How much do you really know about the thyroid? If asked to gesture toward its location inside your body, would you point, correctly, to the front of your neck? Especially given its importance as a hormone and metabolism regulator, the thyroid gland is perhaps too little understood by the general public. The list of health issues that can often be traced back to an underperforming or disordered thyroid include insomnia, hand tremors, nervousness, joint pain, difficulty concentrating, muscular weakness, enlarged eyes, obesity, fatigue and many, many more.
Thyroid issues result in such varied manifestations because the thyroid gland is responsible for so much. That’s why thyroid supplementation has the potential to appeal to a broad spectrum of individuals. “People typically seek thyroid-support nutrients as a way to enhance their energy levels, enable proper control of their body temperature and support a strong metabolic rate,” says Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, nutrition education manager for NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL.
Our task is to describe what typically goes awry with the thyroid gland, how it functions when all is right, and how these issues serve to frame the market for thyroid supplements. We’ll also find out what the leading supplements for thyroid health are, and what may be trending around the corner in this category.
A Vital Gland
Situated against the trachea and reaching back to touch the esophagus, the thyroid gland controls much of what goes on below in the body. According to Levin, proper thyroid function has much to do with a lean body composition and preventing fatigue. In conjunction with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, the thyroid helps regulate body temperature and metabolism, meaning it plays a role in weight management.
The two main hormones secreted by the thyroid, the ones that regulate metabolism and other bodily functions, are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). Iodine is a major component of both of these hormones, so dietary intake of this mineral is crucial to their formation, explains Terry Lemerond, founder, president and CEO of EuroPharma USA, Green Bay, WI.
Lemerond attributes the prevalence of thyroid issues today to the lack of iodine in modern diets over the last 50 years. “We see subclinical levels of hypothyroidism, rampant fatigue, depression, overweight and obesity, and susceptibility to illness like never before,” he says. The common disorders of the thyroid, and the myriad symptoms they can cause, can be attributed to an overactive or underactive gland (hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, respectively).
Trisha Sugarek, B.S., M.S., national educator and R&D specialist for Bluebonnet Nutrition Corp., Sugar Land, TX, explains that hyperthyroidism is typically due to Graves’ Disease (an autoimmune condition), excess iodine intake, excess secretion of thyroid stimulating hormone or inflammation of the gland. Hypothyroidism, meanwhile, can usually be attributed to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (another autoimmune condition), iodone deficiency, thyroid destruction or pituitary injury. The diagnosis of these conditions must be made by a doctor.
The iodine–hypothyroidism connection puts this salt counterpart (iodized salt was introduced to reduce iodine deficiency) at the center of this category. Products aimed at improving sub-optimal thyroid function are more common in the marketplace for this reason.
Levin explains the mechanisms by which iodine and another essential thyroid nutrient, the amino acid L-tyrosine, produce the T3 and T4 hormones. Epithelial cells in the thyroid prepare tyrosine into a sort of “scaffold” that provides a backbone for the finished hormones. This structure along with iodine is simultaneously secreted into the lumen of the thyroid gland, where enzymes synthesize the hormones. Different enzymes then separate the hormones into the forms in which they circulate throughout the body.
According to Sugarek, common symptoms of hypothyroidism include lethargy, sleepiness and cold intolerance, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular issues and infection. The typical treatment is the administration of the thyroid hormones that are being under-secreted naturally. But, Sugarek emphasizes, if iodine deficiency is the main cause, the condition can usually benefit from iodine intake either from food or supplements.
The current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for iodine is 150 mcg, but is higher for pregnant (220 mcg) or lactating (290 mcg) women. Severe iodine deficiencies in pregnant women have been linked to problems with growth, hearing and speech for the child. “Even mild iodine deficiency during pregnancy, which may be present in some women in the United States, may be associated with low intelligence in children,” Sugarek says. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for an adult is 1,100 mcg/day (1).
Correcting any thyroid imbalances that might exist can help with other, more tangible health problems. Even those without a diagnosed thyroid condition might see a benefit, according to Lemerond, because of the influence that the thyroid-pituitary hormone complex holds. “I think by simply affecting that one system, you can take care of fatigue, anxiety and maybe even some milder forms of depression—you can certainly help balance moods,” he says. He cautions that results in this category usually take time, but once the regulatory tasks of the thyroid gland resume optimal functioning, many issues may start to alleviate.
An issue to keep in mind with thyroid supplementation is the endgame. For what length of time after seeing a benefit should consumers expect to stay with a program? “Unless the conditions that contributed to the thyroid imbalance are corrected, it is most likely that the thyroid support will need to be taken for indefinite periods of time,” says Mark Kaylor, vice president of education and research for Mushroom Wisdom Inc., East Windsor, NJ. By another token, Kaylor adds, if lifestyle and dietary changes are made along with a successful supplementation program, then after a few months, ceasing supplementation may not mean the return of the thyroid issue.
Referencing iodine specifically, Lemerond says that it is common to begin with a higher dose for several months, and then back down to a maintenance dose once an effect is seen. He recommends that individuals stick with those maintenance doses, rather than risk slipping back into their troubled pre-regimen state. Calling it a safe and natural approach to thyroid health, Lemerond says, “I believe that people who have experienced a slowdown in their thyroid function will feel so much better after starting iodine, that they won’t want to leave off the supplement.”
