If you’ve been trying hard to lose weight and still see the pounds piling on, you’re probably pretty frustrated. Maybe you’re eating a healthy, whole foods diet and exercising regularly, but still cannot shed those extra pounds. Before you throw in the towel or try drastic measures, take heed: it may be your thyroid.
Where is your thyroid?
Your thyroid is a gland you may not consider very much. Most of us have heard of it, but may be unsure about what it actually does. Your thyroid is a gland that is located in the front part of your neck, underneath your trachea. It’s shaped kind of like a butterfly, with the “wings” extending towards both sides of your neck.
So, what does the thyroid do, exactly?
Your thyroid produces a variety of hormones, generally called “thyroid hormones,” as a blanket term. These hormones have many functions. These processes including growth, development, body temperature and metabolism. Because thyroid hormones act upon metabolism, fluctuations in these hormone levels are connected to changes in weight.
When the thyroid is working properly, your metabolism is able to act as intended — assuming other bodily systems and hormones that affect metabolism are healthy. However, if your thyroid does not produce enough hormones, or produces too many, multiple systems can go awry.
Your thyroid: a bit of history
Back in days of yore, people knew very little about the thyroid. One of the first references to the thyroid in Western medical literature comes from 1656. During this time, physicians thought that the thyroid existed primarily to provide lubrication to the trachea.
It was not until 1811 that the first thyroid disease, thyroid cancer, was described. In 1825, researchers published work describing the connection between an enlarged thyroid and the features of hyperthyroidism. Later in the 1800s, researchers published descriptions of Grave’s disease and cretinism (stunted growth due to hypothyroidism).
In 1895, Dr. Adolf Magnus-Levy was responsible for establishing the connection between thyroid health and metabolism. He also pinpointed the links between hypothyroidism and low metabolism. Hashimoto’s disease, the most common disorder behind hypothyroidism, was not described until 1912. It was not until the late 1980s that experts cloned thyroid hormone genes. They associated mutations in these genes with specific varieties of hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
Knowing this history, it’s pertinent to talk a bit about the difference between producing not enough thyroid hormone and producing too much.
What’s the difference between hypo and hyperthyroidism?
When thyroid hormones become imbalanced, the two most common situations that can occur are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism, which is a more common condition than hyperthyroidism, is characterized by the thyroid failing to produce enough hormones. Experts estimate that just under five percent of the United States population is afflicted with hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism and hormones
Hypothyroidism is the thyroid condition most often associated with weight gain. Because the thyroid isn’t making enough hormones to properly control metabolism, the metabolism may slow down. This may lead to you packing on, or retaining, unwanted pounds even if you eat right and live a healthy, active lifestyle. If you have hypothyroidism, you may also feel fatigued, tired and unusually cold.
One type of hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, is an autoimmune condition that may lead your body to chronically attack your immune system. This condition occurs more frequently in women than in men.
Hyperthyroidism and weight loss
On the other hand, hyperthyroidism is basically the opposite of hyperthyroidism. This condition is characterized by the thyroid producing too much of certain hormones. It may occur when the thyroid is inflamed, or an autoimmune disorder known as Grave’s disease is present.
If your body is producing too much thyroid hormone, you may find yourself losing weight unexpectedly, although your diet and lifestyle habits have not changed. You may also find yourself anxious, feeling hot or experiencing rapid heartbeat.
In certain instances, an imbalanced thyroid may oscillate between an underactive and an overactive state. If this is the case, get your thyroid back to that happy medium of balance.
If you suspect that your thyroid health is compromised, it is important to see a health professional you trust. Talk to them about getting blood tests to determine if there is a problem. Here are some signs to watch out for:
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Forgetting things
- Ringing in the ears
- Difficulty concentrating
- Heart rate changes
- Frequent bruising
- Brittle nails
- Tingling in your hands and feet
- Neck swelling
- Frequent viral infections
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Feeling too cold (or too hot)
- Abnormal menstruation
Both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be very dangerous if left untreated. Hypothyroidism may raise your risk of having a heart attack, or even lead to loss of consciousness (if your thyroid hormone levels are low enough). If you don’t attend to your hyperthyroidism, it may lead to bone loss and cardiovascular problems.
Some noteworthy research on thyroid health
Researchers have often documented the links between hypothyroidism and risks to cardiovascular health. The authors of a 2000 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine wrote, “Subclinical hypothyroidism is a strong indicator of risk for atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction [heart attack] in elderly women.”
