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Thyroid problems seem to be everywhere these days! Women especially are more prone to them. Hypothyroidism can happen for many different reasons, but our current modern, chaotic lifestyle can contribute to it.
I’ve struggled with thyroid problems for more than a decade now. While I also have Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune thyroid condition, part of that means dealing with hypothyroidism.
I know from personal experience how miserable it is to have a thyroid that’s not doing its job right. Now I want to pass my experience on to you as you try to understand yours.
What Is An Underactive Thyroid?
Having an underactive thyroid is called hypothyroidism. This happens when your thyroid is not producing enough hormones to energize your body. Understanding what can lead to a low-functioning thyroid is a critical part of getting answers.
I was diagnosed through a series of blood tests and a thyroid ultrasound. I found out that I have several nodules on my thyroid which will be monitored to make sure they don’t get any bigger.
Common Signs & Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
I had thyroid problems long before I knew what was going on. It’s easy to miss the common symptoms of hypothyroidism among other normal aspects of life. For me, I was having babies, not sleeping much because of that, and struggling to lose weight because I thought that was normal for being postpartum.
But in reality, my symptoms were way more extreme than they should have been. The thyroid can produce so many different symptoms when it’s not behaving right. Some people will have a lot of them, others may only have one or two noticeable signs. This is where proper testing makes all the difference in getting answers.
What are the symptoms of hypothyroidism to look out for?
- Weight gain, especially when it’s not related to lifestyle or diet changes. You just gain weight for seemingly no reason and then can’t lose it.
- Feeling cold all the time. This can happen even when it’s hot outside or no one else is cold.
- Being more tired than usual, whether you get enough sleep or not.
- Experiencing hair loss that goes on and on. Hair can also be thin or brittle and just generally unhealthy.
- Having fingernails that break easily or skin that is dry and rough.
- Feeling depressed or having a low mood.
- Being constipated or dealing with hemorrhoids.
- Having a frequent sore throat or hoarse voice.
- Feeling weak in the muscles or getting tired easily after exertion.
- Having high blood cholesterol levels, especially LDL.
- Dealing with heavy periods or menstrual cycles that aren’t quite regular.
- Having a low pulse or a low basal body temperature.
- Feeling fullness in the neck, or having an enlarged thyroid (called a ‘goiter’).
What Does the Thyroid Do?
As you can see, symptoms of hypothyroidism are extensive! They seem to affect every area of life, from energy levels to weight to digestion to hair, skin, and beyond.
How can the thyroid have this much power? A small gland that sits at the base of your neck, the thyroid is shaped like a butterfly. It’s an endocrine gland, meaning that it produces hormones.
The thyroid makes two hormones: T4 and T3. The first, T4, is the inactive form that gets converted into active form as needed. T3 is the active form of the hormone that is produced in smaller amounts. You need both to have a well-functioning thyroid gland. TSH, short for thyroid-stimulating hormone, is produced by the pituitary gland and is in charge of telling the thyroid when to make more T3 and T4.
Low thyroid hormones can be caused in a few ways. Sometimes the pituitary gland doesn’t make enough TSH, and the thyroid doesn’t get the memo to make more. Other times, TSH levels are very high, and the thyroid is making T4, but your body isn’t able to convert it into T3. Finally, there’s another thyroid hormone known as Reverse T3, and in situations of stress, the body takes your T4 and dumps it into Reverse T3, resulting in plenty of thyroid hormone in the body that it just can’t access for energy.
The thyroid hormones make sure your cells have the energy to do their jobs. It also runs your metabolism which is why weight gain happens so quickly when the thyroid slows down. Thyroid hormones are also necessary for fertility, pregnancy, adrenal hormones, and a healthy, balanced mood.
Causes of Hypothyroidism
The thyroid is sensitive. Like most hormone-producing glands, it responds to the overall environment of the body. If you’re constantly stressed, this can lead to thyroid problems. But other factors can affect it, too.
