by Dr. Will Cole
Your thyroid hormones determine the function of every single cell of your body: The hair on your head, mood, immune system, energy levels, digestion, metabolism, and sex drive all hinge on the delicate balance of the queen of all hormones. And it’s for this reason that these same areas of your health suffer when your thyroid hormones are out of balance. There are many underlying reasons for thyroid problems, but the two I see most often in my patients are:
- Autoimmune thyroid problems (Hashimoto’s are Graves disease): when your immune system attacks your thyroid.
- Low T3 syndrome: when your body isn’t converting the inactive T4 hormone to the active, usable T3.
Almost all thyroid cases are due to variations of one or both of these problems. And the shocker here is that neither of these two issues are inherently thyroid problems. In autoimmune thyroid problems, your thyroid wants to work but falls victim to the immune system, and in low T3 syndrome, your thyroid is working like a champ, but it is not being activated in your liver or gut.
A solution to your thyroid problems
The solution for both of these hidden thyroid problems in mainstream medicine is a synthetic T4 hormone such as Synthroid or Levothyroxine. But does this get to the root cause of why there’s an issue in the first place? Hardly. So let’s dig deeper and discover the root causes for these two very common thyroid problems and what to do about each:
Stress can mess up your health in many different ways, and one of them is impairing thyroid function. Your main stress hormone, cortisol, can block conversion to the active T3 and also increase the unusable reverse T3 (rT3). Many of my patients found the their thyroid problems started after a stressful time in their lives. Research validates this stress-thyroid connection – two studies found that autoimmune thyroid patients had a higher rate of stressful life events before their diagnosis when compared to control groups.
What to do: Be consistent with activities of calm like mindfulness meditation and yoga. These activate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which will make you feel more zen.
2. Low vitamin A
Low vitamin A can spell trouble for your thyroid because this fat-soluble vitamin was shown to boost T3 levels and normalize TSH.
What to do: True vitamin A, called retinol, is only found in animal products like fish, shellfish, fermented cod liver oil, liver, and butterfat from grass-fed cows. Plant carotenes, a precursor to vitamin A, are found in sweet potatoes and carrots, but the conversion rate to the usable retinol is very weak. In fact, research suggests that just 3 percent of beta-carotene gets converted in a healthy adult.
3. Low selenium
What to do: A variety of nuts and seeds like Brazil nuts – as well as oysters – are good sources of this nutrient.
4. Viral infections
Low-grade reactivations of viruses such as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) have been linked to autoimmune thyroid problems such as Hashimoto’s.
What to do: Treat the root cause with a natural antiviral supporter such as astragalus, olive leaf, larrea tridentata, bee propolis, Melissa officinalis, L-lysine, zinc, or vitamin C.
5. Too much iodine
I see patients all the time who are taking iodine to treat their thyroid naturally but are actually triggering an autoimmune thyroid storm. While iodine is needed for thyroid hormone production, several studies have found that increased iodine intake is associated with flareups of Hashimoto’s disease. This goes to show that even with natural remedies, what works for one person may not be right for the next.
What to do: You still need iodine to make healthy thyroid hormones. I suggest getting it from food medicines. Sea vegetables like dulse, nori, kombu, and arame are all rich in iodine. Getting your iodine levels tested is a good idea to know where your starting point is.
6. Low iron
Iron is needed for the production of thyroid peroxidase, the enzyme used to make your thyroid hormones.
What to do: It’s crucial to first deal with the underlying problem that’s causing the iron deficiency. Healing your gut is essential for healthy nutrient absorption, especially iron. Once the gut is healed, iron-rich foods like grass-fed beef, liver, and spinach can be effective – as can cooking with cast-iron cookware.
7. Low copper
Healthy copper levels were found to increase total T4 and T3 levels.
What to do: The best way to get bioavailable copper is grass-fed liver and oysters. Sesame seeds are a good plant source as well!
8. Hormone imbalances
Your hormones are all connected, and the ripple effect of one hormone problem can negatively affect your thyroid. Low estrogen, insulin resistance, and low testosterone were all found to inhibit thyroid function.
What to do: Depending on your individual hormone problems, solutions will vary. Take a look at my hormone guide to find out what may be best for you.
9. Artificial sweeteners
Sweeteners like saccharine (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), or aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet) are in many sugar-free, diet, or zero-calorie drinks and foods. One small-scale study showed a reversal of Hashimoto’s just by eliminating these unhealthy sweeteners. Why are they bad for you? Researchers are pointing to their negative impact on our microbiome.
What to do: Avoid them like the plague. Opt for raw honey or pure maple syrup in moderation.
Toxins such as pesticides, plastics, antibacterial products, and heavy metals are just some of the culprits behind blocking thyroid function and triggering autoimmune flare-ups.
What to do: Make your life a detox. You are organic – so your food and beauty and cleaning products should be too. Start making the switch to cleaner products and green up your life.
Being in chronic pain has been shown to suppress deiodinase, the liver enzyme that converts 80 percent of your T4 into your active T3.
What to do: There is no simple answer for this. No one chooses to be in chronic pain. I have seen some success with liposomal turmeric, which has great bioavailabillity compared to the standard version of this anti-inflammatory natural product.
12. Microbiome problems
Gut problems like leaky gut syndrome, candida overgrowth, and SIBO are all associated with autoimmune thyroid problems. In fact, 20 percent of your T4 is converted to T3 in the gut, which can be inhibited with an imbalanced, unhealthy microbiome.
What to do: Healing your gut takes time. The first step to start the gut-healing journey is an elimination diet. Check out my video class for a step-by-step guide.
A proverbial expletive in the health world, this protein – found in wheat, rye, oats, barley, and spelt – is an issue for many people with thyroid problems. The inflammatory effects of gluten were shown to last up to six months each time you eat it, so you can see the far-reaching effects of this protein. Even worse, mainstream doctors typically don’t run comprehensive labs to see if this is a real trigger for individual patients.
What to do: Opt for the gluten – and grain-free flour options such as coconut, almond, or hazelnut flour. We live in a time when products using these grain-free options are more common than ever (Starbucks even has coconut-flour treats!)
Obviously, smoking isn’t healthy for anyone, but in people genetically susceptible to thyroid issues it can be especially disastrous. Multiple studies have looked at the effects of smoking on people with autoimmune thyroid disorders, and one study observed an increase in autoimmune hypothyroidism in women, while another study showed an increase in Graves disease in smokers.
What to do: This one is a no-brainer: stop smoking. But in addition, studies have shown that a decrease in thyroid function could be reversed by taking n-acetylcysteine (NAC) by increasing the super-antioxidant glutathione.
I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.