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June 20, 2018  |  Login
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

The thyroid gland, situated at the base of the neck below your Adam's apple, secretes hormones that control metabolic activity in every cell of the body. In a condition called hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid, the thyroid fails to produce sufficient quantities of that hormone. This can be the result of the thyroid itself malfunctioning or due to the fact that it is not receiving the proper message from the brain to produce more hormones. As a result, all body systems function at a slower rate.

If you suffer from this condition, you probably feel tired and weak most of the time. You move slower than you used to, and even relatively simple and routine activities, like preparing dinner, seem overwhelming; worse, you may not even be able to summon up any interest in trying. Most likely, you've gained weight and have a hard time digesting food. Your joints and muscles may ache, and because your body temperature has plummeted, you feel cold even when others are complaining of the heat. And those symptoms are just some of the most common. Others include recurring infections, hair loss, brittle nails, dry skin, menstrual problems, and high cholesterol levels. As you might imagine, hypothyroidism is often mistaken for other ailments, especially depression or even laziness.

Iodine deficiency was once the most frequent cause of hypothyroidism. Although today most Americans get plenty (and sometimes too much) of this trace mineral from iodized table salt, there still exists a significant minority who don't get enough or whose absorption is impaired. Nowadays, the most frequent cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body manufactures antibodies that attack thyroid tissue and suppress production of the thyroid hormone. There are other thyroid conditions that may also lead to hormonal underproduction. Stress, nutritional deficiencies, inactivity, some medications, and hormonal fluctuations as a result of pregnancy and menopause also have a role to play.

Hypothyroidism is more common in women. The balance of estrogen and progesterone can have an indirect influence on the thyroid glands. Most common is estrogen dominance, where relatively higher estrogen levels suppress thyroid function. This predisposition can occur throughout a woman's life. Women on synthetic estrogen therapy are particularly susceptible to decreased thyroid function.

The effects of stress and the balance of stress hormones are also important in thyroid function. Chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol suppresses thyroid function, while low levels of DHEA appear to make one more susceptible to hypothyroidism.

Toxic metals, such as mercury, lead, arsenic, and others, can also interfere with thyroid activity.

Although hypothyroidism can wreak havoc upon your entire body, it is easy to treat, especially if caught in its early stages. If you suspect that you have an underactive thyroid, follow the instructions given here for taking your basal body temperature. If your body temperature is consistently low, you should see a doctor for an evaluation. For mild cases, nutritional supplements can set you back on track quickly. For people with more severe cases, the use of thyroid hormone replacement may be required. Even if you require a thyroid hormone supplement, you should complement this regime of supplementation with dietary changes, stress-reducing activities, exercise, and general hormone balancing. more

Next: What are the Symptoms of Hypothyroidism

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