Thyroid problems are seemingly everywhere. While women suffer from them in a ratio of seven out of eight times, it can affect men, too. So while thyroid health gets written off as a women’s health issue, it’s actually a significant human health problem.
How Common Are Thyroid Problems?
Twenty million people have thyroid disease according to the American Thyroid Association, and not all of them know it. Thyroid problems can masquerade as other issues, from depression to digestive problems to chronic fatigue and rheumatoid arthritis. They can be triggered by numerous things, and can occur when you have a strong family history, or even if you don’t.
Because thyroid problems can quickly become debilitating, it’s essential for anyone suffering from thyroid issues to have a clear path back to recovery. I suffered from undiagnosed Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or autoimmune hypothyroidism, for more than seven years. I worried I was dying of a rare disease that no one could find. I was so tired some days that I couldn’t even get out of bed to get a simple snack. I would go days without showering because it was way too exhausting to stand for 10 minutes or to raise my arms to wash my hair.
Thyroid problems are no joke, but sadly, unless you know from personal experience, it can be easy to write them off. It can be easy to say that the thyroid sufferer is just lazy, needs to get out more, or needs to stop being so depressed.
The thyroid regulates metabolism but also has strong ties to mood, digestion, and overall energy levels. When your thyroid isn’t functioning as it should, you can’t just get over it or pull yourself out of the fatigue or other symptoms.
I wrote my book, The Everything Guide to Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, because I had wandered aimlessly for years and could have healed so much faster if only I would have had some concise information and guidance.
6 Ways to Balance Your Thyroid Problems
Here are my top six ways for finding thyroid balance. Unfortunately, thyroid healing is a multifaceted process and won’t be taken care of overnight. It can feel exhausting to do the work to get your thyroid the help that it needs. But when you make small steps, they build into a thyroid-friendly lifestyle that becomes a sustainable way of living for healing and for long term remission.
1. Get the proper diagnosis.
If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, arthritis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or general hypothyroidism, there is a chance that it goes much deeper. Most doctors only run the TSH test to evaluate thyroids, and this is a flawed approach.
TSH, or thyroid stimulating hormone, is actually a pituitary hormone that tells the thyroid when it needs to make more hormone. Sometimes this communication is part of the problem, but most often, TSH is not an accurate barometer for thyroid function.
To really see what’s happening with the thyroid, everyone exhibiting any signs of thyroid issues, who has a family history, or falls under a risk category should be evaluated using Free T3, Free T4, and thyroid antibodies. Who does this include?
- Women who are pregnant or who have been pregnant in the last two years
- Anyone with a family history of thyroid disorders
- Anyone who has other hormonal imbalances, such as estrogen, progesterone, or testosterone.
- Anyone who has adrenal issues.
- Anyone struggling with depression, anxiety, insomnia, weight loss or weight gain issues, extreme cold or heat sensitivity, and heavy fatigue.
Even if your tests don’t indicate that you have a thyroid disease or disorder, it’s important to rule it out since more often than not people are underdiagnosed with thyroid problems. Even if you’ve been tested before, if you’re having any of the above issues, it’s a good idea to be reevaluated for thyroid issues every few years, especially if you’re a woman or have a family history.
2. Search for and identify root causes.
Just because you have a diagnosed thyroid problem doesn’t mean that you know how or why you got it. Genetic tendency is only one possible factor, but even in cases of genetics, something still has to trigger the cascade of malfunctions that leads to a thyroid with issues.
Gut problems are high on the list of things that can trigger immune reactions against the thyroid or an overall sluggish metabolism.
Major hormonal upheavals, like giving birth or entering menopause, can also trigger thyroid problems. All hormones exist in a fairly shaky balance and when one or more hormones get disturbed, even for natural reasons, the thyroid can over or under respond. This can be temporary, or it can become permanent in cases of autoimmunity.
Certain viral infections can also trigger thyroid problems, particularly Epstein-Barr, cytomegalovirus, or specific strains of the herpesvirus family. (2) Viral infections never truly leave the body once they’re introduced, but they’re supposed to go dormant after the primary infection and produce antibodies to prevent reinfection. In some cases, however, they stay active at lower levels and become chronic viral infections, always there under the surface, wreaking silent havoc on the immune system and sensitive organs like the thyroid.
