Thyroid is the most important gland in the body. It controls the metabolism as well as many other functions. It is also the most complex and interdependent system in our body. We commonly hear about thyroid problems in women which lead to unexplained weight gain. So this will be a detailed article to understand the role of thyroid and how to reverse a typical thyroid problem. Most important we shall understand the limitations of modern medicine and how food can be used as a cure.
Note – Before you proceed reading the article and understanding the action plan, consulting a doctor is important for a lasting and safe cure. However this article is primarily meant to understand thyroid better.
Understanding the basics – what is a hormone?
Glands are small organs which produce hormones. They are messengers and travel through the blood stream. They move between the glands and cells like communication particles. They signal changes in cells and control each and every function in our body like movement, digestion, respiration, moods, reproduction and metabolism. Hormones are secreted in tiny quantities. If due to any reason if this quantity increases or decreases it is called hormonal imbalance and it leads to serious issues in our body.
Hormone is like a key which fits only the target cells. The role of the key is to unlock the cell to allow a particular molecule to enter which helps deliver the message.
Does thyroid affect only women?
We commonly believe thyroid is a women problem. However it affects both men and women equally. Women feel effects like fatigue or depression or even sensitivity to cold more often than men. Also stress is the main cause of hormonal imbalance too. It is the women who visit the doctor more often resulting in thyroid showing up in the blood tests. The most common and visible effect on women is a puffed face, unexplained weight gain or accumulation of fat in the neck area. Other effects are irregular or heavy period, hair loss or thin hair, muscle weakness, elevated cholesterol, memory issues and the list goes on.
How & why does the body make thyroid hormone?
Take a look at the above diagram. Hypothalamus is the master regulator gland in the brain, the size of a walnut. It regulates important functions like hunger, thirst and PH levels of the body. It releases Thyrotropin Releasing Hormone (TRH) which is the signalling key to the pituitary gland to produce Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) which further signals the thyroid gland to produce T4.
There is also a feedback loop which tells the hypothalamus gland if there is less T4. That simulates the pituitary gland which further simulates the thyroid to produce more T4.
T4 is still an inactive hormone. It has to converted to T3 by the liver and then it is send in the bloodstream by the liver. T3 is an important hormone which activates the mitochondria of cells. Mitochondria are the power house inside our cells. This is how T3 plays an important role in metabolism at the cellular level. Metabolism is the process where food is converted to energy and then fed to cells and tissues for their growth, development and function.
The process in itself is very complex.
Problems with thyroid gland – it goes off to sleep!
There are three major reasons why the thyroid gland will not function optimally, Stress, Fatty liver (or insulin resistance) OR a confused immune system. But first let us see how to read the results.
The TSH readings range from 0.5 to 5.0 which is too large and wide. If the reading is anywhere in this scale, the doctor will probably say that you thyroid levels are normal. The true range has to be between 2 to 3. Perfectly normal thyroid is 2.5 because that means the hormonal balance is perfect and things are running smoothly.
After the thyroid produces T4 it is converted to T3. Since this is a continuous and ongoing process, these values also have to be in the centre to be normal. If the values of T4 are in the middle and T3 is low, that means the liver is not converting enough.
T3 & T4 and the connection with Iodine
T3 stands for Triiodothyronine and T4 stands for Thyroxine. The number three and four indicates the number of iodine molecules attached. Iodine is the most important component for thyroid process. We shall assume that unlike the old days where people had iodine deficiency they had all sorts of problems related to thyroid. But today iodised salt has proven to have removed this problem altogether. T4 to T3 conversion takes place mostly in the liver and some in the kidney. A functional liver ensures this process is smooth.
Thyroid balance and what goes wrong
Thyroid function happens in three phases. Secretion of sufficient T4 by the thyroid gland. Conversion of T4 to T3 by the liver and kidneys. Finally absorption of T3 hormone by the cells in the body. After the cells are energised they send a message back. There is a feedback loop which informs the pituitary gland that the cycle is complete.
If for any reason this feedback loop gets disturbed, you will run into a thyroid problem. There can be no single reason for this disturbance. Sometimes it may be a combination of many factors. Let us understand them first.
Number One cause of thyroid imbalance – lack of conversion of T4 to T3 in the liver
Number Two cause – Stress
A stressful event like divorce or pregnancy can lead to thyroid imbalance. In case of women the presence of the hormone estrogen helps them live longer than men. But 3-4 months into post partum when estrogen levels drop, it leads to thyroid imbalance. Too much estrogen also causes problems.
Presence of Fluorine and Chlorine in drinking water and Bromine in processed food are also causes of thyroid imbalance. If the feedback loop is not complete, the immune system of the body starts attacking the thyroid gland itself. Lastly deficiency of certain key nutrients like iodine, zinc and selenium will also cause this imbalance.
Rectification of thyroid problem
We need to initiate a four pronged food attack on the thyroid problem.
Phase I – Stabilise the TSH levels
Vitamin A and Vitamin B6 and B12 help improve TSH levels. Try to consume foods which are rich in the active form of Vitamin A like Red meat, eggs, mushrooms and cheese. B6 is available in poultry, pork, fish and spinach while B12 is there in red meat, liver, paneer and fatty fish.
Phase II – Improving production of T4
Iodine rich foods like fatty fish, eggs, cheese, yogurt, lima beans, mushrooms, coconut oil, cranberries and sea weed.
Tyrosine rich food like fatty fish, eggs, cheese, chicken, paneer, nuts, pumpkin seeds and avocado.
Phase III – T4 to T3 conversion
Selenium rich foods like fatty fish, garlic, eggs, almond, Brazil nuts, cheese, lamb liver, mushroom and oats.
Iron rich foods like spinach, tomato, peas, asparagus, broccoli and bell peppers.
Zinc rich foods like fatty fish, lamb liver, chicken, garlic, eggs, nuts, cheese, mushrooms and dark chocolate.
You also need Vitamin C and D with these nutrients from foods like amla, lemon, garlic, cabbage and plenty of sunlight.
Phase IV – Entry of T3 into your cells
Omega 3 fatty acids help entry of T3 into your cells. So these fats are essential for completing the hormone cycle. Leafy greens, walnuts, broccoli and fats. If fish oil does not suit you it can be replaced with flax seed oil.
Super food like eggs, cheese, mushrooms, paneer, chicken, liver, red meat, fatty fish, lemon, garlic, nuts, spinach, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds should form part of your everyday diet.
Avoid gluten and sugars of all kind till the thyroid problem is sorted.
If that means you need to rule out all desserts and bakery items, so be it. 90% dark chocolate is bitter to taste but will turn out to be the best post dinner snack.
Smoking and drinking is ruled out. Do not even try to listen to any educated person telling you that wine is good for health and red wine is good for blood and so on. Most alcohol spirits in the market are commercially produced and not distilled properly.
Sort out your mess to relieve stress
Stress is the key factor which disturbs many of your body functions. Stress and inflammation are the key reasons for thyroid imbalance. Start with yoga and meditation to take care of stress. Surya Namaskar involves lots of stretching of neck area and back. Strongly recommended. Begin with mild exercise like walking or cycling and gradually move to jogging or swimming. At least half an hour a day. Evening walk for women is much beneficial as it decreases stress levels. Finally if you can start with strength training in a gym.
Doctors advise and supplements
Ashwagandha is a powerful herb which can calm your nerves if you are under stress. It helps you to sleep well and does many other things too. Other such herb is Arjuna powder which can be used as a cardiac tonic. You may also consider supplements for estrogen but under strict doctor supervision only.
This article is meant as a guide only to understand the mystery of thyroid imbalance. The article promotes healthy living by eating the right food.