Thyroid 101 Understanding Basics of Hypothyroidism and Autoimmune Thyroid Illness


Located at the base of your throat, your thyroid produces hormones that control your metabolism (fat-burning ability); it also regulates the rhythm of your heart and your body temperature.  It is arguably one of the most vital organs in your body.  I am passionate about thyroid health, so much so that I literally “wrote the book” on it!  Thyroid Healthy is available here.  In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more valuable information on this small butterfly-shaped gland, keep on reading.

Hypothyroid vs. Hyperthyroid
Some people eat like a bird and still gain weight, while others eat like a horse yet stay thin.  Weight is only one outward sign of your thyroid at work (or, NOT at work as it should be); there are countless others.  One glitch in your thyroid and dangerous consequences can ensue, ranging from encephalopathy to heartbeat irregularities. Most people think hypothyroidism symptoms are limited to fatigue, cold sensitivity and weight gain but, news flash: it can cause misery from head to toe.

The opposite of hypothyroidism is hyperthyroidism, in which excessive thyroid hormone is produced. This can cause weight loss, rapid heartbeat, and heat intolerance (along with a hundred other symptoms). Hyperthyroidism is often referred to as Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks its own thyroid gland. An uncomfortable goiter in the neck can occur.

The first thing I want to tell you about is selenium. Selenium is a trace mineral that can help sufferers of both hypo- or hyperthyroidism. There are other helpful trace minerals which I’ve written about in the past, including magnesium, iodine, iron and zinc.

Selenium has been shown in clinical trials to either slow the progression and/or reduce symptoms of thyroid conditions, meaning it can help any imbalance (hyper or hypo). It seems to have an intelligence all its own! Selenium is directly tied to the health of your thyroid gland so as you read this, take notes, and discuss this mineral with your doctor. It is sold over the counter, however, I am not advising it for everyone since I couldn’t possibly know what’s right for you.

I can tell you this though– your precious stash of selenium may be mugged by… wait for it… your medication!  Surprised? Well unfortunately it’s true. Your medicine might be crashing your thyroid bigtime, as I covered in the selenium chapter in my book, Drug Muggers (available on amazon). Hundreds of medications have the potential to rob your body of selenium. Here are some common muggers of selenium:
• Acid reducers
• Antidepressants
• Corticosteroids
• Hormone-replacement therapy
• Birth control pills
• Breast cancer drugs
• Sulfonamides

If you take any of the medications listed above, talk to your health practitioner about selenium supplementation… it may be critical for you.

And guess what! It’s not just medications; certain medical conditions such as Celiac, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease and IBS can affect your nutrient status as well. As can beverages including sugar-laden sodas and alcohol. Even gastric bypass surgery can affect your body in this way! The study of drug nutrient depletion is something I’ve studied extensively, so if you want to know what foods and drugs are slowly stealing the life out of you (and cheap ways to restore it), snag a copy of my best-selling book, Drug Muggers.

If your selenium levels are low, be sure to add some selenium-rich foods into your diet or take a selenium supplement. Selenium taken preventively as selenium citrate or selenium picolinate should be taken at 100 mcg once daily. If your levels are low, however, I recommend shooting for 100-200 mcg daily. In rare cases, excess selenium can cause spots on your nails, nausea, vomiting, and nerve damage, so I always suggest talking to your doctor before beginning a new supplement.

One more thing, selenium-rich foods include walnuts, tuna (not too much, due to the risk of mercury), shrimp, eggs, cheese, turkey, beef and oatmeal. I like Brazil nuts because eating four per day gives you about 200 micrograms of selenium. (But don’t try making home-made Brazil nut milk like I did, you will overload!)

Thyroid Cancer
Thyroid cancer is the 9th most common cancer in the United States, and the scariest part is that the incidence has been increasing sharply since the mid-1990s. My childhood friend developed it in her mid-20s, and it just came out of nowhere. She went through radiation and chemo and, thankfully, she’s okay now. The fact that it’s on the rise must mean something, either our environment is assaulting us, or our immune systems are overrun. POPs (persistent organic pollutants) are rampant in industrialized nations, and I’m convinced that these, along with heavy metals, have something to do with it. I also wonder how much of a role pathogens play, and the consumption of gluten. Yes, I said gluten. It attacks the thyroid. It’s a stretch for me to imply that it has anything to do with cancer because it does not (at least not that we can prove), but gluten absolutely affects the thyroid gland in a bad way, especially for people who are sensitive. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the proteins in coffee look just like gluten to the body so if you are Celiac, you would do yourself a favor avoiding coffee too, even decaf!

