As we go about our busy days, it can be easy to get used to feeling sluggish and lazy. What we often forget is that these can be symptoms of an underlying health condition, which when solved, could help us lead healthier and happier lives. Staying in tune with your body and listening to the signals it sends you is one of the best things you can do to take control of your health.
If you wake up with less energy than you had before going to bed the previous night, experience unexplained or dramatic weight gain, suffer from hair loss, or have decreased libido, listen carefully; you may be suffering from an underactive thyroid.
However, these are not the only signs of an underactive thyroid. Other symptoms include intolerance to cold temperatures (if you are always freezing cold and people think you are being dramatic, you may have an explanation now!), chronic muscle aches and pains, and a suddenly hoarse voice.
As you go about your busy day, you may have grown accustomed to any (or all) of these symptoms without paying much attention to the potential underlying cause. Most of these symptoms would not lead you to the emergency room but do significantly affect your quality of life. For example, you may feel that a low sex drive is a normal progression of aging or that the extra 10 pounds you gained over the past couple of months are a result of your abandoned gym routine.
Listening to your body is one of the most important things you can do today for your health.
If you experience one or more of the symptoms above, keep reading, as you may be one of the 45 million Americans who have hypothyroidism.
What Is Hypothyroidism?
There is no need to start freaking out or frantically Googling the dangers of hypothyroidism. This condition is more common than you think; hypothyroidism is where your overall metabolic gas pedal has slowed down because the master gland that controls it—the thyroid gland—is not functioning as well as it should be.
If your thyroid slows down, every other organ and system in your body is affected: your brain, your heart, your gut, your muscles. This is because the thyroid hormone is like a master switch that turns on the genes that keep every cell in your body running as it should.
So, how do you find out if you are deficient in this so-called ‘master switch’ hormone? This is one of those gray areas in medicine, but doctors tend to think in black and white. It’s not that you either have it or you don’t in the same way that you’re either pregnant or you’re not—you can’t be just a little bit pregnant. But you can have a slight case of hypothyroidism, and it can still have a dramatic effect on your quality of life. That’s why millions of people are untreated and why thyroid issues are such hot potatoes in medicine.
The main and most clinically defined way of assessing if you have a thyroid deficiency is by running a simple blood test, which will determine if your TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels are in check. The TSH levels in your blood reveal how much thyroxine (the active thyroid hormone) your pituitary gland is asking your thyroid gland to make. Any TSH level above 3 usually indicates suboptimal thyroid function. However, I dispute that, despite what most conventional medicine says, this is not the only way of pinpointing a case of hypothyroidism. Later on, we will discuss other ways of identifying subclinical hypothyroidism (a term that basically just means doctors have a hard time diagnosing it). If you have subclinical hypothyroidism, there is a way to address your symptoms and treat it.
Treating your hypothyroidism as soon as it’s identified is key. Much like a car, if that engine light is ignored for too long, that easy-to-solve problem will turn into a much bigger issue.
Hypothyroidism, if left untreated, can cause fluid retention around the heart and lungs, low blood pressure, or even a coma in very extreme cases.
How to Identify Hypothyroidism
I see it all the time in my practice: patients come in with vague complaints that, alone, may not seem significant but when combined will create a significant story. Unless your doctor works hard to be a health care detective and put all of the pieces of the puzzle together, your hypothyroidism will likely go untreated. In fact, I remember the story of one patient who was 73 years old. This woman came to see me because she had seen her doctor about fatigue, sluggishness, poor memory, mild depression, dry skin, constipation, and some fluid retention. Her doctor said, “Well, what do you expect? You’re 73, and this is what 73 is supposed to feel like.” But I do not believe that’s true.
I believe that most symptoms of aging are really symptoms of abnormal aging or dysfunction that are related to these imbalances in our core body systems. There is no reason that you should not age gracefully and enjoy life to the fullest even as the years go on. I find that I have to be a medical detective to find clues no one else is looking at and assemble the story of a person’s suffering.
In this 73-year-old patient, I tested for a number of different things and found that she had a sluggish thyroid. She did not quite meet all of conventional medicine’s criteria for hypothyroidism, but she had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your thyroid gland), which led to her poor thyroid function. This is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States.