Leaky gut, or intestinal permeability occurs when the body is unable to process food and nutrients the right way. In essence, the gut becomes leaky, and food and other bacteria slip through the cracks triggering digestion and absorption issues. This is also one of the ways that autoimmune disease, like Hashimoto’s, could be triggered.
Your thyroid needs nutrients both to make hormones and convert them to the right form. Depending on diet, it is easy to be really low in some essential thyroid nutrients like iron, magnesium, selenium, and vitamin D.
Gut problems can also decrease the body’s ability to process these nutrients effectively. If there’s a problem in the gut, then no matter how much we consume of these supplements or eat nutrient-rich foods, the body won’t be able to snag all the goodness from them. This is especially important to address during pregnancy since there is an increased nutrient demand and after pregnancy, since we lose nutrient stores and it takes time to build them back up.
Ever feel swollen or bloated after eating? Or get an upset stomach or experience a breakout? All of these symptoms can indicate that your body is sensitive to whatever you just ate.
Food sensitivities like gluten, dairy, and soy are quite common and they also happen to negatively impact how your thyroid works. Gluten can even cause a leaky gut!
Blood Sugar Imbalance
For hormones in the body to be balanced, everything else needs to be stable. This is referred to as homeostasis. When your blood sugar is imbalanced or your insulin levels are consistently too high, either from stress or diabetes, the thyroid might have trouble making enough hormones.
The double whammy of low thyroid hormone and high glucose can lead to even more weight gain. Worse, having hypothyroidism can also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A toxic buildup is also common in people struggling with thyroid problems. There are some things, like the air that we breathe, that we can’t control. However, we can take some great strides to detoxify our homes.
Your thyroid responds to every part of the environment that you live in. Using products filled with artificial and synthetic ingredients can make your body more toxic. This can handcuff your thyroid gland when trying to do its job.
(If you don’t know where to start ditching toxic personal care ingredients, start here.)
You may be predisposed to thyroid problems based on your genetics, although this is more common with the autoimmune version of thyroid issues. Still, if you have a mom, sister, or other close family members with thyroid problems, it might mean you’re more likely to have them, too.
Women are more likely to develop thyroid problems after giving birth, even if they don’t have a family history or previous problems. There are many theories as to why, but major hormone fluctuations and nutrient deficiencies, along with the telltale lack of sleep that happens in those first weeks and months, are likely culprits.
If your body is dealing with chronic or recent infections, your thyroid might take the hit. Underlying infections, like the Epstein Barr virus which causes mono or bacterial overgrowth like Candida can negatively affect your thyroid.
What to Do First for Your Low Thyroid
If you suspect that you are hypothyroid, the first thing that you need is lab work. There’s no real way to assess what’s going on with your thyroid without testing the actual hormones.
Some doctors will only run TSH or total T3 to check on your thyroid. This is problematic because it only gives a partial snapshot of what’s happening. If you want the full picture and some real answers, you need to get these labs done:
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)— This is the pituitary hormone that measures the level of thyroid hormone in the blood. A higher level would show that your body is having to work harder (shout louder) to get your thyroid to do its job.
- Free T3/Free T4— These are the available levels of thyroid hormones in your blood. Total T3 will tell you how much is in your body, but it’s no good to you unless you can use it. Free T3 shows how much hormone you have available to actually use.
- Reverse T3— This will help determine whether you have hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. It tends to be low in hypothyroid cases and high in hyperthyroid cases, but sometimes it can be high in hypothyroidism if your body is having problems with conversion.
- Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies/Thyroglobulin Antibodies (TPO/TG Antibodies)— These are the thyroid antibodies and will help to rule out whether your hypothyroidism is driven by an immune system problem. If you have thyroid antibodies and you’re hypothyroid, it means you have Hashimoto’s disease.
- Thyroid Ultrasound— Not everyone needs this, but it is especially recommended if your doctor suspects abnormal growth or if you have a known thyroid condition.
