For such a small gland, the thyroid can cause big problems. Located in the front of the throat, the thyroid’s job is to produce hormones that regulate metabolism, crucial for many physical functions.
Low levels of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) can cause sensitivity to cold, weight gain, fatigue and depression. Overproduction of thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can cause sweating, weight loss, anxiety, hair loss and heart palpitations.
Jim McDaniel, DC, a chiropractic physician with The Wellness Center, says that most of his patients report at least some of the symptoms associated with hypothyroidism. “Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, a condition where the body attacks itself, in this case the thyroid gland,” he explains. “Currently, Hashimoto’s is the most common reason for hypothyroid disorder in the United States, with estimates as high as 90 percent of all hypothyroid cases.”
The causes of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Grave’s disease, which causes hyperthyroidism, are unclear, and the body’s chemical and neural mechanisms relating to thyroid function are complex. “The thyroid gland does not stand alone in function,” McDaniel notes. “It is part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a neuro-endocrine control mechanism.”
This complicated interplay of functions and chemicals may be difficult to pinpoint and treat, so individuals who think their thyroid may be to blame for unpleasant symptoms need to seek professional medical care. “Problems can occur because people feel that they can self-medicate with supplements, and ‘fix’ themselves,” McDaniel says.
“There are many ways in which thyroid dysfunction expresses itself and even more pathways to become dysfunctional, most of which incorporate several levels of the HPA axis,” he continues. “Thyroid patients looking for the magic bullet through supplementation need to be very cautious. They could, quite simply, be doing more harm than good.”
To diagnose thyroid problems, Christine Salter, MD, DC, a chiropractic and family physician with Vibrant Health Family Medicine, begins with a thorough physical exam. Blood tests, an electrocardiogram and basal body temperature testing also help Salter determine if thyroid dysfunction is present.
Standard medical treatments depend on the specific diagnosis. A benign growth of thyroid cells, called a thyroid adenoma, can be removed surgically, she says. “Grave’s disease is often treated with radioactive iodine to ablate (kill) the gland. The patient then becomes hypothyroid, and thyroid hormone replacement is given to patients with low thyroid function.”
In addition to these measures, Salter checks patients’ iodine levels. Iodine is the element required by the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormone. “If deficient, I recommend iodine supplementation,” she says. “Also, there are certain foods that if eaten in excess can decrease thyroid function: cruciferous vegetables, unfermented soy, processed baked goods.”
As with many diseases and conditions, Salter notes that overall lifestyle choices play a part in optimizing health. “There is more to treating thyroid disorders than simply taking a medicine. It is important to support the gland with good nutrition and lifestyle.”