In March 2013, scientists discovered a certain gene is linked to the development of thyroid cancer. This gene usually STOPS tumor growth, and when lifestyle choices that you have total control over, such as smoking, turn the gene off in your body, thyroid tumors are more apt to grow. In some people the gene has been deleted altogether, making them extra susceptible to thyroid cancer without them even knowing it! That’s why I can’t stress enough the importance of proper diet and supplementation.

One of my favorite thyroid supplements is ashwagandha. Yeah, I hear ya, it has a funny name, one that is hard to pronounce unless you get into multi-syllabic scientific jargon like this nerd extraordinaire. But if you can get past the name, and consider that withania somnifera (its scientific name) supports thyroid AND adrenal health, you’ll keep this one close to your heart. In fact, I often suggest it as an option for people who can’t tolerate the T4 drugs such as levothyroxine (such as Synthroid). You see, ashwagandha has the ability to help both hyper- and hypothyroid. In hypothyroid people, it helps you make more thyroid hormone. As an adaptogen, it supports thyroid health so it nourishes those poor, tired adrenals that you’ve burnt out from taking care of a loved one, or from watching from watching late-night TV instead of sleeping. So ashwagandha and selenium are two rock stars when it comes to improving the health of your thyroid gland and protecting it from DNA damage (which can lead to cancer). Selenium and ashwagandha both have anti-tumorigenic effects.

Genetic Factors
Speaking of genes, there are genetic factors that contribute to hypothyroidism, and you can find out if you’re at higher risk by taking a saliva test, offered by 23andme. Researchers have identified these genes and found that if you have them you have a higher risk for hypothyroidism. The genetic snps are “rs965513” and “rs2476601”. These two genes have already been reported in studies of thyroid malfunction and disease. Then there are two other genes that you can test for which give you higher odds of hypothyroidism and dysregulation of your immune system. Makes me think these genes are tied to autoimmune forms of hypothyroidism. The snps are “the C version of rs4915077 in the VAV3 gene” and the other is the “T version of rs3184504 in the SH2B3 gene.”

Leptin is a hormone that has a strong bearing on how much thyroid hormone is produced by your thyroid gland. Leptin is technically a protein that’s made in fat cells, and it’s good for you. Leptin is your body’s “stop sign” for eating. When your body secretes leptin, you start to feel full… not that you stop eating (because there’s always room for dessert, right?) but leptin gives you that sense of satiety and you should listen to it. When you get that sense of fullness caused by leptin, step away from the fork!

We all overeat sometimes. I was recently at an Indian buffet and I had 3 servings of tandoori chicken, 2 of curry chicken, an unidentifiable chickpea dish, a virtual bucket of vegetable korma and 2 samosas. Then I relieved my guilt by eating something green, the mint chutney. I felt my leptin release (i.e., started to feel full) somewhere around the second plate of aloo gobi, but like a champ, I kept going. I almost knocked out a 10 year old kid, racing for the carrot pudding. I convinced myself that I should get my money’s worth for this $12.95 buffet, leptin or not. My husband Sam (amused by my lack of self control) risked his life by taking some pictures of the event, but I allowed this because my mouth was full and I never talk with my mouth full.  😉

Thankfully, for me, this display of carnage is rare.

If these indulgences happen too often for you, so that you are eating too much on a consistent basis, then you will become “leptin resistant” and your skinny jeans will display an unwanted muffin top. Spandex works well here. (In fact, I think spandex is what I’ll wear when I go back to that Indian buffet.)

My point is, pay attention to leptin! If you don’t, you become leptin resistant. Then, no matter how much leptin is secreted from your cells, your brain thinks you’re starving. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it is very common, dare I say it is epidemic, and it affects your thyroid gland… badly!  When leptin resistance happens in the body, it basically tells your thyroid gland via complex signaling hormones to slow down metabolism and stop burning food for calories. In other words, it tells you to hold on to fat to survive the famine (remember, it thinks you are starving to death).  Leptin resistance = Fat storage

Yo-Yo Diets
Whenever you go on a diet, and then come off of it, leptin commands that any calories from the food you now eat (after the diet) get stored as fat so that you don’t go back into starvation mode. You see, your body doesn’t know that your diet is over, it panics when you cut calories, and it wants to make sure you don’t die. Leptin is trying to help you. But if you overeat (after your diet), fat-burning capabilities come to a screeching halt thanks to your thyroid signaling and all those calories you eat get stored as fat. Even if you eat like a bird, it doesn’t matter, your brain and thyroid are convinced you will go into starvation mode again, and seek to protect you. This is why yo-yo dieting is bad. Why do you think we have hundreds of diet books, yet as a general rule, they don’t work?

Edit what you eat, don’t diet.

