As many of you know I have been studying nutritional medicine for the past 16 months, with the end dream of being a qualified nutritionist when I get through it all. As part of my recent studies of diseases I was looking at a personal passion of mine, autoimmune diseases. One of these diseases really hit home with me. The more I read the more I was ticking a list off of symptoms, and I was convinced that my day-to-day life was being affected by my thyroid.
This wasn’t a new theory for me. My annual trip to the doctor (I really don’t go to the doctor that often), generally sees me donating some blood for thyroid testing. It generally comes back fine or within the ‘normal’ range (0.05 – 4.0) and so the symptoms are put down to something else. It wasn’t until recently with my studies that I found out the general thyroid test only looks at one area of the thyroid and may not be thorough enough to get all the answers.
I think at this point I should explain how the thyroid works in the body. The thyroid sits at the front and towards the base of your neck, just under the ‘Adam’s apple’. Its main role is to produce thyroid hormones T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (triiodothyronine). The hormones play a large part in the body, controlling how quickly the body uses energy, aides in the production of proteins, and the bodies sensitivity to other hormones. A small gland in the brain, called the pituitary gland, releases thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) to signal to the thyroid gland that it needs to produce the hormones T4 and T3. The gland predominately produces T4 which is then converted to T3. If any of these hormones is not produced enough for your bodies requirements, are not communicating to each other correctly, or are not being converted, then you may show symptoms. Generally the thyroid will react two ways; hypothyroidism (under-active) or hyperthyroidism (overactive). Hypothyroidism means the gland is under-active and doesn’t produce enough hormones into the bloodstream. Hyperthyroidism, as you can imagine, means the opposite. It is overactive and produces too many hormones. I don’t want to bore you with too much of the chemistry of it, but sometimes in order to work out whats not right, we have to look at how it should be working.
What do my symptoms look like? Now these are different for everyone, but for me, my biggest struggle was the constant feeling of being really tired or fatigued. I know that we all have very busy lives, but feeling that you are just plain exhausted all the time isn’t normal, especially when you are living a healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition, exercise and adequate sleep. I, however, do not sleep well. I can’t blame my children, they were good sleepers from a very early age, and my symptoms started well before I had children. I’m not sure why it is that I don’t sleep well, but I’m going to be looking at that a lot more in the next few months. Recently though, I have been monitoring my sleep, and its surprising how restless I can be. That’s even knowing how I wake each morning and feeling still so tired.
Some of the other symptoms I experience are hair loss (it’s lucky I have so much of it to begin with); dry skin on my face, knees, and feet; brain fog; cold hands and feet; bowel issues, and some anxiety. If I’m honest, I have had symptoms for 15+ years that I can recall. They are common symptoms that can be associated with many conditions, which is why it can be tricky to diagnose if the general blood tests come back fine. This makes it easy for some doctors to put it down to other factors. I had one doctor, many years ago, tell me I was depressed and to start medication straight away. I did the right thing (I believed at the time) and followed their advise, but I knew pretty quickly it wasn’t right for me, and I came off them after 6 months. So I kept managing what life handed me, and got on with it.
Thankfully, I’ve kept on questioning feeling the way I have and finally have a general practitioner that knows how well I eat, shares a passion for ‘food as thy medicine’, prescribes vitamins more often than not, and really listens to how her patient is feeling. When I questioned if it was possible the general test could be missing something with me that the symptoms were red lighting, she agreed and proceeded with further tests. I mean I present as a great patient….great heart rate and pulse, physically in the recommended BMI, excellent nutrient levels (apart from vitamin D, which I supplement), and I eat well, exercise, don’t smoke, low alcohol consumption, and I rarely suffer with common colds/flu’s or infections. To still feel ‘not right’ would be hard for a lot of doctors to hear.
So after donating some blood to testing…and waiting the allotted time…the test results came back within the ‘normal’ range. What?! I immediately felt deflated. My doctor, however, reassured me that this can sometimes happen. After discussing it, going over my symptoms again, my doctor believes I do have hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid). Apparently, it’s not completely uncommon for tests not to show 100% of the time if that thyroid is a little broken.
So why do we get it? The most common cause of thyroid problems are autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s and Graves disease. Other causes can be iodine deficiency (iodine is important to the thyroid’s function), the result of thyroid surgery, radiation, a medication side effect, pregnancy or a birth defect (the thyroid not forming correctly). I, most likely, fall into the autoimmune area. It’s not yet understood why this occurs, but one theory is that the body produces antibodies that fight itself. A virus or infection may originally trigger this response, but as I mentioned, scientists are still trying to work that one out.
Now, I personally believe that I have improved my symptoms by eating paleo and living a healthier lifestyle these past few years, but it hasn’t been enough. I’ve still seen symptoms even with the improvements I have made, and that’s normal. In the past, I had never been treating myself for a condition, only making these lifestyle and diet changes because I believed they were good for my health and fitted with my nutrition beliefs. Now I will be more vigilant and medicating myself with these choices.
That leads me to treatment. Hypothyroidism requires ongoing supplementation to correct those communications and conversions that the thyroid should be making but isn’t. There are two options; firstly the synthetic kind Levothyroxine, which is replacing T4 so the body doesn’t have to work so hard to do it itself; or secondly the more natural option desiccated animal thyroid. As the name suggests this is derived from animal thyroid, most commonly from pigs. You can possibly guess that I am more interested in opting for the more natural option.
What else do I plan to do. Well I’m still working this all out, but my sleep will be something that I am going to be concentrating on, as well as increasing my seafood intake. Many sources of seafood are high in iodine, which as mentioned above is important in the hormone production the thyroid is responsible for. Those will be my initial two changes. Otherwise, I will be trying to make sure I am eating the most nutrient rich paleo options and continue those good lifestyle habits that have helped the past few years. Oh, and plus trailing the medication. It’s definitely a journey that I’ve just started on.
We don’t usually want to share that we aren’t perfect (ha, I’m definitely not), but hopefully through me sharing there may be some of you that relate that somethings ‘not right’ with you, and you’ll seek the help of a good doctor or health care professional to work out why that is. It may not be the same road as me, but its a journey that we owe it to ourselves and our families to take, to be the best we can be.