Moreover, the authors of a 2004 study published in the journal Thyroid wrote, “The composition and the transport of lipoproteins are seriously disturbed in thyroid diseases. Overt hypothyroidism is characterized by hypercholesterolaemia [high cholesterol] and a marked increase in low-density lipoproteins (LDL) [the harmful type of cholesterol].”
The authors of this research added:
“Moreover, hypothyroidism increases the oxidation of plasma cholesterol mainly because of an altered pattern of binding and to the increased levels of cholesterol, which presents a substrate for the oxidative stress. Cardiac oxygen consumption is reduced in hypothyroidism. This reduction is associated with increased peripheral resistance and reduced contractility. Hypothyroidism is often accompanied by diastolic hypertension that, in conjunction with the dyslipidemia, may promote atherosclerosis.”
Researchers in a 2008 study published by JAMA Internal Medicine found that levels of thyroid hormones and weight were connected. The study authors wrote:
“The identification of change in thyroid function as a risk factor for weight gain might help guide research into the identification, prevention, and treatment of individuals at risk for the development of excess adiposity… thyroid function (as assessed by serum TSH [serum thyrotropin, a thyroid hormone] concentrations) within the reference range is associated with body weight in both sexes. Our findings raise the possibility that modest increases in serum TSH concentrations within the reference (physiologic) range may be associated with weight gain.”
How to take proper care of your thyroid
As I previously stated, if you think your thyroid is off balance, a visit to a health professional you trust is imperative. Blood tests performed by an endocrinologist or another type of health specialist can determine whether your thyroid hormones are significantly low or significantly high. However, it is possible for your thyroid health to exist a state of “low-grade hypothyroidism.” If your thyroid hormone levels are only slightly low, it may not register as abnormal on a blood test. However, you may still experience some symptoms of hypothyroidism.
If this is the case, you will want to make some dietary and lifestyle changes for the sake of your thyroid and your overall health in general. Making these changes can also help lower inflammation throughout your body, thus reducing the risk of inflammatory conditions from developing.
Change up your cooking
What’s the first thing you need to do? Ditch processed foods. Eat a diet of whole, natural foods from the earth. Cook at home as often as you can. Here are some more tips:
- Replace all of the cooking oils in your home with organic virgin coconut oil. This oil has a unique fatty acid profile. This helps to keep inflammation in check while supporting a healthy metabolism.
- Add natural foods rich in iodine to your diet. Iodine is an essential mineral for thyroid health, as it is a primary building block for producing thyroid hormones. Foods such as seaweed, yogurt, strawberries, potatoes and cranberries, as well as raw cheese, are good sources of iodine.
- Eat foods high in selenium. This mineral helps to protect the thyroid, along with regulating metabolism and hormone synthesis. Selenium-rich foods include wild caught tuna, grass-fed beef, pork, lamb, Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds.
- Get more copper. Copper is a mineral essential for producing thyroxine, one thyroid hormone. Foods high in copper include wild-caught fish and seafood, liver from grass-fed beef, organic raw dark chocolate and sesame seeds.
- Don’t skimp on the iron. If you are deficient in iron, your thyroid may not be able to amply produce hormones. Foods high in iron include wild-caught fish and seafood, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collards and Swiss chard, organic, free range poultry, and beans.
- Eat more eggs. Organic eggs from free-range chickens are a delicious, inexpensive superfood. These natural treasures are high in B vitamins, vitamin D and choline. They are also a great source of healthy fats which help to promote optimal thyroid health.
- Stay away from gluten. If your thyroid health is awry, it is likely that your body is experiencing high levels of inflammation. In some individuals, gluten can lead to inflammatory reactions throughout the body. Better stay away from the wheat, barley and rye to avoid making matters worse.
Change up your lifestyle
What you cook in the kitchen is only half of it. Make sure to change your lifestyle in these ways:
- Get off the couch. Be sure to get some physical activity into your day. Aim for half an hour a day of moderate activity.
- Use BPA-free plastics. Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, is a compound found in certain plastics. This compound can disrupt your body’s endocrine system. If you are having problems with your thyroid, it is even more important to make sure your plastics don’t contain this substance.
Taking good care of your thyroid is important for more than just weight loss. This little gland is instrumental in many bodily functions. Be sure to treat it right!