doctor checking patient's tonsils at hospital

thyroid awareness month

Learn about the many functions of the thyroid as we honor thyroid awareness month.

The thyroid is a crucial gland in the body that controls many vital functions like growth, development and metabolism. The incidence of thyroid disease is rising. Thus, this article looks at how they thyroid works and how it can be disrupted.

Thyroid Awareness

Why is an entire month dedicated to the thyroid? Thyroid disorders are far more widespread than many people realize. This is partly because many people have undiagnosed thyroid disease. Here are some sobering facts from the American Thyroid Association (ATA):

  • More than 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime.
  • An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease.
  • Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.
  • Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.
  • One woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.

What does the thyroid do?

The thyroid is one of the master glands in the body. It sits in front of your windpipe (trachea) on your lower neck and is shaped like a butterfly. The thyroid has two lobes – one on either side of your neck – with a small connection in the middle. The thyroid controls metabolism, which affects a lot of different organ systems such as digestion, skin turnover, mental focus/clarity, sleep, brain/neurological development, hair/nail growth, bone mineral density, reproduction/menstrual cycles/sex drive, heart function, weight, and energy and muscle maintenance.  If it sounds like the thyroid is connected to pretty much everything the body does, that is true! Poor thyroid function is particularly harmful to developing babies and children. The thyroid regulates growth and proper neurological development in children – born and unborn – and any lack of adequate thyroid function can lead to congenital disabilities or developmental delays.

Symptoms of thyroid disease

Anyone can be affected by thyroid disease – men, women, children, teens, and the elderly.  Recent research shows that patients with one autoimmune condition are at an increased risk for developing another. Studies have also demonstrated that autoimmunity can develop for 10-20 years before being officially diagnosed. This means that it is even more important to get the proper testing to determine if your thyroid is functioning optimally, especially if you have another autoimmune disorder like Lupus, Sjogren’s, Type 1 Diabetes, Celiac, etc.  Some specific disorders that can affect the thyroid:

Iodine-deficiency can cause symptoms of a low thyroid and usually results in a goiter. Goiters can become quite large and cause pressure on the throat or even the lungs. If a goiter develops below the rib cage, it will not likely be visible from outside the body. Many goiters develop above the rib cage and are visible to the naked eye.

Thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid that results in swelling and compromised thyroid function. This can occur spontaneously and is not always due to an autoimmune process. Grave’s Disease is a hyperthyroid state. Auto-antibodies stimulate the thyroid to release too much thyroid hormone, which results in the symptoms listed above. Grave’s Disease can quickly become a medical emergency and typically requires medical interventions such as medication to block the thyroid, surgery, or radioactive destruction of part or the whole thyroid.  Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune hypothyroid disorder. This is one of the most common thyroid disorders and is typically less life-threatening than Graves. Auto-antibodies destroy healthy thyroid tissue, and the thyroid is gradually unable to make enough hormones to regulate metabolism and other bodily processes. You are at a greater risk for Hashimoto’s if you have a first-degree relative with the condition.

Postpartum thyroiditis affects approximately 5-9% of women after giving birth. It is usually temporary, and scientists do not fully understand why it occurs. Some theories center around the fact that a woman’s immune system undergoes tremendous shifts during and after pregnancy. This usually resolves and does not require lifelong treatment. 

The thyroid can develop nodules that are benign but any lump or bump needs to be evaluated to rule out cancer. There are several types of thyroid cancer. 

“Idiopathic non-functioning thyroid” means that sometimes, the thyroid just does not function, and science cannot determine why. This is usually present at birth and is very rare. Hospitals check newborns for thyroid function to catch this potentially serious congenital anomaly.

Common hypothyroid symptoms

  • Inability to lose weight
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • Intolerance to cold
  • Fatigue
  • Fertility issues, miscarriage
  • Dry skin
  • Cracking, weak or brittle nails
  • Poor digestion, constipation
  • Depression 
  • Menstrual changes – longer/more frequent cycles
  • Brain fog, forgetfulness
  • Slow heart rate

Common hyperthyroid symptoms

  • Weight loss – usually unintentional
  • Rapid pulse/heart palpitations (feeling your heart racing or skipping a beat)
  • Insomnia (poor sleep)
  • Intolerance to heat
  • Fertility issues
  • Diarrhea 
  • Anxiety, irritability
  • Eyes protruding or bulging from their sockets
  • Infrequent or no menstrual periods
  • Eye irritations
  • Heat intolerance
  • Muscle tremors

Types of thyroid disease

Anyone can be affected by thyroid disease – men, women, children, teens, and the elderly.  Recent research shows that patients with one autoimmune condition are at an increased risk for developing another. Studies have also demonstrated that autoimmunity can develop for 10-20 years before being officially diagnosed. This means that it is even more important to get the proper testing to determine if your thyroid is functioning optimally, especially if you have another autoimmune disorder like Lupus, Sjogren’s, Type 1 Diabetes, Celiac, etc. first degree relative with the condition.

Postpartum thyroiditis affects approximately 5-9% of women after giving birth. It is usually temporary, and scientists do not fully understand why it occurs. Some theories center around the fact that a woman’s immune system undergoes tremendous shifts during and after pregnancy. This usually resolves and does not require lifelong treatment. 

The thyroid can develop nodules that are benign but any lump or bump needs to be evaluated to rule out cancer. There are several types of thyroid cancer. 

