thyroid problems.
You’ll need to use an old-fashioned, oral glass thermometer; nonmercury types are still sold at drug stores. When you go to bed, shake it down and keep it within easy reach. As soon as you wake up in the morning, while moving as little as possible, slip the thermometer in the fold of your armpit and leave it there for 10 minutes. Write down the temperature, and do this for three to five days in a row. If you’re a woman, don’t perform this test during your menstrual period or when you’re ovulating because your body temperature will be higher at these times.
Add all of the basal temperatures, and then divide by the number of days. Normal basal temperatures range from 97.8 to 98.2 degrees. If your average temperatureis lower than 97.8, you’re probably hypothyroid. If that’s the case, ask your doctor to run additional tests to confirm and pinpoint the specific problem.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone. Many physicians will order a test for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is made by the pituitary gland, which helps regulate thyroid activity. If your TSH levels are either elevated or high-normal, you probably have low thyroid activity. However, a TSH test can miss more subtle signs of a low functioning thyroid.
T4 and T3. Of the hormones secreted by the thyroid, T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine) are the most important. Doctors commonly measure T4 levels. However, T4 is relatively inactive—the body converts it to T3, which is the most active form of thyroid hormone. Ask your doctor to order a full thyroid “panel” that tests for T4, T3, and TSH. Low T3 and/or T4 levels are a definite sign of low thyroid activity. However, if your T4 level is normal but your T3 is low or low-normal, your body may not
be efficiently converting T4 to T3.
Reverse T3. Some doctors also test for Reverse T3. Getting this test may be important if you’ve been under a lot of stress. That’s because high levels of cortisol—the primary stress hormone—interfere with the conversion of T4 to T3, and instead boost production of Reverse T3. Reverse T3 doesn’t function as a real thyroid hormone; it actually blocks the activity of T3.
Three specific nutrients have a strong bearing on your thyroid hormone levels: L-tyrosine, iodine, and selenium. You need adequate amounts of all three nutrients to make and use thyroid hormones.
L-tyrosine. This amino acid forms part of the chemical foundation of thyroid hormones, as well as “upper” neurotransmitters such as dopamine and adrenaline. Consider taking 500 mg of L-tyrosine immediately on waking, about 10–15 minutes before consuming any food or liquid other than water. You can take larger amounts if your physician thinks they would be helpful. Caution: If you have hypertension, monitor your blood pressure after taking L-tyrosine because it may increase blood pressure. Stop taking L-tyrosine if you have an unsafe increase in blood pressure.
Iodine. This essential dietary mineral also forms part of the foundation of thyroid hormones—T4 contains four iodine atoms, and T3 contains three. Multivitamins and kelp supplements don’t contain enough iodine to help normalize thyroid function. You may need to take 5,000–10,000 mcg of iodine for a couple of months before reducing the amount.
Selenium. You need selenium to make enzymes called deiodinases, which convert T4 to T3. A study conducted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research center in Grand Forks, N.D., found that taking 200 mcg of supplemental selenium increased T3 levels in men and T4 levels in women over two years. Meanwhile, a European study reported that 200 mcg of selenium daily reduced antibodies and improved mood and well-being in people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—a common cause of hypothyroidism.
As a general rule, that 200 mcg dosage—the amount found in most multivitamin supplements—is sufficient to improve thyroid function. You can increase your selenium intake to 400 mcg daily, but don’t go above this amount without specific guidance from your physician.
Multivitamin/multimineral. Be sure that you also take a multivitamin/multimineral supplement. It’s important because many other nutrients, including B-complex vitamins and zinc, also help make thyroid hormones.
Some foods support normal thyroid activity—especially seafood and seaweed, which are loaded with iodine; Brazil nuts, which are the richest natural source of selenium; and whole proteins such as fish, chicken, turkey, and eggs, which contain L-tyrosine.
On the other hand, some foods contain goitrogens, substances that interfere with normal thyroid activity. Cooking generally inactivates goitrogens, but if your thyroid activity is significantly low, it may be best to avoid these foods until you’ve corrected the problem. Such foods include cruciferous vegetables, soy, kohlrabi, mustard greens, radishes, rutabaga, spinach, turnips, pine nuts, peanuts, and millet. If you take thyroid medications, avoid taking antacids that contain aluminum or magnesium.
If laboratory tests indicate low thyroid activity, physicians typically prescribe synthetic T4, also known as levothyroxine, Synthroid, Levoxyl, or Levothroid. But if your body is having difficulty converting T4 to T3, simply adding more T4 won’t help.
Alternatively, ask your doctor for a prescription for natural thyroid hormone. Look for products that contain both T4 and T3; they’re derived from porcine sources and they’re standardized. If you don’t want to consume a porcine-derived product, consider a synthetic version of T3 (prescribed as Cytomel) or a synthetic combination of T4 and T3 (prescribed as Thyrolar). You can also try a natural desiccated thyroid extract supplement from your health food store.
Many doctors are reluctant to prescribe natural thyroid hormone because they aren’t familiar with its dosing, which is different than that of synthetic versions. Consider directing your doctor to nature-throid.com/conversionChart.asp, where the conversions are clearly spelled out. Also note that physicians are discouraged from prescribing thyroid hormones strictly for weight loss. However, if you are hypothyroid, a natural thyroid-hormone prescription or thyroid-supporting nutrient might aid your weight-loss efforts.
Jack Challem is the author of No More Fatigue.
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The Vitamin Shoppe Thyroid Complex is a comprehensive formula including B vitamins, a multi-gland complex, L-tyrosine, iodine from kelp, and trace minerals to help support a healthy thyroid.