Understanding Your Thyroid
The thyroid gland is a small gland located in the front of the neck. This gland, when it is not functioning optimally, can create havoc in our lives because it is responsible for making energy (working hand-in-hand with our adrenal glands); regulating metabolism to keep us at a healthy weight; keeping our moods happy and balanced; and providing sound sleep and smooth-flowing digestion. When any one of these things are out of whack, we simply don’t feel like ourselves.
In this article, we wanted to give you an idea of how the thyroid functions, what to test, what to look for, and how to eat and live to protect this gland. If you are not interested in the science behind the thyroid and want to skip ahead to how to directly boost your thyroid function with diet, supplements, and exercise, please skip to the end of the article.
Now for the science!
The thyroid makes thyroxin (thyroid hormone, or T4), which signals the cells to make energy. The function of the thyroid gland is to take iodine, found in many foods (especially kelp and other kinds of seaweed), and convert it into thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid cells are the only cells in the body that can absorb iodine. These cells combine iodine and the amino acid tyrosine to make T3 and T4, which are then released into the blood stream and transported throughout the body where they control metabolism (conversion of oxygen and calories to energy). Every cell in the body depends upon thyroid hormones for regulation of their metabolism. The normal thyroid gland produces about eight percent T4 and about twenty percent T3, however, T3 possesses about four times the hormone strength as T4.
Testing The Thyroid and Interpreting Your Own Results
There are so many factors affecting this delicate gland, including a food and water supply that is now devoid of minerals, an overabundance of soy and gluten in the diet, sky-high stress and anxiety levels, and increased environmental radiation.
We suggest that all of our clients get their thyroid tested at least once a year, if not twice. When testing the thyroid, it is very important to test all five thyroid hormones and a sixth, reverse T3, if you have a history of thyroid problems or a family history of hypothyroidism, Graves', or Hashimoto’s Disease. Many doctors only test TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), but that is only looking at a small piece of the puzzle, and more often than not, lets thyroid issues go undiagnosed and untreated because patients still have all the symptoms of an underactive gland, such as bloating, inability to lose weight no matter how they eat and exercise, constipation, mental fog, and low energy.
Or worse, many times when TSH comes back too low, in lieu of looking deeper into the problem to see if a potential autoimmune issue is presenting with the presence of thyroid antibodies, a synthetic hormone such as synthroid is prescribed, ultimately causing the already wounded thyroid to work even harder. For a short time, people feel better, but after that window, they almost always feel worse because the root of the problem has not been addressed. What is hard for us to swallow is that many people live their whole lives just managing this and ultimately not experiencing even close to the quality of life they could have.
By reading our description below, you will be able to understand your own lab results and troubleshoot accordingly to protect your thyroid health.
The Thyroid Hormones
Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) is manufactured in the hypothalamus and transported via the pituitary gland. Its job is to stimulate the thyroid to produce thryroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Basically, it is the first place to look to see if the thyroid is functioning correctly.
Free T4 measures the free, unbound thyroxine levels in your bloodstream. Free T4 is typically elevated in hyperthyroidism and lower in hypothyroidism. T4 has four iodine atoms, and it is a pro-hormone: it lives to become either T3 or RT3.
Triiodothyronine is the active thyroid hormone, and is also known as T3. Total T3 is typically elevated in hyperthyroidism and lowered in hypothyroidism. It is a tyrosine-based (amino acid) hormone.
Free T3 is the hormone that will tell you how much energy you are able to make, and translates to your sense of vibrancy and emotional wellbeing. It measures the free, unbound levels of triiodothyronine in your bloodstream. Free T3 is considered more accurate than Total T3. When the body needs energy, it removes an iodine atom from the T4 and turns it into T3, which, in turn, signals living cells to make energy (ATP). T3 allows the body to turn up the energy when it needs to.
Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO) testing lets you know if your thyroid is building up antibodies known as Antithyroid Peroxidase Antibodies. These antibodies work against thyroid peroxidase (indicating the thyroid is attacking itself), an enzyme that plays a part in the T4-to-T3 conversion and synthesis process. TPO antibodies can be evidence of tissue destruction and, more often than not, indicate Graves' or Hashimoto’s Disease. When this marker comes back positive, one should avoid gluten at all costs and check to see if a virus is present in the system with immunological testing. Once the GI tract is healed (eliminated of excess yeast, mold, parasites, or microscopic organisms, and the lining is strengthened), gluten is removed completely from the diet, and a virus protocol is administered, the thyroid can heal itself, and sometimes Graves and Hashimoto’s can be reversed. Of course, every case is unique and different.
Reverse T3 (RT3) is made by the body to tone down energy. It is made by removing a different iodine from T4. Like placing the wrong key in the ignition, it blocks the T3 (the working key) from signaling the cell to make energy. It allows the body to turn down the energy when it needs to.
