It’s an undeniable fact that thyroid disease is on the rise. More than 12% of the US population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime and up to 60% of people with a thyroid problem don’t know they have one. This is not too surprising as conventional medicine overlooks major aspects of thyroid health. Even integrative and alternative practitioners have their blind spots.
If you have a thyroid diagnosis and you are on medication, but you’re still experiencing symptoms, your doctor may be missing some of the key factors that are holding you back from optimal health. Maybe you don’t have a diagnosis yet but you’re dealing with fatigue, weight changes, brain fog, hair loss, mood imbalances, constipation, or temperature sensitivity and you’re not sure why. In either scenario, a great place to start is to review the following myths about thyroid disease so that you can begin to get a clearer picture of your thyroid health and your path to a symptom-free life.
Myth #1 Thyroid Dysfunction Only Affects Women
While it’s true that women are five to eight times more likely to develop thyroid dysfunction, men are not immune! However, it’s not uncommon for doctors to presume that a man’s symptoms do not point to thyroid dysfunction based on their sex alone. Since the conventional medical model is not focused on finding the root cause of dysfunction, misdiagnosis can easily occur. So, if you’re a man who’s been dealing with unexplained symptoms, be sure to advocate for yourself and have your thyroid function examined to the full extent.
Myth #2 If Your Labs Are “Normal” Your Thyroid Is Fine
If you’re dealing with those symptoms of being continuously fatigued and feeling like you’re living in a fog, that is not normal! When a doctor tells you that your thyroid labs are fine and therefore you are fine, but you’re still feeling miserable, you don’t have to take that as a final answer. Even if you have been diagnosed with a thyroid disease, are now on medication, and you’re testing “normally,” your symptoms may persist. Do not accept a life of constant struggle, there is more that can be done!
Unfortunately, many conventional doctors are using outdated reference ranges for thyroid markers. In 2003, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists recommended that the lab reference ranges become more narrow, but institutions have been slow to catch up. Functional medicine practitioners look at optimal references and listen to you as the patient to determine your course of treatment, because you know your body best.
Myth #3 TSH Is the Only Lab Marker That Matters
When you go to your conventional doctor and they suspect a thyroid issue, chances are they’ll only run a test for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Your body has a very intricate system for regulating your thyroid hormones, and when it senses they are low, your hypothalamus sends out thyroid releasing hormone (TRH). This signals your pituitary gland to produce TSH to increase thyroid hormone production. So, your TSH level is an indication of what your pituitary gland is doing based on your body’s internal feedback loop, not how your thyroid is functioning.
You may have plenty of T4, which is the inactive form of thyroid hormone, but if you’re not converting it into active T3 you’ll still experience hypothyroid symptoms. If your doctor only tests for TSH they’re not getting a complete picture of your thyroid function and they could overlook a diagnosis or stop digging for the real cause of your symptoms. That’s why it is crucial to run a complete thyroid panel, along with other hormone and functional lab tests.
Myth #4 TRH and TSH Don’t Matter at All
Just as conventional medicine has blind spots, integrative medicine does too. Many integrative thyroid experts have swung too far in the other direction and don’t look at TRH and TSH at all, which can be just as harmful. Sometimes they are so focused on your T3 levels that treatments they prescribe suppress your TRH and TSH levels. This is problematic because TRH affects your autonomic nervous system, which controls your fight or flight response. Many thyroid patients are dealing with high stress levels and adrenal fatigue, so you want to make sure the whole system is in balance.
TRH also affects your stomach acid, HCL, which is key for breaking down food. Plus, it plays a role in producing serotonin to regulate your mood. HCL impacts insulin and blood sugar levels as well. Therefore, medical professionals must look at the bigger picture and view the body as a whole when treating thyroid dysfunction. Changes in one area can have far-reaching effects.
Myth #5 Stress Isn’t Important for Managing Your Thyroid
Along those same lines, your stress hormones have a big impact on thyroid hormones because they’re both part of your endocrine system. You can think of your endocrine system as a symphony where all of your hormones need to be playing together in harmony. If your stress levels are high for a long period of time due to chronic stress, it can suppress thyroid hormone production, keep your thyroid hormones stuck in their inactive state, and even lead to thyroid hormone resistance. The good news is that stress levels can be addressed through simple lifestyle changes.
Myth #6 Gut Health Doesn’t Impact Thyroid Function
Gut health is all the rage right now, and for good reason! Your gut affects virtually every system in your body and thyroid function is no exception. About 20% of your thyroid hormones are converted from their inactive state to their active state in your gut. Your digestive tract is also where you absorb the nutrients necessary for thyroid function, including iodine, selenium, zinc, and iron. If you’re dealing with gut imbalances such as dysbiosis, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), or a deficiency in HCL, these processes are disrupted.
There’s also a really common bacterial gut infection called H. pylori that can lead to stomach ulcers and has been linked to thyroid dysfunction. One study found that 86% of autoimmune thyroid patients had an H. pylori infection, yet it isn’t commonly tested for. This is another argument for looking at the body as a whole and seeing how interconnected systems are affecting each other and impacting your health.
Myth # 7 Giving Up Gluten Is a Cure-all for Thyroid Dysfunction
This misconception can be found all over the internet. Now, it is true that gluten can play a major role in thyroid health. It leads to inflammation and triggers leaky gut; both of which can lead to thyroid dysfunction, especially autoimmune thyroid disorders, including Hashimoto’s and Graves’. Gluten also has a similar protein structure to your thyroid hormone so it can trigger an autoimmune attack on your thyroid through a mistaken identity phenomenon called molecular mimicry.
Removing gluten from your diet, at least temporarily to see how your body responds and if your symptoms and lab markers improve, is a useful recommendation for thyroid patients. However, as previously mentioned, there are so many factors that play a role in thyroid function. In many cases, removing gluten alone will not entirely fix the dysfunction. To restore optimal function long term, your whole health picture must be assessed so that the cause of your thyroid imbalance can be discovered and treated.
At GrassRoots Functional Medicine, we always take a comprehensive approach to thyroid health. If you’re tired of being told that everything’s okay when you absolutely do not feel okay, check out our Adaptation Programs. If it looks like we might be a good fit for you, join us for a free discovery call. We promise to listen intently and share ways that we can help you reach your health goals.
About the Author: Dr. Seth Osgood is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certified Practitioner. Dr. Osgood received his post-graduate training in Functional Medicine through the IFM and from working with Dr. Amy Myers. He has helped people from around the world improve their health utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.