Hypothyroidism, a very common health condition caused by an under-performing thyroid gland, affects approximately five out of every 100 Americans. This condition affects women more frequently than men, and often arises very insidiously with an onset of symptoms that can elude diagnosis until a physician orders the appropriate labs to detect the cause.
Like so many health conditions, the symptom picture of hypothyroidism can also be caused by numerous other conditions, but the classic hypothyroidism picture usually looks something like this: Fatigue, depression, weight gain, dry skin, thinning hair, hoarse voice, heavy menses or constipation. Of course, not everyone has all these symptoms, but this is a pretty typical scenario.
The thyroid gland produces hormones that are very important to almost every organ and cell in the body, essentially setting the body's metabolic rate. Too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) and the metabolic rate is set too high, and too little thyroid hormone and cellular metabolism slows, resulting in the previously described symptoms. Interestingly, metabolic issues like high cholesterol can also be the consequence of poor thyroid activity, for the same reason — decreased metabolic activity of those organs dealing with cholesterol levels.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is a condition called Hashimoto's, which is an auto-immune cause of low thyroid hormone levels. In this condition, the immune system creates autoantibodies that over time attack the thyroid gland itself, gradually rendering it unable to produce sufficient levels of thyroid hormone.
Both thyroid autoantibodies and levels of thyroid hormone in the blood can be found on lab work, and this is typically how this condition is discovered and diagnosed. The drug levothyroxine is then most commonly prescribed as treatment. In some cases, this works very well to address the symptoms of hypothyroidism. In many other instances, though, individuals continue to feel lousy even after a few months of treatment with this medication.
There are a number of reasons for this. First is simply that laboratory reference ranges are very broad, and many individuals require more fine-tuning to arrive at an optimal dose. Second, levothyroxine alone might not be the right drug, and approaches using USP thyroid prescriptions, or combination medications can yield better results. In other cases, individuals benefit from supplementation of some of the essential minerals and co-factors that are necessary for the thyroid gland's own hormone production.
Some individuals have a significant toxic load from environmental exposures, chronic infections or poor digestion and elimination that can contribute to poor thyroid function, and these folks will benefit greatly from a treatment program that addresses these issues.
Holistic-minded health care providers will often also look at an individual's stress levels and the health of their adrenal system. Overtaxed or fatigued adrenal function in the body may also be a contributor to sub-optimal functioning of the thyroid gland and its hormones.
Finally, the underlying auto-immune process previously described — the most common cause of hypothyroidism, is famously ignored in most treatment approaches. In some cases, the auto-immune activity involving the thyroid gland can be a clue that other areas of the body are impacted as well. This can only be discovered through more thorough lab testing. Autoimmunity can be caused by many factors, including nutritional deficiencies, inflammatory foods or external pathogens that are triggering the immune system. Thorough treatment of an auto-immune mediated hypothyroidism means not just correcting hormone levels, but also addressing a multitude of factors to create a more balanced, tolerant and healthy immune system.
A holistic approach to hypothyroidism can quickly become quite complex, requiring a holistic approach both for testing and diagnosing, as well as treatment. While many feel better with a simple prescription, others require a deeper dive that involves diet and lifestyle and supplements, as well as addressing other aspects of the body's physiology, including mental and emotional components of health.
—Joshua Phillips, ND is a naturopathic physician and director at Hawthorn Healing Arts Center in Bend.