The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the front of the neck and is really important for energy regulation. It produces thyroid hormones which are secreted into the bloodstream and then act as messengers, affecting cells and tissues and regulating many processes in the body.
We can use the analogy of a car when talking about the thyroid hormones: when the thyroid gland is working properly, the car is driving smoothly and there’s just the right amount of pressure on the accelerator pedal. Within the body the thyroid hormones regulate our metabolism, keep our energy levels high, aid good sleep, regulate our bowels and aid digestion. When the thyroid hormones are not balanced and are running too high, it’s akin to pushing down hard on the accelerator. This leads to symptoms such as diarrhoea, agitation, light or no periods, hunger, disrupted sleep, fast speech and a ‘hyper’ mood. When the thyroid gland is sluggish and underactive, it’s similar to pushing down on the brakes of the car. The individual will feel sleepy, tired, low in mood, have long heavy periods, be constipated, gain weight and have a low appetite. They can also have dry skin and their hair can become thin or fall out.
Diagnosing a thyroid disorder should be based on blood tests but also symptoms. The problem is, the symptoms of a low thyroid could relate to many other conditions – tiredness, low mood, weight gain, feeling cold, hair loss – so it is difficult to diagnose on symptoms alone. Most GPs are not able to do detailed thyroid tests to check your TSH, T3, T4, thyroid antibodies and reverse T3 routinely as they don’t have access to them. When I see a patient, we do this test as a baseline and re-check it a few months later to measure change. There are a range of medications I look at to help boost the thyroid gland, such as Levothyroxine, T3 and a more natural preparation. However even without these tests, if you’re worried about your thyroid under-functioning, there are nutritional changes you can make.
Iodine and the thyroid gland
Iodine is very important for the functioning of the thyroid gland. This is because both T3 and T4 hormones made by the thyroid gland are high in iodine content, so if this isn’t present, the thyroid gland cannot make the hormones, and this will subsequently lead to tiredness and low energy levels. If you are experiencing symptoms of poor thyroid function then you could be iodine deficient. Iodine deficiency is one of the three most common nutritional deficiencies, along with magnesium and vitamin D. More than 100 years ago, iodine was shown to reverse and prevent the swelling of the thyroid gland, also known as a goitre, and correct hypothyroidism. Iodine has other effects such as improving fertility, helping brain development in children, stabilising metabolism and body weight and optimising immune function. It is a potent anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic, anti-viral and anti-cancer agent and protects other organs and tissues in the body. For example, studies have shown that rates of breast cancer and fibrocystic breast disease, which is not cancerous but common, decrease with iodine supplementation.
Iodine and iodine-rich foods have a history of being natural treatments of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Studies have also shown that people living in iodine-deficient areas have higher rates of stomach cancers and increased iodine intake has been associated with a reduction in stomach cancer rates. Iodine can be substituted in forms of supplements or by eating foods rich in iodine. The food with the most iodine in it is seaweed such as kelp or spirulina. Iodine, but less of it than in seaweed, is found in cod, baked potatoes with the skin, salt, shrimp, turkey breasts, tuna and eggs. The body cannot store iodine which is why a daily regular intake is needed. A maximum daily dose of 1.1mg (1100mcg) iodine is currently recommended but a dose of 150mcg, if someone is not deficient, is the recommended daily dose.
A holistic health-care practitioner, such as myself, would be able to test your iodine levels if this is something you are concerned about.
Some people who have overactive autoimmune thyroid conditions like Graves’ disease should avoid iodine supplementation and rarely some people react to iodine. It’s important to remember that excessive intake of iodine can also cause thyroid problems.