After you get lab work done, the next thing to do is to meet with a healthcare provider to discuss your results and set a plan. If you’re confirmed to have low thyroid or hypothyroidism, then here’s what you can do.
Lifestyle Changes for Hypothyroidism
I’ve made some diet and lifestyle changes since finding out about my thyroid problems. While I am also taking thyroid hormone replacement, these were really helpful even before I started the medication and I wanted to share them with you.
Diet for Underactive Thyroid
I was already eating a healthy diet before finding out about my thyroid problems, so diet was not the entire problem for me. However here are some additional dietary changes that can help support thyroid health:
- Avoid inflammatory foods. This can include sweeteners, processed foods, grains, soy, and dairy, but it can also include anything you’re sensitive to.
- Focus on eating quality meats and fish. Grass-fed and wild-caught meats and seafood have better nutrient profiles and don’t contain possible inflammatory problems like antibiotics or mycotoxins.
- Eat lots of green leafy vegetables cooked in coconut oil. Vegetables are rich in thyroid-friendly nutrients and fiber, which can help with constipation caused by hypothyroidism.
- Eat fruits too, but focus on lower-glycemic ones (mostly berries). This is especially important if you have high glucose or insulin.
- Drink bone broth a few times a day. It is rich in gut-healing nutrients, including collagen and gelatin.
- Don’t go low-carb to try to force weight loss. While you want to avoid high-starch carbs or those that are sugary, your thyroid needs the right kind of carbohydrates to make hormones.
Exercise for Boosting Thyroid Function
When you’re dealing with low thyroid and are already tired, exercise might sound like the last thing you want to think about. But you need to be able to move your body to promote health.
Still, endless cardio is probably going to hurt more than it will help. Exercise does cause a certain amount of stress in the body—but after that, it leads to a reduction in stress. This isn’t the case when you’re overtaxing your body with exercise.
Some of the best ways that you can support your body with exercise when your thyroid is low are:
- Yoga: Research finds that it helps reduce hypothyroid symptoms and lowers stress.
- Rebounding: I spend a few minutes a day jumping on a mini-trampoline to get my blood flowing and increase lymph drainage.
- Walking: You don’t have to power walk to get benefit from a morning stroll or a family walk after dinner.
- Strength training: Weight-bearing exercises are good for bone density (which can sometimes be associated problems for people with thyroid issues) but they’re also known for being great for those who have thyroid problems.
Lifestyle for Hypothyroidism
It sounds easier said than done to say “reduce stress,” but managing stress is actually important when it comes to fixing hypothyroidism.
It’s not as simple as wishing stress away, of course, but after diet and exercise, there are some other proven ways to lower your stress levels.
Having a healthy sleep routine is at the top of the list. Your body heals when you sleep. It produces hormones, repairs cells, and gives your gut a break, all while you’re asleep. If you perpetually run short on sleep, your stress hormones will be out of whack, which will affect your thyroid, and so on.
I make it a priority to be sleeping by 10 PM every night. This doesn’t always happen between the kids and other things, but I am definitely trying to make that my norm.
I also practice active relaxation and make it a point to do things that are relaxing and stress-reducing to me. What works for me might not work for you, so it’s important to identify the things that feel life-giving and energizing. They should feel like “get to’s” and not another thing on your to-do list.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing as it’s sometimes called, is another great way to promote stress relief. Even if you’re not a pro at meditation, learning to breathe like this can pull you into being more mindful of what’s going on in your body.
Finally, cortisol, which is the stress hormone, can affect how your thyroid works. One of the things I’ve done over time is to sit in the sun in the mornings with my family. This is absolutely free and helps to promote balanced cortisol levels. It’s also great for stress relief! I noticed measurable changes in my hormone levels, just from sitting in the sun consistently in the mornings.
Supplements for Hypothyroidism
I believe it is best to get nutrients from food whenever possible. In this case, my nutrient depletion required specific supplements to improve my levels. Diet changes and adding these supplements made a tremendous difference in reducing my symptoms (skin issues, fatigue, etc) and I notice when I don’t take them.
