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What's causing the low thyroid epidemic?


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Jane, a 45-year-old accountant, has two adolescent children, a demanding job and home-care obligations like cooking and cleaning, which demand constant attention. This used to be easy but increasingly she finds that her energy and enthusiasm have gone missing in action and she’s starting to sprout the kind of belly that she thought only imprisoned those who drank too much beer.

Mary, a 30-something real estate agent who worries that she might be losing her shot at fertility, is drowning in similar waves of fatigue. She has also noticed that her bowels have become sluggish, while her usually agile mind has dimmed, clouded by emotions that are increasingly downbeat, and she is now needing socks in bed on a cold winter’s night. Her periods have become irregular and she’s starting to lose hair.

The thyroid, a barely perceptible gland that sits in the front of the neck, gives birth to two small chemicals that are arguably our body’s most powerful and influential protagonists.

Jane and Mary could be the flag bearers for an avalanche of women and a growing number of men who are swamping doctors’ offices pleading for a remedy to recharge their devitalised bodies and, more importantly, burn off the mounds of fat paralysing their momentum.

Those who choose to tell their doctors how tired they are and how much the joy and exuberance have been replaced by laziness and relentless weight gain might find that the response is a trigger-happy lurch towards the script pad. In a roundabout way, patients might simply have trouble identifying the real source of their problem, which to the medical mind is screaming depression — and, boy, there sure is powerful medicine for that.

Fortunately, there are many who do not accept the notion that they have medically defined melancholy that needs medicating. Despite the compelling evidence that if all the blood tests are normal it must be the mental state that needs altering, there is mounting awareness that there is something physically wrong with the body that needs to be identified and corrected.

The thyroid, a barely perceptible gland that sits in the front of the neck, gives birth to two small chemicals that are arguably our body’s most powerful and influential protagonists. Thyroid hormones charge our cells with energy, provide us with sex hormones, burn our fat, drive our mental processes, fashion hair follicles, lubricate and nourish our skin and generate stem cells and red blood cells that impregnate our tissues with oxygen’s vital life force.

Because of thyroid hormones, our emotions are positive and our thoughts focused, allowing us to execute effectively with clarity and purpose. When your thyroid hormones become derailed, every cell in your body loses its mojo. You become constipated, your thought processes slow down and your emotions start to chill, as does your circulation, matched by a metabolism that can’t seem to move out of first gear.

Fatigue progresses to inertia, which makes exercise impossible, leading to inevitable weight gain.

Fatigue progresses to inertia, which makes exercise impossible, leading to inevitable weight gain. This is about the time that patients drag themselves on their knees into a doctor’s surgery begging for a solution, making it the ideal time for our medicinal healers to step up to the plate. Sadly, most are in serious need of the CSI medical coaching manual.

What doctors do is measure a brain hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which is manufactured in the pituitary, a gland situated just behind the middle of the forehead. As its name suggests, TSH goes in to bat when thyroid hormones are faltering at the crease. TSH levels go up when thyroid fails us, so in theory when doctors want to find out if your thyroid hormones are serving you, all they have to do is measure TSH. A normal TSH would indicate that thyroid hormones are fully operational.

Unfortunately, this approach is severely flawed because thyroid hormones have a complex relationship with all the cells in our bodies. Brain chemicals like TSH try to gauge whether they are doing their job but a lot of the time what TSH senses won’t be an accurate assessment of thyroid hormone activity. Using TSH levels as a sole indicator of thyroid function is a very inadequate means of determining if any thyroid hormone treatment is necessary. It’s not uncommon to have a royal flush of symptoms, suggesting underactive thyroid hormones married with a TSH that is entirely normal.

What you really need is to have all your thyroid hormones measured, including thyroxine (T4), triiodothyronine (T3) and reverse T3. T3 is the major player when it comes to thyroid hormone function while T4 is the source from which T3 is manufactured. T3 is the accelerator that energises us and stimulates fat burning. Reverse T3 is the brake pedal that significantly slows your metabolism, aborting T3’s drive. When you are stressed or reduce your food intake, reverse T3 is activated.

Brain chemicals like TSH try to gauge whether they are doing their job but a lot of the time what TSH senses won’t be an accurate assessment of thyroid hormone activity.

To make T4, you need iodine, a nutrient found in oysters, seaweed, salmon and bread made with iodised salt. Iodine then has to go through a series of chemical processes facilitated by B vitamins, calcium, zinc, magnesium and iron, to name some of the key nutrients that help to give birth to T4. Soy, gluten and bisphenol A, found in plastic containers and tinned foods, together with excessive consumption of kale and broccoli, can compromise this operation.

What Jane and Mary and so many of us need is a comprehensive medical overview that acknowledges thyroid hormones’ disparate influences. Only then can we hope to successfully manage a hormonal crisis that is dragging us towards the precipice of a health disaster.



 

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.