What Is Hypothyroidism?


In 2007, when Oprah Winfrey announced that her constant struggles with weight gain were due to a thyroid condition, women all across North America started blaming their thyroid for their inability to lose weight. But is this truly the problem?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located at the frontal base of our necks. It’s job is to regulate various aspects of our metabolisms from cell growth, to weight loss and gain, to reproductive function. It does this by way of the thyroid hormones: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).

Hypothyroid, or a slow thyroid, is a condition in which either the function of the thyroid or the effectiveness of the thyroid hormones is inadequate. There are several reasons why this may occur, and the treatment is not always the same for each person. They key thing is to work with a physician or endocrinologist (hormone specialist) who knows what to look for in many different ways.

The thyroid is often blamed for weight gain because that is one of the symptoms of this disorder. However, to truly have a slow thyroid, a person must also display at least some of these other signs:

• Dry, brittle, thinning hair • Swelling or puffiness under the eyes • Thick and swollen tongue • Rough, dry and flaky skin • Cold hands and feet to the touch • Persistent constipation • Slow heart rate, even though the person is not an athlete • Low basal body temperature: < 97.8F • Palpably enlarged thyroid gland

Further symptoms attributed to a “slow thyroid” include depression, low libido, fatigue, irritability, and memory loss.

The thing to keep in mind though is that these attributes can also be linked to other medical conditions like andropause or menopause – one needs to remember that our bodies are not closed systems; we have several hormones that work in conjunction with another to maintain a normal metabolism. If one hormone is out of sync, several others can be negatively affected. Alternatively, these suspected slow thyroid symptoms can be simply related to poor nutrition choices.

What tests can my doctor use to see if I have a slow thyroid?

In addition to looking at the symptoms listed above, your doctor will test your blood for levels of thyroid stimulating hormone or TSH. TSH is secreted from a part of your brain (your pituitary) that tells your thyroid to produce T3 and T4. If your thyroid is not making enough T3 and T4, your TSH levels will most likely be elevated.

According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists 2006, normal levels of TSH should be between 0.3 and 3.0 mIU/L. However, other scientists have suggested that TSH levels above 2.0 mIU/L are considered “subclinical hypothyroidism” and should not be taken lightly; it may represent early hypo thyroidism.

Some doctors will also measure levels of free T4 hormone, thyroid antibodies, and/or perform a thyroid scan to evaluate suspicious structural thyroid abnormalities if you have symptoms of a slow thyroid but normal levels of TSH.

What is the treatment for hypothyroidism?

If you are diagnosed with overt slow thyroid (which isn’t all that common), your doctor will treat you with pharmaceutical thyroid hormone replacement.

On the other hand, if you’re found to have subclinical hypo thyroidism (which is more common), your first line of treatment is nutritional:

Iodine insufficiency is one of the main culprits – approximately 150 µg/day of iodine can prevent a slow thyroid. Iodine is found in fish, iodized salt, dairy, whole eggs, strawberries, molasses and sea vegetables (kelp, dulse). However, with fears of salt intake, cholesterol in eggs, mercury in fish, and removal of iodine from food products, our consumption of iodine has decreased over the years. You can check your body iodine levels with a urine test. • Selenium is also important for normal thyroid function: onions, mushrooms, grains and brazil nuts are good sources. • Goitrogenic foods should also be avoided; these foods interfere with thyroid function and include soy foods, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, turnips, etc), and legumes. If you love broccoli, the good news is that cooking inactivates goitrogenic compounds found in these types of vegetables.

How common is hypothyroidism?

About 1 to 10% of adults have subclinical slow thyroid – the more common cause of unexplained weight gain without severe overt hypo thyroidism symptoms. It mostly occurs in women over 50, and people with low iodine intake. However, don’t be so quick to blame your thyroid for your weight gain blues.

The more likely reason for weight gain

Before you decide that your thyroid is the problem, look at if you’re doing everything right for an ideal body composition:

• eating regularly • eating a balanced diet based on whole foods • taking a good multivitamin and mineral supplement • taking an essential fatty acid supplement (or eating foods high in EFAs) • avoiding sugar and alcohol • avoiding processed foods • exercising regularly • weight training • sitting less

If this isn’t the case, you may want to consider having your thyroid function tested with your doctor and match the results with clinical symptoms of slow thyroid. However, more often than not, your thyroid isn’t the issue. You either aren’t eating as well as you think you are, or you’re not exercising as effectively as you should be.

The answer to the first problem is to consult with a dietitian or certified nutritionist who can really help you identify insufficiencies with your diet and eating patterns.

For exercise, meet with a certified personal trainer to show you how to work out hard, yet safely, so you really burn fat and build muscle.

When you put these two lifestyle changes together and stick with them, failure is not an option: you WILL reach your goals and lose the weight. But remember, these changes take longer than a few days to take effect; you didn’t gain the weight in a week, and you won’t lose it in a week either. Stay with the program and make these changes lifelong habits. Oprah’s problems don’t have to be yours too.

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