3. Reverse leaky gut and digestive problems.
Even if your thyroid trigger is genetic, viral, or hormonal, you still need to understand how the gut and digestive system play a key role in reversing the problem. Certain foods, even without allergies, can exacerbate an immune response against the thyroid. Dairy and gluten specifically can cause issues when leaky gut is present. (3)
Leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, occurs when the barrier tight junctions of the small intestine become loose. Their job is to only allow nutrients and digested food particles into the bloodstream and to filter out everything else. When they become damaged from food allergies, viral infections, gut problems, hormone issues, drug side effects, and even stress, foreign particles enter the bloodstream. Digestion also becomes less efficient, so food particles that aren’t fully digested may also get through when they shouldn’t.
Dairy and gluten are especially problematic because from a cellular standpoint they’re somewhat similar to the tissue of the thyroid. The immune system becomes alerted to these “tissues” traveling throughout the bloodstream and becomes sensitized, or aware, that the thyroid is apparently trying to conquer territory it doesn’t own. The immune system mounts an attack to tell the thyroid to simmer down, but the food particles keep circulating, and the problem persists. Eventually, in cases of prolonged autoimmunity, the thyroid may cease to function entirely.
Step one in reversing this cascade of problems is to repair the barrier function of the small intestine. Thankfully it responds well to healing when it gets the right nutrients. Collagen in particular can help to repair and reverse the effects of leaky gut, and that’s why bone broth—which is rich in collagen—is one of the top gut-healing superfoods that exists. Collagen can also be taken on its own.
4. Stop eating the wrong foods.
Working to repair the small intestine and reverse leaky gut won’t get you very far if you don’t cut offending foods. As mentioned, dairy and gluten should be first to go. But if you really want to put yourself on a speedy path to thyroid wellness, you need to ditch all grains, as well as legumes (like peanuts and soy), sugar, and refined foods that are filled with empty calories.
Adding in the right foods for thyroid wellness is also essential. Eating plenty of healthy fats (avocado, salmon, coconut oil), proteins (pastured and grass-fed meats and eggs), and vegetables and fruits is going to be a major part of recovering.
5. Get more sleep.
The thyroid can totally mess with sleep. It can make you want to sleep all the time and never feel rested, or it can give you insomnia and make you feel borderline manic. Either way, establishing a healthy sleep routine is critical even before your thyroid has been rebalanced. This can be hard if you don’t feel like sleeping or if all you want to do is sleep.
In the case of too much sleep, you still need to establish healthy sleep habits. Go to bed regularly—early, if needed—and set a specific nap time. But don’t just stay in bed all day since this can lead to overall poor sleep habits and can actually reduce the likelihood that you’ll participate in other healthful habits, like regular meals, gentle exercise, and fresh air.
In the case of insomnia, it can feel maddening to go to bed when you know you’re just going to lie there awake. But sometimes establishing a healthy sleep routine can begin to rework the brain’s ability to shut down for sleep. Just because you’re feeling like you can’t sleep doesn’t mean the thyroid doesn’t desperately need your body to get rest. The thyroid can only rebalance if you’re allowing it time to heal, and this happens while we sleep.
Magnesium is often a nutrient that people are deficient in, and it can be helpful in addressing insomnia when taken before bed. Because the thyroid is sensitive, it’s important to get a professional opinion on supplements that you might try, since some that are often touted for thyroid health can actually do significant damage, such as iodine.
6. Cut the stress.
Stress impacts our bodies in ways we don’t always know, and the thyroid is no exception. If you’re battling a thyroid problem, you’ll want to take a serious look at sources of stress in your life. Even if you can’t remove them, you need to find creative and proactive ways to handle them.
Deep breathing, yoga, massage, acupuncture, long walks in the sunset—there’s no right or wrong way to address stress. What is critical is that you find joy in the process and that you can consistently make it part of your routine.
The thyroid is an essential organ that has its fingers in every aspect of our wellbeing. Without a healthy thyroid, we won’t have energy, metabolism, or mood balance. Whatever form of thyroid issue you’re facing, following these six steps can lead to a faster path to recovery and wellness with less frustration and setbacks.