A few simple changes were all it took to help my patient regain her quality of life. By replacing her missing thyroid hormone, offering some nutritional support, and implementing some simple lifestyle changes, she went from feeling old to feeling alert, energetic, and youthful, and all of her symptoms cleared up. This makes the solution feel easy, which could be a good point to make, but it also waters down what we do as functional medicine clinicians, and we should highlight that because it is part of our USP.
I had another patient, a young 28-year-old woman, who was chronically constipated and thought it was normal to go to the bathroom every three or four days. She also felt tired in the morning and had trouble staying up at night to socialize with her friends. She simply thought that she was no longer the college student she once was and that she had to learn to accept this new way of life. No one had diagnosed her sluggish thyroid. As soon as I provided her with some nutritional support and eliminated her food allergens, particularly gluten, which creates inflammation and can interfere with thyroid function, she instantly felt better. Her constipation resolved, she was energetic in the morning, she didn’t need coffee anymore to stay alert, and she was able to stay up later at night without any fatigue or limitations.
I met with another young woman with over 30% body fat who was unable to lose weight no matter what she did. She ate perfectly, she exercised with a trainer every day, and her weight still wouldn’t budge. She also suffered from low moods and other vague symptoms. After we pinpointed the underlying causes of her underactive thyroid, not only did she lose 20 pounds but also all of her other symptoms went away.
This problem affects men, women, and children of all ages. It’s unfortunately common because of all the stressors in our environment including toxins like heavy metals, pesticides, and nutritional deficiencies, all of which interfere with our thyroid function.
It is critical to understand that our thyroid is the master metabolism hormone that controls the function and activity of almost every other organ in our bodies. When it slows down, everything slows down. The good news is that there are clear ways to diagnose the problem and treat it through a comprehensive approach using functional medicine.
Several Steps to Hypothyroid Recovery
1. Hypothyroidism Symptoms
The first step is finding out if you have any of the chronic symptoms related to hypothyroidism or any of its associated diseases. You have to ask yourself if you have any of the following symptoms. I find that keeping a symptom diary and using a checklist approach to each of the symptoms below is the easiest way to track this.
- Poor concentration or memory
- Low mood
- Dry skin
- Hoarse voice
- Coarse, thin hair
- Hair loss
- Cold hands and feet
- Low body temperature
- Low pulse
- Muscle pain or weakness
- Low libido
- Weight gain
- Fluid retention
- High cholesterol
2. Physical Exam
Once I’ve asked my patients about all these symptoms, I do a physical exam and look for clues that might suggest low thyroid function:
- Low body temperature
- Fluid retention
- Thick tongue
- Swollen feet
- Swollen eyelids
- Enlarged thyroid gland
- Excessive ear wax
- Dry mouth
- Coarse skin
- Low blood pressure
- Decreased tendon reflexes
- Hair loss
- Loss of outer third of eyebrows
3. Lab Tests
Combining the symptom diary with the physical examination is the approach I take to identify hypothyroidism and, subsequently, a suitable course of treatment.
Once I’ve done that and considered all other potential causes of low thyroid function (toxins, allergens, stress, and nutritional deficiencies), the next thing I do is a comprehensive blood test. Many doctors just test for TSH levels, which unfortunately does not even come close to providing a full picture of the thyroid. The newer guidelines of the American College of Endocrinology consider anyone with a TSH level over 3 as having hypothyroidism. Many doctors think that only a TSH above 5 or 10 is worth treating. Unfortunately, this leaves millions suffering unnecessarily. There are also other important thyroid lab tests that should be carried out:
- Free T4
- Free T3
- Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies
- Thyroglobulin Antibodies
- Total T4
- Total T3
- Thyroid Binding Globulin
- Reverse T3
I also look for associated problems including gluten intolerance, food allergies, heavy metals, and stress, as well as vitamin D, selenium, vitamin A, zinc, and omega 3 fat deficiencies.
What Is the Solution?
If it is clear that a patient has hypothyroidism after the necessary blood tests and the symptom analysis, I then design a treatment plan based on his or her individual needs.
Overall, it is important to listen to your body. Don’t ignore your symptoms, and seek health from a health care professional who can understand your needs and requirements.
By taking a comprehensive and individualized approach to identifying and treating this condition, there is a way to end this hidden epidemic of unnecessary suffering. It is possible to regain your health and happiness.