Are you frequently tired?
Do you get cold easily?
Are you constipated?
Is your skin dry?
Do you have unexplained weight gain?
If you said yes to at least three of these symptoms, you could be suffering from an underactive thyroid gland or hypothyroidism. Broda Barnes, M.D., a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders, once said: “Of all the problems that can affect physical or mental health, none is more readily and inexpensively corrected, and more often untreated and even unsuspected than hypothyroidism.”
Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland situated at the base of the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. The thyroid has an enormous impact on your health, affecting all aspects of your metabolism. It maintains the rate at which your body utilizes oxygen, controls the rate at which various organs function, establishes the speed with which the body utilizes food, and helps regulate your body temperature.
Through its hormone secretions, the thyroid functions as kind of a thermostat. Each individual cell in the body is much like a microscopic power plant: it burns food and sets energy free, some of the energy being released as heat. Thyroid secretion is essential for the operation of the cell and, in effect, determines how hot the fire gets in the cell and the speed of activity in the cell. The term “metabolism” refers to the fires within these cells.
The causes of hypothyroidism are several. Many experts point to autoimmune issues where the body’s immune system turns on itself. This is actually a specific type of hypothyroidism called Hashimoto’s disease. Other potential causes are iodine insufficiency, fatty acid insufficiency, hormonal imbalance, toxicity from halogens (flouridated and/or chlorinated water), diets high in refined carbohydrates and other processed foods, food allergies, and chronic stress.
So how do you tell if your thyroid isn’t doing its job? Unfortunately, most people rely solely on their physicians for a diagnosis. The problem with this is that most physicians conduct a simple blood test for TSH and leave it at that. TSH is thyroid stimulating hormone, which is released by the pituitary gland to stimulate the thyroid gland to produce T4 hormone, which is then converted to T3, which in turn stimulates the metabolism. There’s the biochemistry in a nutshell.
The idea here is that the higher the TSH value, the lower the thyroid function. So as you can see, looking at TSH is sort of an indirect way of diagnosing thyroid insufficiency. Even if TSH is within normal range, the thyroid may still not be properly converting T4 to T3. And what if the pituitary gland is the problem and it isn’t properly reading thyroid function before it starts releasing that TSH?
Some physicians (very few), like endocrinologists, conduct more comprehensive tests that include not only TSH, but Free T4, Free T3, and T3 uptake. This gives a more complete picture and makes it easier to make a more accurate assessment of where in the process things are going awry. The reality is most physicians won’t order this more comprehensive panel because they perceive it as unnecessarily expensive, not to mention that health insurance providers discourage the practice. This is a good opportunity to take responsibility for your own health and conduct a simple home test.
The home test can be used effectively as a good screening tool for thyroid insufficiency. So if the test comes out positive, you either treat the condition with diet and supplements (with the supervision of a health practitioner, of course) or take the results to your physician in hopes that he/she will use it as reason to conduct a comprehensive thyroid panel. The home test is called the Basal Body Temperature Test. Here is the procedure:
- 1. Get a glass thermometer, not digital (the digital ones stop reading after a minute or two and are not as accurate). Non-mercury glass thermometers are now commercially available at most pharmacies (if you have trouble locating a mercury thermometer).
- 2. Shake down the thermometer the night before you do the test (using your muscles to shake the thermometer will raise your temperature and throw off the test). Place the thermometer at your bedside.
- 3. Go to sleep without an extraneous heat source such as a bed partner (spouse, dog, etc), an electric blanket or on a waterbed (they are heated). You are allowed to wear pajamas and use as many blankets as you desire, as they do not throw off the test.
- 4. When you wake up in the morning (or if you sleep during the day, when you wake up after at least 4 hours of sleep), use as little movement as possible (all movement requires muscle activity and raises your temperature) and place the thermometer in your armpit. Why the armpit? People with low thyroid often have allergies or get sinus infections – which raise the temperature inside the mouth. People rarely get armpit infections, so this site is more reliable. Leave it there for at least ten (10) minutes.
- 5. Women who still have periods should take their temperature over the first 5 days of their period and average the numbers. Women who have had a hysterectomy but still have at least one ovary will probably want to test over a period of 14 days and use the 3 days with the “lowest” readings. Men and postmenopausal women should test for 5 consecutive days, discard the highest and lowest temperatures and compute the average for the remaining 3.
- 6. Normal axillary body temperature is between 97.4 and 98.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures below that are suggestive of low thyroid.
- If the average temperature is below 97.8 and you have at least three (3) of the above-described symptoms, you very likely have an underactive thyroid. The question is whether you have a primary thyroid deficiency or one that is secondary to a pituitary or adrenal deficiency. The blood panel recommended above will help with this determination.
- If you do suffer from hypothyroidism, it is often treatable with a combination of dietary changes, supplementation (including thyroid-stimulating herbal or homeopathic formulas or bio-identical hormones), and lifestyle changes. It is usually extremely difficult to recover normal thyroid function through dietary changes alone, so consult with your health practitioner (like me) for guidance here. Depending on the lab results or a physician’s assessment, some people may require medication to treat the condition.