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Thyroid Problems May Be Why You Feel Drained

By Peter Schmid, DO
Posted On Nov 30, 2011

Words: Lisette Hilton

A hormonal imbalance can turn your quality of life upside down, but a healthy balance can be restored—along with the youthful vigor lost to a malfunctioning thyroid.

Mikalan Moiso, of Beaverton, Ore., says that what she felt was more than sluggishness. And she couldn’t understand why. The busy Realtor and single mother of two had always been so healthy. Yet now she felt low, unmotivated—not at all like normal.

A review of Mikalan’s symptoms led to a thorough check of her hormone levels, revealing that she had a hypoactive—meaning under active—thyroid. The prescription? Optimizing her thyroid hormone levels. The result? Mikalan says she feels like her young self.

Looking back, the 44-year-old says the condition affected every aspect of her life. “Certainly, [having a hormonal imbalance] affected my ability to work. It affected my ability to feel good about myself. It affected relationships, because when you’re not feeling right everything is affected in your life,” she says.

Underactive? Overactive?

The thyroid gland is critical to human health because it regulates the body’s metabolism through hormones it produces. According to Naina Sachdev, M.D., the Lake Oswego, Ore., physician who treated Mikalan, if you get too little of these hormones, the body’s metabolism slows down; if you get too much, your metabolic rate increases.

Generally speaking, many more individuals have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) than an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). The symptoms of a weak thyroid include fatigue, weight gain, low body temperature, fluid retention, thinning hair, slow thinking (memory issues), dry skin and a yellowish tinge to the skin.

Symptoms of an overactive thyroid include sweating, heart palpitations, fatigue, increased appetite, exophthalmos eye condition (or eye bulging) and hyperactivity, according to Dr. Sachdev, who is board-certified in anti-aging medicine and fellowship- trained in functional medicine.

Thyroid Hormone 101

The thyroid gland makes about a dozen hormones, according to Jonathan V. Wright, M.D., a naturopathic doctor who practices in Renton, Wash., and lectures for the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. Two, however, stand out as critical when it comes to our health and quality of life: triiodothyronine, or T3, and thyroxine, or T4.

“The one that everybody knows about is T3, because even though there’s only a tiny amount made by the thyroid gland, it’s very powerful at helping our cells burn energy,” Dr. Wright says. “T4 is not the active hormone. T4 is the storage and transportation hormone.”

T4 is also the source of most of your T3, and a healthy thyroid gland converts T4 into T3. But that’s not what always happens. Stress, diabetes, a deficiency in the essential trace element selenium, and much more can affect the body’s ability to make healthy amounts of T3. “That means that you would have less T3 entering into the cell, so you don’t have a proper tissue response function,” says Dr. Sachdev.

Correcting Thyroid Imbalance

Treatment for thyroid hormone imbalance, as you might expect, depends on whether you have too much (hyperthyroidism) or too little (hypothyroidism). “Treating patients with hyperactive thyroid is more complex,” according to Dr. Sachdev. “Treatment options [include] medication to suppress the thyroid, or irradiation to the thyroid gland, or surgery.” Cases of the more common hypothyroidism, on the other hand, require the use of bio-identical hormone replacement to bring patients to normal thyroid hormone levels.

Both Drs. Wright and Sachdev say their approaches differ from what conventional family doctors or internists prescribe. Mainstream doctors typically prescribe T4 hormone treatments, which they say misses the point—to restore the level of the energy burning T3 hormone.

Dr. Wright often prescribes whole thyroid, which has not only T4, but T3 and all the other thyroid hormones. “We give enough to reverse the clinical signs. So, when people who are hypothyroid start taking the whole group of hormones, they should start feeling more energy, their temperature goes up, the orange skin color should go away, and hair growth should be stronger,” he says.

A porcine-desiccated hormone treatment such as Nature-Throid contains both the inactive T4 hormone and the active T3 hormone. “From the initial point of taking Nature-Throid, patients receive immediate benefits because of the active thyroid hormones,” says Dai Jinn, the Chief Science Officer of Nature-Throid.

Desiccated thyroid or thyroid extract refers to porcine (or pig) thyroid glands, dried and powdered for therapeutic use. Despite some reports of adverse effects, “it turns out pigs, sheep and cows make the same array of hormones and the exact same molecules as human thyroid. Literally, [whole thyroid] is bio-identical,” Dr. Wright says.

Based on a patient’s blood and other test results, Dr. Sachdev also often recommends foods high in vitamins D, B12 and C, and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, selenium and iodine. These levels, she says, can affect optimal thyroid function. “Diet is a big factor. You have to be careful, for example, what your source of soy is because that can disrupt thyroid hormone. Be careful with pesticides, medications… and stress,” she says. “The goal of the treatment is to optimize T4-to-T3 conversion and correlate that with a positive clinical response.”

Thyroid hormone treatment for hypothyroidism is usually for the long term, especially for people older than 40 whose thyroid function often declines with age. Side effects, if any, are usually associated with getting incorrect amounts of the replacement hormone. Taking too much can result in symptoms that mimic those of a hyperactive thyroid. Fortunately, the remedy is simple: Take less. “The only people who have to be extra careful [about taking thyroid hormone] are people who have congestive heart failure. Thyroid speeds the function of every organ in the body, so if you have a weak heart, that may be hard on you,” Dr. Wright says.

The cost to address an imbalanced thyroid? Relatively low, according to Dr. Sachdev. “Medications are usually less than $100 a month, [though] needed nutraceuticals can be extra,” she says, “This is a big bang for your money. The result is quality of life and energy.”