These are supplements that can support healthy thyroid function:
- Glutathione: A strong antioxidant that helps balance hormones and boosts the immune system. I definitely notice a difference when I don’t take it. I take one each morning under my tongue.
- Vitamin D: A vitamin that has hormone properties and is important for thyroid, immunity, and mood. It helps transport thyroid hormones into your cells where it can be used. Even though I spend a lot of time in the sun during the summer and take vitamin D during the winter, I was deficient. This is relatively common with thyroid problems and I’m using a vitamin D supplement to help bring my levels up.
- Vitamin C: An antioxidant, vitamin C helps support healthy adrenal and thyroid function. My cortisol was high at night, indicating adrenal stress, so I added a quality Vitamin C with each meal.
- Probiotics: Beneficial bacteria that support gut health, probiotics help with inflammation and other factors relating to hypothyroidism (like constipation and leaky gut). I was already eating probiotic-rich foods, but supplementing can promote healthy gut levels faster. I take these now daily.
- Magnesium: A mineral that is associated with healthy muscles, mood, and sleep, low levels are also tied to hypothyroidism. I use transdermal magnesium oil and also take magnesium supplements. MagSRT is the supplement I take and I use magnesium oil.
- Selenium: An antioxidant that is required for the production of thyroid hormones, selenium levels are often low in hypothyroid patients.
What Not to Do for Hypothyroidism
It’s important to understand that hypothyroidism is its own disorder, but that you can have other thyroid problems, too. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease that results in immune-driven damage to the thyroid gland. If you have this, just trying to address hypothyroidism won’t fix it.
Getting the right diagnosis about what’s going on with your thyroid is essential to find relief. Avoiding things that can worsen your hypothyroidism is also important. These are things you should not do if you know or suspect that your thyroid is low-functioning.
Nothing replaces personalized medical advice either, so be sure you’re working with a healthcare provider who really understands thyroid function.
Do Not Take Iodine Supplements
One change I made immediately once I found out about my thyroid problems was to stop taking iodine. In some cases, iodine can help people with hypothyroidism, but for the most part, people in the U.S. have sufficient levels of iodine to prevent thyroid disorders.
Taking iodine when you are hypothyroid can cause problems because getting more than you need is not better, and if your hypothyroidism is caused by Hashimoto’s, then you’re pouring fuel on the fire of your autoimmune attack. In fact, a 2012 review found that restricting iodine could, in some cases, reverse hypothyroid symptoms.
Do Not Self-Medicate With Natural Remedies
I’m a big believer in natural remedies, but thyroid problems require the expertise of a medical professional. Don’t just take supplements and hope for the best.
There are a lot of thyroid supplements on the market that may or may not help—and could make things worse. Always follow the medical advice from your healthcare provider (I share my doctor’s info below), since they are looking at all the factors affecting your health.
Keep Track of What’s Working
One of the biggest ways that I’ve found what works for me is paying attention to what I’m doing and how it impacts my health. I use a range of apps and my Oura ring to keep notes on what’s happening with my health, exercise changes, what I’m eating, and so on.
You don’t need to obsess over health to keep track of it. The best way to see what helps, what doesn’t, and even what might be hurting, is to have it written out in front of you.
Bottom Line: Take Care of Your Thyroid!
All of these changes together made a big difference for me even before I started taking thyroid medication. A reminder, though: I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on the internet. I am sharing my personal experience for information purposes only. This post should not be taken as medical advice.
It was such a long road to get a diagnosis and I saw several doctors before finally getting answers. I know it can be difficult to find a local thyroid expert. This is one of the many reasons why I’ve partnered with this service that matches you with an online primary care doctor based on your medical needs and lifestyle. I’ve been a patient for over a year now and it has been extremely helpful in managing my thyroid condition.
Wherever you are in the process, know that you are not alone and there are some cost-effective and simple changes you can make that will help!
Have you tried any of these things to help boost thyroid functioning? What other changes have you made that have helped? Share below!