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Is your thyroid underactive?

Published:Tuesday | March 20, 2012 | 12:00 AM

THE THYROID gland is a butterfly-shaped organ situated at the front of the neck, on both sides of the voice box or larynx. It produces thyroid hormones that serve many important functions, including the control of metabolism, body temperature, and energy production.

An underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism is a very common - though often unrecognised - cause of low energy levels. In the United States alone, over 13 million people with low thyroid function are yet undiagnosed.

Women are seven times more likely to have this problem than men and, although it can occur at any age, there are some times when women are specially at risk - just after having a baby or after a miscarriage or when over the age of 65.

The common symptoms of low thyroid function include low energy, weight gain, dry skin, constipation, hair loss, brittle nails, depression, irritability, and intolerance to cold. Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to serious health problems like heart disease, high blood cholesterol, osteoporosis, infertility, anaemia, and recurrent infections.

Anyone having the above symptoms should have an assessment of their thyroid function done. Conventional medicine tends to depend on the results of blood tests to diagnose low thyroid activity, although experts agree that blood tests alone are often misleading. A careful evaluation by your doctor, including a detailed questioning and examination of the patient, is important. If this is not done, many cases will go undiagnosed. The blood tests may then assist in confirming the doctor's suspicion, but by themselves can be inconclusive.

A home test of thyroid function

An at-home test of your resting body temperature (called the Barnes Test) is a useful tool for evaluation of your thyroid function. It reflects your metabolic rate, which, in turn, is largely influenced by thyroid hormones. This test is done while you are lying in bed, first thing in the morning before getting up and moving around. The details for conducting the test are available in my book, An Ounce of Prevention - Especially for Women.

Immune system imbalance

Probably the most frequent cause of hypothyroidism today is an autoimmune disturbance of the immune system called Hashimoto's disease, named after the Japanese doctor who first described it. Here, the body's immune system attacks its own thyroid gland and starts to destroy it. I strongly suspect that stressful situations like pregnancy and menopause, as well as infections, environmental chemicals and certain food additives, may contribute to this disorder, and a special blood test can be done to diagnose the condition.

Dietary imbalance

A deficiency of iodine in the diet can lead to an enlarged-but-underactive thyroid gland called a goiter. Goiters in people who have enough dietary iodine may be related to the excessive consumption of certain foods that may affect iodine utilisation. These foods are known as goitrogens and include turnips, cabbage, mustard, cassava root, soybeans, peanuts, pine nuts, and millet. However, cooking these foods usually renders them harmless. A wide variety of many vitamins and minerals are also necessary for good thyroid function so good balanced nutrition is vital. Imbalance is always a problem.

Many people are hypothyroid because of treatments given to them by their doctors for overactive thyroid function (hyper-thyroidism). These treatments include surgery, drugs or radiation. The subsequent damage to the gland that results is often irreversible, thus creating permanent hypothyroidism. An approach that looks for and naturally deals with the underlying cause of the hyperactive condition can often prevent the necessity for these severe treatments.

A holistic approach

A balanced diet is most essential. Ensure optimal intake of iodine, zinc, vitamins C, E and B complex. Ensure good levels of healthy protein while minimising starch and sugar in the diet. I recommend a programme of supplements called the cellular nutritional programme. It contains special additional nutrients like kelp, cayenne, and Kreb Cycle Factors, which improve the slow-down metabolism of this condition.

Immune system support

Individuals with immune dysfunction will benefit from supplementing with high dosages of antioxidants like vitamins A, C, E, selenium, the herbs schizandra, rosemary, pycnogenol, garlic and ginger, Large amounts of omega-3 fatty acid supplements will also help in correcting any inflammation of the thyroid gland.

Stress management is also key. Low thyroid function is often triggered off by stress, and learning to handle stress in a healthy way is most important and beneficial. Relaxation techniques should be used.

Exercise increases the metabolism and has many other beneficial effects. Some yoga postures like the shoulder stand are particularly helpful as they stimulate, massage and increase the blood flow to the thyroid.

Medication is the standard medical answer to the underactive thyroid, and a variety of synthetic drugs are used to replace the lacking thyroid hormone. These are often necessary and very helpful. However, many holistic physicians use natural thyroid hormone replacement instead. These are also prescription medicines, but are made from desiccated animal thyroid glands (glandular extracts).

They contain a balance of all the thyroid hormones and often, in my experience, produce a better response. You may wish to discuss this option with your doctor. Changes in your basal body temperature readings (the Barnes Test) after taking the medication can be used as a guide in determining the appropriate dosage for you.

You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at tonyvendryes@gmail.com or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His book 'An Ounce of Prevention - Especially for Women', is available locally and on the Internet.