Correct your hormonal imbalances and adrenal dysfunction. Read the chapter Lose Fat While You Sleep in my first book, The 24-Hour Pharmacist, for information on how to edit what you eat and make the weight loss stick for more than just a few months.

Now, one more thing, if you have increased TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone), it could predict diabetes, weight gain and high insulin, which by the way is a cause for many complications. Please take a moment when you’re done with today’s article, and read Many Diseases Linked to High Insulin. That article will change the way you think about diabetes, weight and cancer.

Leptin resistance drives obesity by inflaming the thyroid gland. If you have poor coordination and bump into things more often than you should, this could be due to a thyroid problem driven by leptin imbalances. When people lose weight, antibodies against the thyroid gland may return to normal. This is a good thing. You know what else reduces antibodies against the thyroid gland? Eating a grain-free diet, like the Phase One diet, or the Paleo diet. Now, let’s talk about autoimmune thyroid disease because Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease are much more common than you think.

Autoimmune Thyroid Illness
Did you know that certain chemicals like chlorine, fluoride, bromine and perchlorates can attach to your thyroid and reduce your ability to absorb iodine? Chlorine is found in your tap water and it’s also in high concentrations in pools and hot tubs. Fluoride, found in toothpaste and mouthwash, attacks your pineal gland (which makes melatonin to help you sleep). Do you see how using fluoride-free personal care products might help you sleep better? Look up pineal gland and fluoride. What you find will stun you. Bromine is found in hydrogenated oils, citrus sodas and most breads.

What’s the big deal? These guys are bullies, and the halogens like chlorine, fluoride and bromine are always going to beat up iodine. Poor little iodine! It’s going to take a beating. And so will your thyroid production.

Without iodine you cannot make T4. There’s no way to do it. The T stands for tyrosine and the 4 stands for 4 molecules of iodine. So that’s 4 iodines to 1 tyrosine to make T4 or “thyroxine.”

Nothing can replace those 4 molecules of iodine and make T4, but those three halogens can displace it, then you can’t make T4. Then you’re clinically hypothyroid, even if you have a perfect TSH. Measuring free T4 is important, as is measuring free T3.

T4 is a precursor hormone to T3, which is your real wake-me-up thyroid hormone. T4 must be converted in your body to T3 in order for you to feel well, have a normal body temp (hypothyroid patients almost always have a lower body temperature). The reaction takes place compliments of an enzyme. And so you know, T4 and T3 are exactly the same in that there are only 3 iodines on the molecule instead of 4. Your body lives for T3.

You can get this T3 compounded at any pharmacy if you prefer to take it over natural desiccated thyroid or levothyroxine. It’s not right for everyone, but I want you to know that you can get it with a prescription. For some of you, especially those of you who have been on T4 drugs (levothyroxine) for many years, switching to compounded T3, about 5 or 10 mcg could be just what you need to breathe life into you. That discussion needs to take place with a doctor after proper testing because I do not know what’s right for you. I just want you to know that the T4 drugs you take are inactive, they do nothing. Your body has to convert them to T3 for you to feel any effect, so if you can take T3 directly as a capsule, it might make a big difference for you.

Toxins found in bread, pools, and toothpaste could contribute to reduced thyroid production, reduced T3 (triiodothyronine) levels, as well as more antibodies against your precious little gland. TPO antibodies and others can be measured. If the toxins are fat-soluble, they’ll cross your blood brain barrier and harm your hypothalamus. That means your hypothalamus gland can no longer detect thyroid or leptin signals correctly. Which means more thyroid problems!

Gut and Liver Problems
Probiotics can make a big difference because 20–30% of your inactive T4 is converted to active T3 in your gut. You should consider taking a high-quality probiotic. All medicines are drug muggers of intestinal flora. These are the worst offenders:
• Antibiotics
• Corticosteroids
• Antacids
• Acid blockers
• Estrogen containing hormones
• Blood pressure pill
• Post-appendectomy
• Celiac, Crohn’s and IBS
• Alcohol
• Caffeine
• Sugar and refined foods
(For more on this refer to my Drug Muggers book)

As for your liver, this is your primary detoxification organ. One snafu here, you will hold onto poisons. Some T4 is converted to T3 on the cell membrane of your liver so if you consume a fat-soluble toxin (or you have a chronic infection), it will interfere with thyroid hormone activation at the level of the liver. Supplements that support liver health are important. Eating artichokes is useful too! Milk thistle is one supplement that can help, but be careful since it has mild estrogenic effects.

