As my clients and podcast subscribers know, thyroid health is a major aspect of the work I do at Rock Bottom Wellness.
My own journey to reclaiming my health began, in many ways, with thyroid dysfunction, which progressed into thyroid cancer in 2007. But this diagnosis was not some ominous, terminal sentence; on the contrary, it led me to dig deeper into this condition and the field of health, nutrition and well-being. And this digging eventually got me to “rock bottom,” and a place from which I could begin to help others.
Before we can look into the ways in which we can support thyroid health, it’s important to understand the thyroid itself; its attributes and function in the body, especially as it pertains to women.
The thyroid is a small,“butterfly-shaped” gland at the front of the neck. It produces a hormone that regulates a variety of functions in the body but, most significantly, controls the speed of metabolism. These disorders either slow down, or greatly accelerate, metabolism. There are two types of thyroid hormone: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). The Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) acts as a kind of “master” in regulating the production of T3 and T4. These elements are at the heart of thyroid issues.
When metabolism is slowed down, and the thyroid does not make enough hormone, this is called hypothyroidism. When it is accelerated and the gland is producing too much, it is known as hyperthyroidism.
Thyroid problems are much more common in women than men and, according to statistics, roughly one in eight women will develop thyroid issues at some point in their lives.
Hypothyroidism can cause a multitude of symptoms, including exhaustion, weakness, weight gain, body aches and feeling abnormally cold. It can also lead to the distressing condition (especially for women) of hair loss. Finally, whether as a direct result of the thyroid or the culmination of these symptoms, hypothyroidism can often lead to depression.
One of the most common causes of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s Disease, which occurs when the immune system actively attacks the thyroid. I have explored Hashimoto’s Disease in Rock Bottom Wellness podcast # 5 with guest Stephanie Ewals.
Conversely, hyperthyroidism can cause a variety of symptoms on the opposite end of this spectrum. Some of these symptoms include weight loss, increased appetite, anxiety, sleep problems and a feeling of increased body temperature. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves Disease, a condition which (like Hashimoto’s) affects the immune system.
Although men can suffer from thyroid problems, this dysfunction is much more common in women and can lead to female-specific issues. These can include problems with menstruation and pregnancy.
The thyroid works to control the menstrual cycle and a lack (or an excess) of the thyroid hormone can wreak havoc on periods, making them light, heavy or even stopping altogether; a condition known as amenorrhea. Thyroid problems can also occasionally result in early menopause. Because the thyroid affects menstruation, it follows that it also affects ovulation and can make it difficult to become pregnant. And, just to complicate matters further, thyroid problems can cause problems during pregnancy, as well; for both the mother and baby.
An uncommon (and usually temporary) condition known as postpartum thyroiditis can also occur. This happens when the thyroid gland becomes inflamed during the first year after childbirth. Normal thyroid function usually returns within twelve to eighteen months. However, postpartum thyroiditis can be difficult to diagnose, since many of the symptoms can simply be blamed on normal stress after childbirth and mood disorders, such as postpartum depression.
In addition to postpartum depression, thyroid function can significantly affect depression in general, as well as other emotional problems. These were first described by doctors in 1825 and continue to be a major correlation between the thyroid and mental health today.
Both hypo and hyperthyroidism can trigger mental and emotional abnormalities. Although it is unclear exactly how thyroid hormone influences the brain, changing hormone levels greatly increase the risk of mental disorders; most often causing general depression, but also running the gamut from melancholy to full dementia.
There is much material about the thyroid/depression connection available, but I would like to point you to my own online course at Rock Bottom Wellness, which is specifically geared toward this issue:
One of the major components of thyroid issues and women’s health is based on the relationship between thyroid and estrogen. Estrogen, the “female hormone,” primarily affects the menstrual cycle and fertility. It fluctuates throughout the life of the woman but eventually stops at menopause.
“Estrogen Dominance” occurs when there is too much estrogen in the body. Interestingly, however, this does not necessarily mean that estrogen levels are too high but, rather, that “progesterone” levels are low. Both progesterone and estrogen work in conjunction to achieve balance in the system.
Some of the symptoms of estrogen dominance can include infertility, difficult pms, slow metabolism, headaches, fatigue and polycystic ovaries (a syndrome which we will explore shortly.) As if this condition needed to be even more complex, estrogen dominance can lead to hypothyroidism by slowing and stopping the conversion of T4 into T3. This can sometimes result in a woman receiving treatment for simple hypothyroidism, even though its root cause is actually estrogen dominance.
A related issue between thyroid hormone and women’s health (are you getting the feeling that there might be a connection or two?) is a condition called PCOS or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Essentially, this occurs when hormone imbalance creates problems in the ovaries--specifically, PCOS can cause the egg to not fully develop or to not be released at all during ovulation. Hypothyroidism (particularly Hashimoto’s) is more common with PCOS. There seems to be increased estrogen-progesterone ratio in PCOS patients, as well as an excess of androgens, which also includes testosterone. And yes, women do naturally produce a small amount of testosterone, but PCOS can result in a dramatic excess of androgens.
This common but complex condition can also result in insulin resistance (leading to extra work for the pancreas) and, sometimes, to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. As with other thyroid-related issues, PCOS can also result in depression and anxiety, along with high cholesterol, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.
In addition to these issues, PCOS can also commonly cause symptoms such as weight gain, acne, hair loss and abnormal hair growth on the face, chin or chest. The latter condition is known as Hirsutism, which is tied to the excess of testosterone. It affects up to 70% of women with PCOS.
In the already-complex world of thyroid dysfunction, PCOS seems to swoop in and complicate the matter even further. A thorough and serious medical evaluation is essential here; as you can see, there are many variables at work and they are often working in conjunction with each other. This can make diagnosis and treatment a lengthy, time-consuming process.
Thyroid health is a complex dance and can require a thorough and specific search to reach the “rock bottom” of the issue. However you choose to treat thyroid problems, it is important to make sure that you and your doctor are identifying the true issue behind it. As always, I would welcome the chance to help you on this journey through Rock Bottom Wellness!