Clients facing thyroid issues will be dealing directly with their doctors, so an awareness of their typical options may help you understand their situation. When an overactive thyroid is being caused by an autoimmune condition, Sugarek notes pharmaceutical drugs are typically used. But, these anti-thyroid drugs can block the activity of vitamin K, so she suggests that those using them should consider supplementing for this and any other deficiencies. The discontinuation of anti-thyroid pharmaceuticals often sees the return of the original thyroid condition, as well. They may then turn to radioactive iodine supplements for a permanent cure, but this can create a swing in the other direction toward hypothyroidism.
With the thyroid out of whack to any significant degree, living a normal, healthy life is going to be tough. Most often, the body is simply running at the wrong speed. There is strong support that several nutrients, the most important of which have been touched upon already, can help support thyroid health.
Sugarek’s company features many multivitamins containing iodine, and its Multi Vita Softgels provide 300 mcg of iodine (from potassium iodide and kelp). She says that clinically measurable benefits from taking iodine supplements, in cases where iodine-deficiency is the culprit, can typically be seen in three to five days. These effects then level off after four to six weeks. Lemerond, whose company offers the products Thyroid Care (iodine with l-tyrosine) and Tri-Iodine, says that while both sexes benefit from iodine in these cases, women aged 40 and up could be considered the primary users. Thyroid problems can correspond with age-related issues like weight gain and metabolic slowdown, as well as perimenopause and menopause in women. “But if you ask me, most men and women from their 30s and up should be supplementing with iodine,” Lemerond says.
Kelp is perhaps the form in which natural iodine supplements are most commonly seen, but may not be best for everyone. “While kelp and some seaweeds are fine for getting the relatively low RDA level of iodine intake, those seeking much higher levels are usually advised to consider potassium iodide,” Levin says. Potassium iodide is the compound commonly used in table salt, and also used, in extremely high doses, to protect from nuclear radiation.
Tyrosine, as mentioned, is crucial to thyroid function, as well as to many other processes in the body. It is a component of most proteins, according to Levin, and serves as a precursor to several hormones and neurotransmitters. It helps produce melanin, and contributes to the function of the adrenal and pituitary glands, in addition to the thyroid. Tyrosine is often deficient in the diet, and its levels in the blood can be reduced by stress, so supplementation is often an option for those with thyroid issues. Importantly, l-tyrosine supplementation should not be combined with prescription thyroid medication without speaking to a doctor (2).
The mineral selenium is an essential part of the thyroid hormone cycle, according to Levin. “Selenium-containing enzymes control the synthesis and degradation of the biologically active thyroid hormone, T3,” he says, adding that a lack of selenium can make iodine deficiency even worse, while adequate selenium can protect against some of the effects of iodine deficiency. What’s more, antioxidant enzymes that contain selenium have been found to protect the thyroid from peroxidation during hormone synthesis (3).
Zinc is another mineral Levin cites as responsible for thyroid homeostasis. Along with cysteine compounds, zinc is involved in the synthesis of thyroid hormones, and research has shown zinc deficiency to correlate with decreased T3 and T4 levels on a short-term basis (4). Additionally, Levin says, “Guggul (Commiphora mukul) is an Indian Ayurvedic herb that contains the active compound Guggulsterone, which has been shown to stimulate thyroid activity.” Guggul extract and others of the above nutrients are contained in a product (Thyroid Energy) offered by Levin’s firm.
Kaylor describes the historical use of some mushrooms as endocrine aids. “The Cordyceps mushroom has a long and storied medicinal history that includes use as a tonic for the endocrine system, of which the thyroid is a part,” he says. Used traditionally to strengthen and bring balance, the mushroom is offered by Kaylor’s company in a product called Super Cordyceps. At least part of this tradition of use is affirmed, according to Kaylor, by a study on the effects of stress on mice. Cordyceps helped normalize the physiological effects of stress on the thyroid and other endocrine glands (5).
Once the full gamut of what the thyroid gland is responsible for is understood, it is easy to see how its proper functioning is so vital to overall wellness. The end goal of supplementation, ideally, is a thyroid that serves its purpose without much help from the outside, pharmaceutical or natural. Because thyroid conditions can be so serious, it is always best for clients to consult their physicians when developing a plan and instituting a supplement program. WF
1. National Institutes of Health, “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iodine,” http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-HealthProfessional, accessed June 30, 2011.
2. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Hypothyroidism,” www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/hypothyroidism-000093.htm, accessed June 30, 2011.
3. National Institutes of Health, “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Selenium,” http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/selenium, accessed June 30, 2011.
4. C. Kuriyama, et al., “Erythrocyte Zinc Concentration as an Indicator to Distinguish Painless Thyroiditis-Associated Transient Hypothyroidism from Permanent Hypothyroidism,” Endocr J. 58 (1), 59–63 (2011).
5. J.H. Koh, et al., “Antifatigue and Anti-stress Effect of the Hot-Water Fraction from Mycelia of Cordyceps sinensis,” Biol. Pharm. Bull. 26 (5), 691–694 (2003).
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2011