If your liver isn’t fully functional, possibly because it’s busier dealing with fat-soluble toxins than activating thyroid hormone, you are going to be tired and hypothyroid and all that goes with it. You are also going to find yourself stuffing toxins into your fat (white adipose tissue). Not good. This is an important time to remind you why losing weight helps so much. You see, as you lose fatty tissue, all those stored poisons go out with the fat. You reduce biotoxin load. Before you get all the benefits of losing weight though, you might crash. Think about it. You break down fatty tissue, all those fat cells dump their poison right back into your bloodstream. Your kidneys and liver go crazy trying to deal with the toxic burden. Your thyroid might crash, and your brain might even get slightly “inflamed” from all the pro-inflammatory cytokines released. You could feel achy, sore, tired, cranky or have diarrhea. Eventually, if you stay hydrated and keep exercising, sweating (far-infrared saunas are okay), juicing, eating healthy, etc… you will get to a point where you feel better.

Eating fiber comes in handy here because it binds up and removes fat-soluble toxins. If you get to a place where you feel like it’s a crisis, of course you should call your doctor, or weight loss practitioner, but most people do just fine. Consuming low doses of activated charcoal, or bentonite clay may be helpful for a crisis, but not long-term, just a day or two. These are constipating and you don’t want that.

Thyroid Autoimmunity and Leptin
When leptin was discovered in 1994, excitement was high because scientists thought they had uncovered a significant factor in obesity (in our overweight nation, a prize valued almost as highly as the fountain of youth). After finding out that leptin plays a key role in regulating appetite, metabolism, and behavior, the race was on to find “the cure” for obesity.

But scientists soon found out that regulating leptin levels to affect weight was a complicated business. Among the many findings on the body’s use of leptin, one interesting discovery was that leptin promotes autoimmunity.

An August 2010 article by Italian scientists in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism reported an especially interesting find: That deviant little leptin protein, tied to fat gain and loss by its very existence, is even more tightly tied to obesity when it comes to the thyroid. This becomes a bit like the ditty “Who’s on First?” so hold on while I do some unraveling…

For various biochemical reasons, obesity can alter thyroid hormones due to dysregulation of the endocrine loop between the hypothalamo-pituitary unit and the body’s fat tissues. Add to this that obesity also means increased leptin (the level of circulating leptin is proportional to the total amount of fat in the body) PLUS that leptin has been shown to promote autoimmunity. Once you put all those facts together, an interesting question arises: Will the excess leptin resulting from obesity increase the susceptibility to develop autoimmune thyroid disease (AITD)? The Italian scientists mentioned above came up with a fairly resounding, though not definitive, yes.

Free T3 and free T4 levels, TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), thyroglobulin, and antithyroid antibodies levels (associated with Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) were tested in 165 obese and 118 lean subjects. Results were correlated to body composition, leptin levels, glucose homeostasis, energy expenditure, and a person’s historical pattern of weight gain.

Compared with controls, obese patients had lower free T3 and free T4 levels and a greater prevalence of hypothyroidism. More of them also had antibodies to their thyroid gland. Why would the body self attack?! Analysis showed that leptin levels were associated with AITD independent of “bioanthropometric variables”, which is just a fancy way to say the participant’s body composition and weight gain patterns.

Using regression analysis (a statistical computation) they identified the combination of leptin levels and being female as significant predictors of AITD. It’s bad enough women have monthly cycles and all that goes along with them, but apparently, we are more likely to have thyroid issues too! Hmph.

To put it all in perspective, we need to go back to our Who’s on First? ditty: So here we have leptin, CEO of fat control, and the thyroid, which is the driver of weight loss and weight gain. Then we have the rogue AITD, which goes around sabotaging all the systems by attacking your own body. The long and short is that leptin is a likely contributor to AITD, which leads to hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism leads to weight gain. Weight gain creates more leptin.  Who did I say was on first?

If this isn’t convoluted enough, add in the possibility of leptin resistance, which is what happens when leptin tells the brain that the body is starving when, in fact, the body has just enjoyed its second dessert and is getting fat!  This roundabout of interrelating cycles is enough to confound the most intelligent researchers. It’s no wonder the doctors are finding this particular dragon so hard to slay. I’m in agreement with the scientists’ conclusion: All this “needs to be confirmed (and explored) in future investigations”. The take home point is to keep leptin within normal ranges, and not to overeat, especially if you have symptoms of thyroid disease, and remember that your best diet is a grain-free, gluten-free, dairy-free one.  The reason this works is that it reduces harm to the thyroid gland and reduces production of thyroid antibodies.

More Information
I know this is a lot of information to take in, especially if you are new to the study of thyroid health.  But guess what: if you suffer from an unhealthy thyroid and all that goes along with it, or if you are a science nerd like me, there’s so much more to know.  My book, Thyroid Healthy, delves deeper into everything I’ve discussed here.

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