Home >  Blog >  What Helps And What Hurts? Understanding Thyroid Function Basics And Tips To Support Optimal Thyroid Health

What Helps And What Hurts? Understanding Thyroid Function Basics And Tips To Support Optimal Thyroid Health

Posted by Agnes Lussier-Dow NP-PHC on 16 June 2022
What Helps And What Hurts? Understanding Thyroid Function Basics And Tips To Support Optimal Thyroid Health

A Little Gland With A Big Role To Play In Your Optimal Health. 

You may have heard the word “thyroid” before, but do you know what it is? If not, now is a great time to learn more because this little butterfly-shaped gland has a big role to play in your body. 

The thyroid gland secretes a metabolic hormone that affects a wide range of systems in your body. It is critically important for your overall physical and emotional health and affects everything from your metabolism, to your immune function and even your mental health.  When your thyroid is overactive or underactive you can experience a whole host of symptoms and conditions red-flagging the imbalance.  

Some of the most common symptoms of a thyroid condition are: 

  • Slowed (hypo) or high (hyper) metabolism

  • Weight gain (hypo) or weight loss (hyper)

  • Frequent (hypo) or scant (hyper) periods

  • PCOS (hypo)

  • Intolerance to cold (hypo) or heat sensitivity (hyper)

  • Fatigue (hypo) or irritability/nervousness (hyper)

There are many reasons why you may not have optimal thyroid function. Genetics, stressors, exposure to toxins, compromised gut health and other factors directly impact this important little gland. Fortunately, these same things can be used to heal and restore optimal thyroid function. 

Blood sample labelled with thyroid panel to assess thyroid function

Identifying Signs Of A Thyroid Dysfunction 

If you are experiencing one or more of the above symptoms or conditions, a thyroid problem could be at the root of it. Your first step should be to consult your healthcare provider and request some blood work. Keep in mind that unless your doctor or health care provider is knowledgeable about hormones (aka. the endocrine system), you may have to advocate for some specific things to be included in the tests. 

While most doctors will have no problem ordering blood work to test for TSH (thyroid-stimulating-hormone) that alone isn’t going to give you the full picture. If possible, ask them to order a complete thyroid panel that includes: 

  • TSH

  • Free T4

  • Total T3

  • Free T3

  • Reverse T3

  • and both thyroid auto-antibodies TPO and Tg.

A Closer Look At How The Thyroid Works 

The thyroid uses iodine and protein to create the thyroid hormones T4 and T3. T3 is the active form of the thyroid hormone—in other words, T3 is what your body uses. Since your thyroid only supplies your body with approximately 20% of its T3, the rest has to be created “in house” so to speak. To do this, T4 is converted to its active form, T3 with the help of two enzymes called deiodinases. This conversion primarily takes place in the liver and the kidneys and intestines.  Having enough T3 available is critical because every cell in your body relies on thyroid hormones for the regulation of its metabolism.

However, when the conversion process is negatively impacted the T4 can be converted into something called “reverse T3” (rT3) which is the metabolically inactive form of T3. This is a potential problem because rT3 can bind to a cell in the same way T3 does—but when it does, nothing happens. So, when you have rT3 and T3 molecules competing for receptors at the cellular level it can cause symptoms of hypothyroidism to manifest.

Understanding the relationship between TSH, T4, rT3 and T3 is important. Without it, it is difficult to properly detect and address a thyroid issue effectively. It is also why testing for TSH alone is not enough to identify a thyroid related issue. Your body may be producing enough T4 but if it is not being converted into its active form, it is not doing you much good.

Encouraging Optimal Thyroid Function

What can interfere with the conversion of T4 into T3? This is an important question because, as we saw above, without adequate available T3 your body’s cells cannot properly regulate their metabolism (the way they use oxygen and energy). 

If we determine that the conversion process of T4 to T3 isn’t optimal, we can help encourage better thyroid function by removing some of the things that are hurting it and boosting the things that will help. 

Facts about what helps and what hurts optimal thyroid health

Things That Are Hurting Your Thyroid Function

The health and function of your thyroid is affected by many factors. Several of these are things you can actively address with intentional lifestyle changes. When the factors negatively affecting the optimal function of your thyroid are addressed, you are closer to restoring optimal thyroid function. Some factors to consider include: 

Stress and the thyroid 

When you are stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Sometimes called “the stress hormone”, too much cortisol can interfere with thyroid hormone production. Essentially, it stresses your thyroid out causing it to work harder to create enough thyroid hormone to meet your body’s needs. So, if a thyroid condition is suspected and you have been experiencing higher than usual stress for a prolonged period, it is time to do something about it. Meditation, yoga, mindfulness practices and breathing exercises are all simple and accessible ways you can work to lower your stress and improve your thyroid function. 

