The thyroid gland is an organ located at the base of the neck. Part of the endocrine system, the thyroid releases hormones that help to regulate the body’s metabolism and vital functions.
The two hormones secreted by the thyroid gland are thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are needed for normal functioning of all cells in the body.
Thyroid disorders are more common than you think. In fact, many people living with thyroid disorders may not even be aware that they are. Often, they are difficult to diagnose because of their wide array of symptoms. These types of hormonal imbalances can greatly affect a person’s day-to-day life.
There are two main types of thyroid dysfunctions. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid becomes overactive and produces too much of its hormones. Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid is underactive and is not producing enough of its hormones.
In hyperthyroidism, the thyroid gland produces too much of the T3 and T4 hormones. Since these hormones regulate metabolism, too much of them can cause the cells in the body to work at an accelerated speed.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- A quickening of the heart rate/heart palpitations
- Nervousness, anxiety, and irritability
- Sudden weight loss
- Changes in menstrual patterns
- Frequent bowel movements
- Muscle weakness
- Skin thinning
- Fine, brittle hair
- Sleep problems (insomnia)
- Bulging eyes, gritty sensation in eyes, pressure or pain in eyes, light sensitivity (Graves’ disease)
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects 70 percent of those with hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism is the more common of the two thyroid disorders. It happens when the thyroid gland is not producing enough T3 and T4 hormones, which causes the body’s cells and organs to operate at a slower rate.
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Depression/mood swings
- Weight gain
- Memory problems
- Dry skin
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Elevated blood cholesterol level
- Muscle aches
- Heavy or irregular menstrual periods
- Slowed heart rate
Most cases of hypothyroidism are mild, although if left untreated, the symptoms can gradually become more severe.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease. The immune system attacks the thyroid gland, damaging it and causing it to cut back on its hormone secretion. Hashimoto’s disease affects five out of 100 people in the US, and it is eight times more common in women than in men. (1)
RELATED: Women’s Guide to Thyroid Health
Causes and Triggers of Thyroid Disease
Most thyroid disorders are caused by autoimmune diseases—when the immune system attacks the body, and in this case, specifically the thyroid gland.
Autoimmune diseases and inflammation have a special relationship. These types of diseases often come and go in waves, and they are triggered by both external and internal factors. People with autoimmune diseases may find that periods of stress cause worsening of symptoms. Inflammatory foods can also exacerbate symptoms, and people may choose to eat an anti-inflammatory diet to keep symptoms at bay.
Another cause of thyroid disease may be from damage to the thyroid gland. This can happen due to radiation therapy, surgery, and certain medications.
Rarely, malfunctions in the pituitary gland or cancerous growths in the thyroid gland may be the cause of thyroid dysfunction.
Natural Ways to Improve Thyroid Function
If you’re at risk for thyroid disease or you’ve had thyroid problems in the past, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make that will decrease the risk of thyroid disease or improve thyroid function even if you already have hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
1. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
We already know exactly which foods cause inflammation in the body, and which foods decrease inflammation in the body. Why continue to subject your body to inflammation? This will only increase your chance of developing a chronic disease or exacerbate the symptoms if you already have one.
Avoid: white flour, fried foods, processed foods, refined sugars and starches, processed meat, saturated fats, trans fats, artificial flavorings or dyes, and in some cases, gluten (gluten is a trigger for many people, but not for everyone)
Focus on eating: organic fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and herbs and spices
The idea is to eat nutrient-dense foods—foods in their most natural form—and to avoid foods that have been processed, refined, and stripped of their nutrient content.
2. Reduce Stress Levels
We know—easier said than done, right? But chronically high-stress levels can really take a toll on the body. Find an outlet or a stress-busting technique that you can practice on a daily basis to keep your stress hormone levels down.
Yoga and meditation are proven effective time and time again when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety levels. (2)(3)(4)(5)
Other methods to try for stress reduction:
- Deep breathing
- Regular exercise
- Regular social interaction
- Listening to music
3. Try a Detox
Over time, toxins accumulate in your body, flowing through your bloodstream and settling in soft tissue. An accumulation of toxins causes inflammation, which can lead to chronic disease or exacerbation in symptoms of a disease you already have.
That’s why it’s important to make sure that foods that promote detoxification are a regular part of your diet. You may even choose to do a detox every once in a while to really flush out those toxins so that you can hit the reset button on your body.
4. Get Your Probiotics
Gut health is incredibly important to your overall health. Since 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut, you definitely want to make sure that your gut flora is in a healthy balance. Eat fermented foods, yogurt, kefir, and probiotic supplements to ensure that you have enough “good” gut bacteria.
Thyroid Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment
If you think you may have thyroid disease, talk to your doctor. A blood test can determine whether your thyroid hormone levels are too high, too low, or within the norm.
Before starting to take thyroid-managing drugs, talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that you can make to naturally improve the functioning of your thyroid. If your hypo- or hyperthyroidism is severe, your doctor may prescribe a daily medication.
If you have any unexplained and prolonged symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor to test you for thyroid disease. Whether it’s hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, thyroid problems can significantly affect your daily life.
Luckily, there are some lifestyle changes you can make that may improve your symptoms. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, keep stress levels low, exercise regularly, and don’t forget about your detox foods and probiotics.
Living a healthy lifestyle can help to significantly decrease your risk of developing a condition like a thyroid disease.