Thyroid Health: What Can Go Wrong and What Can You Do?

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WholeFoods Magazine Staff
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The thyroid is a body part that is easy to forget about. If it’s healthy, you can’t even feel it! Despite its relatively low profile, the thyroid has a very important role, influencing nearly every metabolic process in the body (1).

What Is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a small gland located in your neck just above the collarbone. Like other endocrine glands, it releases several hormones that stimulate certain activities.

Two such hormones are thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) (2). Together, they increase the basal metabolic rate, essentially prompting the cells to work harder. This process manifests itself in a variety of ways, including:
• Raising body temperature.
• Stronger heartbeat and faster pulse.
• Food being processed and utilized faster.
• Brain maturation and growth in children.
• Higher levels of attention and quicker reflexes due to activation of the nervous system (3).

The thyroid also releases calcitonin, which participates in calcium metabolization.

The thyroid’s release of these hormones is controlled by other hormones from the hypothalamus in the brain, which, in turn, allows thyroid-stimulating hormone to be generated by the pituitary gland (4). These allow the release of thyroid hormones to be ramped up in certain scenarios, such as pregnancy, but occasionally, the process is thrown off balance, which can lead to health issues.

Thyroid Problems: Too Little or Too Much?
Two common thyroid problems are hyperthyroidism (where the gland produces too many hormones) and hypothyroidism (where it does not produce enough). While these conditions manifest differently in each person and only a doctor can make a proper diagnosis, some common symptoms of hyperthyroidism are irritability, fatigue or muscle weakness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, and frequent bowel movements (5).

Another symptom often associated with hyperthyroidism is a goiter, where the thyroid enlarges to the point that the neck visibly appears swollen. If it grows large enough, it can even cause breathing issues. Though anyone can develop hyperthyroidism, it is most commonly found in women, the elderly and those dealing with other thyroid-related issues like Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition (6).

Some common symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, sudden weight gain, decreased sweating and constipation. Hypothyroidism is particularly dangerous in children, as a lack of thyroid hormones can result in stunted physical and mental development (3). The most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States is Hashimoto’s disease. Similar to Graves’ disease, this autoimmune disorder causes the immune system to attack the thyroid, slowly destroying it and weakening its ability to produce thyroid hormones (7).

The Iodine Factor
Iodine deficiency, as diagnosed by a doctor, poses a serious issue for thyroid health. The importance of iodine leads us all the way back to T3 and T4. One important component of these hormones is iodine, a trace element. This means that iodine must be taken in through diet (3).

In the 1920s, iodine deficiency was very common in some parts of the United States and Canada. The introduction of iodized salt helped resolve this issue in America, but 40% of the world is still at risk of iodine deficiency, especially in developing countries (8). In a June 2014 statement, Health Minister of India Dr. C. Vijaya Bhaskar remarked that one out of 10 adults in his country suffer from thyroid disorders (9). One possible cause behind this alarming statistic could be the lack of dietary iodine.

Sea vegetables like seaweed contain iodine (10); liver, tuna, mushrooms and spinach are also helpful in delivering vitamins to benefit the thyroid like zinc, selenium and iron. Gugglesterones have been traditionally used to support thyroid health. Some say cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are actually harmful, due a component called isothiocyanates potentially causing negative immune responses towards the thyroid. Have no fear, though, as steaming these vegetables will neutralize any possible harmful effects, leaving you free to enjoy. WF

References
1. WebMD, “Understanding Thyroid Problems—The Basics,” www.webmd.com/women/guide/understanding-thyroid-problems-basics, accessed June 6, 2014.
2. Society of Endocrinology, “You and Your Hormones: Thyroxine,” www.yourhormones.info/hormones/thyroxine.aspx, accessed June 6, 2014.
3. PubMed Health, ”How Does The Thyroid Gland Work?” www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0010393, accessed June 6, 2014.
4. Society of Endocrinology, “You and Your Hormones: Thyroid Gland,” www.yourhormones.info/glands/thyroid_gland.aspx, accessed June 6, 2014.
5. Medline Plus, “Hyperthyroidism,” www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/hyperthyroidism.html, accessed June 6, 2014.
6. EndocrineWeb, “Hyperthyroidism Overview,” www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/hyperthyroidism/hyperthyroidism-overview-overactive-thyroid, accessed June 6, 2014.
7. Healthline, “4 Common Thyroid Disorders,” www.healthline.com/health/common-thyroid-disorders, accessed June 6, 2014.
8. American Thyroid Association, “Iodine Deficiency,” www.thyroid.org/iodine-deficiency, accessed June 6, 2014.
9. The Times of India, “1 in 10 Adults In Country has Thyroid,” http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/1-in-10-adults-in-country-has-thyroid/articleshow/36120700.cms, accessed June 6, 2014.
10. CNCA Health, “Nutrition for Thyroid Health: Foods that Help and Harm,” www.cncahealth.com/explore/learn/general-health/nutrition-for-thyroid-health-foods-that-help-and-harm#.U5H733JdWm4, accessed June 6, 2014.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2014