Your thyroid used to fall into the "mystery organ" category: something you vaguely knew was useful without knowing exactly how, like your pancreas or your spleen.
No longer. Chalk it up to today’s nonstop-striving, always-on lifestyle, but something is up with that gland. Out-of-balance thyroids have become a serious problem for more and more women.
Amy Myers, MD, a functional medicine specialist and author of The Thyroid Connection, calls it a full-blown epidemic. Citing statistics from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, she says 27 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease and 1 in 8 women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime. Even worse, she says, up to 60 percent of people with this type of dysfunction don’t even know it.
One woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
For Dr. Myers, this isn't just a research topic. She was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune condition where the thyroid gland is overactive, during medical school and found herself failed by conventional medicine.
"Unfortunately, the conventional medical approach focuses almost solely on symptom management rather than addressing these root causes, which also contributes heavily to the problem," she says. Spurred on by her own frustration, she set out to become an expert in thyroid and autoimmune diseases in order to help patients get to the root of their illness to take back their health.
How do you know if your thyroid needs attention? And what should you do if it does? Read on for all the details from Dr. Myers.
What to look out for
“Your thyroid is your body’s engine,” says Dr. Myers. “It controls all of your metabolic processes. When your thyroid is underactive (hypothyroidism), everything slows down, leading to weight gain, fatigue, poor concentration, constipation, infertility, low libido, depression, slow heart rate, and low body temperature. When it is overactive (hyperthyroidism), your metabolism speeds up, leading to weight loss, anxiety, insomnia, a fast heartbeat, and loose stools.
If you are suffering from the above symptoms, know that you're not alone. “Hypothyroidism is the most common form of thyroid dysfunction in all patients,” Dr. Myers explains. “However, there are still a sizable number of women with hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid.”
More alarming: “An overwhelming majority of thyroid patients have autoimmune thyroid dysfunction, meaning their immune systems are attacking their thyroid," she says. "The hypothyroid form of autoimmune thyroid dysfunction is called Hashimoto’s and the hyperthyroidism form is Graves', which is what I had.”
Why are we hitting epidemic level?
Dr. Myers attributes the rise in thyroid disorders to five main environmental factors: leaky gut, poor diet, toxin exposure, infections, and chronic stress.
“[They] are a direct cause of our skyrocketing rates of thyroid dysfunction,” she laments, but says that by addressing lifestyle and nutrition factors, an integrative approach can fill in the gaps where conventional treatment falls short. "Functional medicine is focused on identifying and addressing these root causes through dietary and lifestyle changes, which is why we see much better patient outcomes.”
What if my body feels just…off?
The biggest problem, Dr. Myers contends, is that many of the symptoms are vague. Conventional doctors all too often write them off as signs of aging, depression, or stress. “If you suspect that you have thyroid dysfunction, you should ask your doctor to order a complete thyroid work-up to measure each of the important thyroid markers,” she explains.
The basic screenings are not necessarily enough, though. “Most doctors will only test your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) or T4 (the inactive form of thyroid hormone).” Myers recommends testing for TSH, T4, Free T3 (the active form of thyroid hormones), Reverse T3 (which put the brakes on metabolic processes), and the two thyroid antibodies, Thyroglobulin Antibodies (TgAb) and Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies (TPOAb).
The lifestyle changes that can make a difference
Take heart in holistic healing, Dr. Myers says. To address the system-wide imbalance that's causing the symptoms, she recommends boosting your diet with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients like iodine, selenium, zinc, iron, B vitamins, vitamin A, and vitamin D. (Think: grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught proteins, vegetables, healthy fats, and fruits.)
Adopting gut-healthy habits, reducing your stress, and healing any underlying infections you have will also help get your thyroid get back in balance, Dr. Myers notes. She recommends reducing your toxic burden as well by eliminating alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and junk food entirely, and cutting gluten, dairy, soy, and corn—as well as, at least temporarily, grains, legumes, nightshades, eggs, nuts, and seeds. (A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, right?)
There are also thyroid-calming herbs—such as bugleweed, motherwort, and lemon balm—that can be used for hyperthyroid patients to manage their symptoms without harsh medications or surgery while physicians work to address the root causes of your problems.
Whether you're full-on exhausted, in a lingering state of lethargy or—the reverse—fighting anxiety and insomnia, it's a good idea to get your thyroid checked out. After all, if one of the workhorses in your body isn't at 100 percent, then it's time to give yourself the TLC you need. How else will you crush those those best-year-ever goals you've been aiming for?
Speaking of healing, these are 10 immunity-boosting foods experts say you should be eating. And this is what to eat when you're sick to feel better ASAP.
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