Is your underactive thyroid making you fat?
The prevalence of hypothyroidism has increased globally in the past 30 years, and it’s occurrence amongst South African women is common. How many people do you know on thyroid medication? The most common form of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis which is an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland. Conventional medicine is equipped to provide symptomatic relief but fails to address the root cause of the problem. Therefore, many patients remain symptomatic despite using prescribed medications and attaining recommended treatment targets. However, the problem is much more complex and requires an integrative medical approach to address the cause of autoimmunity and equilibrate the immune system. Patients do not have to take thyroid medication indefinitely and accept the suffering silently.
A deficiency in thyroid hormones causes a myriad of symptoms and can be difficult to identify as it affects many organs and tissues seemingly unrelated to each other. Additionally, thyroid hormones are used by every cell in the body to regulate the metabolism and body weight by controlling the burning of fat for energy and heat. In Integrative Medicine we like to describe underactive thyroid as having “many faces” i.e. it presents as a collection of different and seemingly disjointed symptoms that are often seen and treated separately by different medical specialties. Below are some examples:
- Weight gain and inability to lose weight despite dieting and exercise, usually addressed by Dietitians or Aesthetic doctors.
- Tiredness that is worse in the morning and does not go away with rest or after good sleep, addressed by GP.
- Depression and anxiety not improving on antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, seen by Psychiatrists.
- Muscle aches and stiffness (often presents as fibromyalgia pain), feeling sluggish, and “living life in slow-motion”, addressed by GP.
- Menstrual irregularities, heavy and prolonged and/or painful menstrual periods (Note: T3 hormone is essential for a healthy luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, and it can contribute to infertility if not sufficient) and low libido, treated by Gynaecologists.
- Constipation and detoxification issues leading to a higher toxic load (T3 hormone is essential for healthy Phase 2 liver detoxification which supports detoxification of Xenoestrogens), addressed by Gastroenterologists or self-detoxifications which can be dangerous and inefficient.
- Dry and scaly skin, hair loss and thinning of the hair and eyebrow, addressed by Aesthetic doctors or Dermatologists.
- High LDL cholesterol, treated by GP’s and Cardiologists.
- Increased sensitivity to cold and swelling of the feet and ankles which are often ignored symptoms.
Common mistakes of Thyroid patients in an attempt to lose weight
Weight gain and stubborn fat is one of the most common symptoms of an underactive thyroid and often the most common complaint amongst women with this condition.
The first mistake patients make when trying to lose weight is to decrease their caloric intake and portion size. A low calorie diet suppresses thyroid function by facilitating the conversion of T4 thyroid hormone into Reverse T3 thyroid hormone which functions as a ‘break on your car’ and further slows an already slow metabolism. Desperately trying to lose weight, patients undergo various diet programs. These regimens are not do not account for the toxins present in an overweight body and therefore are inefficient at detoxifying these harmful substances. These presence of these toxins further compromise weight loss by decreasing thyroid hormone production, increasing Reverse T3, and perpetuating autoimmunity. Thyroid patients often see excessive weight as an isolated problem and are poorly informed on the role of thyroid hormones and how these correlate to their symptoms. This can leave patients feeling deflated. And because their blood results are often normalised with medications their ongoing medical concerns, including inability to lose weight, are often undermined. So how can depressed, sluggish and tired patients win this battle?
Understanding the cause of underactive Thyroid
Understanding the cause of an underactive thyroid (and Hashimoto thyroiditis) is the first step in eliminating it. A list of common causes can be seen below:
- Being female (influenced by first period, post pregnancy, menopause, oestrogen dominance)
- Family history (several genes are identified including CTLA4 gene, HLA, Thyroglobulin gene)
- Stress and adrenal fatigue
- Iodine deficiency due to bromide and fluoride environmental toxicity
- Concomitant autoimmune disease
- Potential immune triggers include viruses, bacterial, parasitic and yeast infections, environmental radiation, pollution, heavy metal exposure, pesticides, xenobiotics
- Leaky gut with different food sensitivities and intolerances: gluten, dairy, GMO soy, nuts, nightshades, chronic alcohol used and increased intake of processed food
- Goitrogenic food
Considering all of these underlying causes, it is clear that conventionally prescribing only T4 thyroid drugs will not cure the problem. In fact, many of these patients are convinced that if their blood results are normal, their hypothyroidism is cured! It’s only when the persistence of their symptoms is pointed out that they realise it.
The thyroid gland produces the less active form of the hormone T4 that needs to be converted into a more active form T3. The problem is that a person needs to be perfectly healthy for this to happen! In autoimmune Hashimoto Thyroiditis that is evidently not the case. Low Iodine, Selenium, Iron, Zinc, Vitamin A, B2, B12 and B6 will decrease this conversion. Additionally, high levels of Mercury and Aluminium block this conversion. Furthermore, abnormal cortisol levels due to stress, Vitamin D deficiency, estrogen dominance (birth control pill), high antibody titres stimulate the conversion to Reverse T3 which blocks the activity of the T3 hormone. When T4 medication is given to these unhealthy patients, the conversion into an active T3 form is compromised causing many of the symptoms to persist.
The solution to weight problem in hypothyroid patients
The only way to address weight issues in these patients is to find and eliminate the underlying causes. Hypothyroidism is a complex and stubborn condition requiring a comprehensive integrative medical approach incorporating lifestyle and dietary interventions as well as detoxification, stress control, and hormonal balance for a successful outcome. Underactive thyroid with the inability to lose weight doesn’t have to be an ongoing condition!
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