Note: T4 will become T3, which causes energy (in the form of ATP) to be made in each living cell or Reverse T3 (RT3) and interferes with the energy production in the cell. Just as a car needs an accelerator and brakes to function properly, the same is true for the body. The body needs T3 (the accelerator) and RT3 (the brake) to manage its energy needs. When the body is under stress, instead of converting T4 into T3, the active form of thyroid hormone, the body conserves energy by making what is known as Reverse T3 (RT3), an inactive form of the T3 hormone.
Understanding the Hormonal Cascade that Begins in the Brain
With the hypothalamus/pituitary/thyroid connection, the thyroid gland is under the control of the pituitary gland, which is why we often address the pituitary gland first. It is a master gland in the brain that works under the influence of the hypothalamus to control the endocrine cascade. So not only the thyroid, but the adrenal glands are also responsible for producing cortisol and DHEA. These stress hormones, when balanced, can help the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone) to create their own level of homeostasis.
The body is an amazing organism and is consistently moving in a delicate dance to keep you healthy and balanced. When the level of thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) drops too low, the pituitary gland produces Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), which stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more hormones. Under the influence of TSH, the thyroid will manufacture and secrete T3 and T4, thereby raising their blood levels. The pituitary senses this and responds by decreasing its TSH production. One can imagine the thyroid gland as a furnace and the pituitary gland as the thermostat. Thyroid hormones are like heat. When the heat gets back to the thermostat, it turns off the thermostat. As the room cools (the thyroid hormone levels drop), the thermostat turns back on (TSH increases), and the furnace produces more heat (thyroid hormones). The pituitary gland itself is regulated by another gland, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is part of the brain and produces TSH Releasing Hormone, which tells the pituitary gland to stimulate the thyroid gland (release TSH). One might imagine the hypothalamus as the person who regulates the thermostat, since it tells the pituitary gland at what level the thyroid should be set.
Health and Nutrition Tips to Build and Boost the Thyroid
1. Avoid unfermented soy like the plague. Soy blocks the uptake of iodine to the thyroid, thereby starving it of the essential nutrients it needs to function. This means no tofu, no soy milk, no edamame, and no intentional use of soybean oil. Check all your labels, because soybean is genetically modified and made in excess in the United States, therefore it is very cheap and used in a ton of products. Wheat-free tamari (soy sauce), tempeh (like a veggie burger/tofu replacement), and miso (fermented soybean paste) are the only acceptable forms of soy.
2. Avoid gluten like the plague, too. Gluten is overly acid, genetically modified, overproduced, and, more often than not, devoid of nutrients (especially in the United States.). In the United States, our wheat contains three times the amount of gluten than the wheat in Europe or South America. It is overly acidic and causes immune antibody production in those with elevated TPO levels. There are so many other options today.
3. If you have had persistent thyroid issues, get yourself checked for an underlying virus (HPV and herpes can affect it as well). There are simple ways to clean up viruses from the system in a matter of months. For the viruses that cannot be totally eradicated, they can at least be cleaned up out of the bloodstream to remove the body burden and chased back deep inside the cells so it doesn’t adversely affect your health. If you want to check for this with your doctor, ask for these tests/markers below.
When a virus is present in the system, it is like going against the wind. Whatever you do to boost the thyroid will be in vain, until you remove the wind (virus) so the thyroid can fly.
4. If you have Hashimoto's or Graves’ Disease, or if your thyroid report comes back with positive thyroid antibodies or high TPO, then I would highly suggest getting a parasite test (stool test called a GI pathogen test) because antibodies (Graves’/Hashimoto's) almost always correlate to a parasitic infection in the intestinal tract. At The Whole Journey, we like to run an eight-day test to get a full sample of the colon and to increase the accuracy of the results. Make sure your practitioner gives you at least a four-day stool test. Many MDs only run a one-day sample, and accuracy can be questionable with that little of information.
5. Eat seaweed and sea veggies often because they are the highest food in iodine. For ideas, check out our sea veggie recipes.
6. Only eat these vegetables cooked, not raw: cabbage, broccoli, rutabaga, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, bok choy, and watercress. They contain a chemical called goitrogen, that when eaten raw, can block thyroid hormone production. Cooking even partially inactivates goitrogen.
7. Avoid peanuts, too, because they contain goitrogens.
8. Get your gastrointestinal and adrenal health evaluated by a qualified holistic practitioner to look for root cause issues that must be concurrently addressed.
9. Melt two teaspoons of organic extra virgin coconut oil into hot water at night and drink it before bed. This will support GI and immune health, which indirectly assists the thyroid.
10. See our recipe for healing chicken bone broth in the recipe section. Drink one cup of that per day with Celtic sea salt (matches the exact mineral profile of our blood) with one teaspoon of kelp flakes.
11. Use one to two teaspoons of ghee (clarified butter with no milk solids) per day in cooking to strengthen GI and immune health.
For more information, we recommend the book Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms? When My Lab Tests Are Normal by Dr. Datis Kharrazian.