“Idiopathic non-functioning thyroid” means that sometimes, the thyroid just does not function, and science cannot determine why. This is usually present at birth and is very rare. Hospitals check newborns for thyroid function to catch this potentially serious congenital anomaly.

What can I do?

The best thing to do is talk to your primary care provider first. They will run the lab work necessary to diagnose a thyroid disorder. Let them know everything you are experiencing even if you are not sure it is even related. The more information they have, the better they can help! 

Many of my patients are frustrated because the lab work comes back normal yet they still feel “off.” I have seen this so many times, so do not despair! Most providers will only run one or two tests to assess the function of the thyroid. Sometimes this misses cases of “subclinical hypothyroid”, which means the lab work is not yet affected but there is a disease process occurring. I typically recommend nine lab tests to get the big picture: TSH, Free T3, Free T4, Total T3, Total T4, TPO antibodies, Anti-Thyroglobulin panel, Iodine and Reverse T3. Remember that new research suggests an autoimmune process may be happening for 10-20 years before it becomes apparent in the labs! This means there is destruction happening, but the body is still managing to function pretty well. During this time, many patients will experience symptoms but will not receive a diagnosis.

Many patients find answers because they keep searching for a provider who will partner on their health journey. This is why so many women are drawn to holistic medicine. Women are generally more in touch with their bodies and sense when something is not right. I think of symptoms as the body’s way of communicating that something needs attention. Women are often not content with taking a pill to “kill the messenger.” When you do not feel like yourself, keep asking until you find someone who gives you a good answer. 

If you have a diagnosed thyroid disorder, co-management with a licensed holistic practitioner like a holistic MD, naturopathic doctor, functional medicine doctor, or chiropractor specializing in internal medicine may benefit you. Conventional medicine has a limited toolbox for the thyroid – take drugs and/or get surgery. These two interventions are sometimes exactly what is needed, but if you are on meds and do not regain a state of good health, adding a holistic provider to your healthcare team may be the next step. I have worked with many women who are medicated but still do not enjoy good health. There are a few things you can ask about if this is the case. Ask your PCP to check your iodine levels as this nutrient is crucial for thyroid function. Always check with your pharmacist to see if they have substituted your usual thyroid medication for a generic brand. Some women will notice a negative change if this happens, and they may not be alerted to the change by their pharmacists. Finally, if you are on a synthetic thyroid hormone (Synthroid and Levothyroxine are two common names), you can always ask your doctor about a natural thyroid dose (Naturthryoid or Armour thyroid). Some women get better results when taking whole thyroid medication (with both T3 and T4) instead of Synthroid (with only T4).

For more information on specific alternative treatments, check back for my article on natural treatments for thyroid conditions later this month.

The take-away

The thyroid is hugely important to health. You can experience many ways, and thyroid dysfunction can affect every part of your health and well-being. If you have a family history of thyroid disease or are experiencing symptoms of hyper- or hypothyroidism, do not wait to talk to your doctor. Blood tests are usually sufficient to give us a thyroid function picture as long as your doctor is willing to run a full thyroid panel. Trust your body if you feel something is not right, and keep asking questions until you have a satisfactory answer. Remember that there are many effective treatments – both natural and conventional – that can help get you back to a state of great health.

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Dr. Jessica Keating
Owner & Physician , Willow Clinic of Natural Medicine
Jessica Lodal Keating graduated with her doctorate in chiropractic medicine from National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) in Lombard, IL in December of 2016. She graduated summa cum laude and salutatorian of her class. She completed a primary care internship at the in-house clinic in the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in downtown Chicago. There she was able to provide natural approaches to health and wellness to an under-served population. She also led efforts to solicit supplement donations from local doctors in order to provide these supplements to patients free of charge. During her time at NUHS, Dr. Keating also studied traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and became certified to perform acupuncture, moxabustion and fire cupping. She uses the wisdom of eastern medicine to complement her holistic approach to assessing each individual patient and treating the whole person. She participated in various other seminars and trainings over the course of her studies including MPI’s full-spine adjusting seminar and Apex’s Fundamentals of Functional Blood Chemistry. Dr. Keating also completed her Doctorate of Naturopathic medicine in 2018, graduating valedictorian and summa cum laude. Dr. Keating has worked in several natural primary care offices in the greater Chicagoland area. She is also a full-time naturopathic clinician at National University of Health Sciences. There she is able to help shape the next generation of naturopathic doctors. She has a home-call practice where she treats patients in the comfort of their own homes all around Chicagoland. Dr. Keating loves balancing private practice with teaching and clinical supervision. Dr. Jessica Keating received her bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon before deciding to attend NUHS. After her undergrad degree, she grew frustrated with the field of political science and sought a new career path. Her own health had been dramatically improved through diet, yoga and herbal medicine. Because of these experiences, she decided to deepen her understanding of natural medicine by pursuing a higher degree. Dr. Keating remains committed to her own health journey on a personal and professional level. She aims to help others thrive and maintain optimal health by guiding them down the same path and educating her patients by empowering them to take their health into their own hands. Dr. Keating practices holistic, natural primary care. She treats GI conditions, autoimmune disorders, women’s health, sleep issues, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, back pain as well as working with patients on weight loss and general wellness promotion. She treats pediatric, adult and geriatric patients using diet, lifestyle modification, herbal medicine, physical medicine and acupuncture. In her free time, Dr. Keating loves reading, biking, cooking and playing with her cats. Dr. Keating also enjoys yoga, tennis, rollerblading, going to the movies and travelling with her husband. She has been to 28 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America.
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