Trauma And The Thyroid 

Trauma, specifically posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has been linked to thyroid problems. In 2020, a “systematic review of 10 observational studies” detected a connection between PTSD and high levels of “free T3.” (Free T3 refers to T3 that is not bound and still available for use in the body.) Interestingly, the people living with PTSD did not have any more or less T4 or TSH. Most often the thyroid problems stemming from the effects of PTSD are symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) such as unintentional weight loss, a rapid or inconsistent heartbeat, anxiety and mood swings. If you are exploring the possibility of a thyroid condition with your healthcare provider and have a history of PTSD, make sure to mention it. The information could be valuable in getting to the root of things. 

Toxins And The Thyroid

According to a 2021 investigation on endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) the thyroid gland’s function and the transportation of thyroid hormones through the body can be compromised by exposure to EDCs. Unfortunately, exposure to these harmful chemicals is all too common in our day-to-day lives. They are found in foods, food packaging, water, personal care products, and more. By limiting your exposure to EDCs like BPA, phthalates, and flame retardants you can help to promote optimal thyroid function. Choose toxin-free personal care products and shop for locally grown organic or pesticide-free food when you can. Even small changes help to limit your exposure to EDCs and improve the health of your thyroid. 

Woman's hands holding a cut out of a stomach and digestive system indicating taking care of your hut health

Things That Help Your Thyroid Function

In addition to reducing stress, seeking mental health support and limiting your exposure to toxins, making changes to your diet is another powerful tool for nurturing your thyroid. Adding certain vitamins and minerals to your diet and tending to your overall gut health doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s look at a few ideas to get you started. 

Gut Health And Your Thyroid 

Gut inflammation is experienced as stress by your body. Stress (emotional or systemic) causes the release of cortisol into your system. As we saw above, cortisol can interfere with thyroid hormone production. So maintaining a balanced microbiome in your gut can have a positive impact on your thyroid. Likewise, a healthy thyroid helps to maintain a healthy gut. It’s a reciprocal relationship. A few simple things you can do to improve your gut health include taking probiotics, eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, and limiting processed and artificial sweeteners. 

Zinc, Selenium And Your Thyroid 

Zinc is needed for thyroid hormone production and the conversion of T4 into T3. When you don’t have enough zinc in your diet it can lead to hypothyroidism (low thyroid levels). But, when you boost your zinc levels through diet or supplements you can reverse the negative effect and boost your thyroid function. Likewise, selenium is needed to metabolise thyroid hormones. Having either too little or too much selenium in your system can negatively impact your body’s ability to process and use T4 and T3. Finding and maintaining a healthy level of selenium is important for the prevention of thyroid disease—and for your overall health. Both zinc and selenium are available in foods and supplements. But, before you begin supplementing your diet with either of these minerals you should consult with your healthcare provider. 

B Vitamins and Your Thyroid

B vitamins all play different roles in the health and function of your thyroid. For example, without enough B6 the thyroid cannot use its iodine to efficiently make the hormones T4 and T3. A lack of B2 suppresses thyroid function and limits its ability to secrete its hormones. If you have blood work done and find that your B vitamin levels are low, you can add B vitamins to your diet by eating whole grains, legumes, nuts, milk products, meat, fish and eggs. B vitamin supplements are also available but it is always best to consult with a healthcare provider to avoid getting too much of a good thing. 

Functional Medicine Can Help You Support Optimal Thyroid Function.

The thyroid might be a small gland, but it plays a big role in your health and wellness. Maintaining optimal thyroid function is important. From metabolism and body temperature to fertility and mental health, the thyroid and its hormones T4 and T3 play a role in virtually every system in your body. Balance is key because having too much or too little thyroid hormone can result in a variety of conditions and symptoms that negatively impact your health and wellness. 

If you suspect you are experiencing symptoms of a thyroid problem, working with someone who uses a functional medicine framework will help you get to the root of the issue.  A thorough blood panel can tell you a lot about which hormones are out of balance. Then you will be able to decide which factors affecting your thyroid function you need to tackle. 

By eliminating things that are hurting your thyroid function (for example, stress, trauma and toxins) and adding things that help (like improved gut health, vitamins and minerals) you can take an active role in nurturing a healthy thyroid gland. 

Want to learn more about your thyroid and how it affects your health and wellness? Every new client at NP Optimal Health & Wellness will receive access to Simple Hormones, an online collection of modules and resources covering topics from hormones for men to PCOS and, of course, optimal thyroid health. Contact us today to book an assessment and continue your learning. 

Author:Agnes Lussier-Dow NP-PHC
Tags:Nutritionfunctional medicineThyroid