The thyroid is an incredibly important part of your body, but you likely have very little idea of how it actually works and how to optimize it.
If that’s the case, it’s ok – you’re not alone.
There’s a fair bit to learn when it comes to the thyroid in order to be a true expert, but in reality you don’t need to be an “expert” to start to improve your thyroid function and overall metabolism. This is one of the big misconceptions floating around out there, unfortunately.
If you look a little bit online you’ll find plenty of people spitting facts and questions alike about the complexity surrounding the thyroid – as well as some of their own personal struggles with it to boot. While you can glean a bit of information here and there from these people’s anecdotal experiences or even medical websites, this doesn’t always equate to a true understanding or a concrete path towards fine tuning your own heath.
What I’ve discovered about the thyroid both from personal experience, that of clients’, as well as researching and learning on my own and from others is that the thyroid gland is in fact a complex part of the body. It affects – and is affected by – many other areas.
With that being said, the true question is how can we simplify things to make what we need to understand about it easy to remember and truly applicable to us?
I think the key is to break down the basics and then go from there. If you want or need to learn more, depending on how much you need to hack your own health, then that’s ok.
There’s always more to learn.
But to start, it’s crucial to not get too overwhelmed or too distracted by myriad facts or even, potentially, misinformation.
Where to Start: What is the Thyroid?
If you haven’t read it and want to get a deeper understanding of the thyroid, take a look at What is your Thyroid and How Does it Work? where the inner workings of this complex organ and it’s effects on the body are broken down. For the moment, let’s look at a more basic overview of the thyroid, how it works, and how you can start to optimize it.
For starters, the thyroid is a major part of your endocrine system, the part of your body responsible for producing and maintaining hormone levels throughout the body. The thyroid is really a gland and it takes nutrients from the foods you eat to make two main hormones referred to as, you guessed it, “thyroid” hormones.
These main two hormones are triiodothyronine and thyroxine, both of which are more often referred to in the short hand as T3 and T4, respectively.
The basic idea is that your body needs a balanced level of both of these hormones, and it never wants them too high or too low. If they are at an optimal level, they will influence your health in a positive way. To put it simply, an optimally functioning thyroid and hence thyroid hormone levels means better physical health, mental health, and a healthier metabolism.
On the flip side, yep you guessed it, if your thyroid is underperforming or your thyroid hormones are at less than desirable levels, then you will be potentially subject to a host of issues across the board with your physical and mental health, as well as your metabolism.
When people have thyroid issues they often complain about problems with sluggish weight loss, increased body fat, low energy levels, depression or anxiety, moodiness, and sometimes quite a few other symptoms. People who have an overactive thyroid can experience the same issues listed above, as well as other features of an overly “revved up” metabolism such as increased weight loss – and more.
One thing that’s probably important to note is that you’ll often hear people say that an under active thyroid and low levels of thyroid hormones mean you will have a certain set of symptoms, while an over active thyroid (and hence elevated levels of thyroid hormones) mean you will have another set.
While this is sometimes the case, it may not be true for everyone. That’s one of the things that makes the thyroid a bit frustrating at times to figure out: how it interplays with the rest of the body isn’t always exactly predictable or clear. It can be pretty damn complex.
But the goal, as we said – at least here – is to try to unwrap the basics in a way that can help us understand things a bit better.
From there hopefully you can use the info as needed to improve your body and your situation.
The Problem(s): How Things can Get Tricky
One thing I’ll add to clarify (and perhaps reiterate) since I just mentioned how unpredictable the thyroid can be is that sometimes your health when it comes to your metabolism and thyroid functioning can be a little unclear. What I mean here is that very often you might experience other health issues that lead into or contribute to thyroid dysfunction.
In other words, it becomes a chicken and egg problem where you may not know what issue came first…
This starts to create a vicious cycle where often then the original health issue becomes worse because of failing or suboptimal thyroid functioning.
On the flip side, often you might have suboptimal thyroid functioning to begin with, and then develop other health issues as a result. These other health issues then feed into a process whereby thyroid functioning degrades further and, like an unraveling ball of yarn, both the original problem and the thyroid problem continue to get bigger.
These are both bad places to be if you’re experiencing either one of them.
But there’s a bigger problem that you could be dealing with in either scenario.
And, unfortunately it’s something that many people face. It’s also why the thyroid gets such a bad reputation as being notoriously hard to figure out, and in some cases impossible to figure out.
What is that bigger problem?
In either of the cases above where your thyroid may be impaired, the bigger problem would be you not even being aware of your thyroid or health being in a state of dysfunction…
That is the bigger problem.
For most people, an awareness that the thyroid even exists, let alone could be influencing their health (or lack thereof) in a big way is almost nonexistent.
This is a big issue and it’s caused by a few things, but the primary ones are a lack of knowledge or poor education by friends, family, the internet – or, yes, even some medical professionals.
Sure, there are plenty of people out there that may be unhealthy or struggling with issues related to their health that don’t really have an issue with their thyroid. But in most cases, there is often some degree of dysfunction. This doesn’t mean most people need to be taking medication to treat their thyroid, because often simple lifestyle adjustments may be all they need.
The bigger issue is that both the people with a mostly optimal thyroid as well as – in some cases – those with a real problem are often overlooked by doctors. They are diagnosed with other conditions and prescribed medications that they treat some of their symptoms, but don’t get at the real root cause of why they’re feeling unwell.
At that point, the thing that can confound all of this is that sometimes treating the other issues does improve the health of your metabolism and your thyroid hormone levels (assuming they are off).
This can happen particularly if the illness (or the stress from the illness) is causing the thyroid to become ill functioning.
In most cases though, you want to be aware of all the moving parts in your body you can, and try to address the thyroid issue (if you have one) independently but at the same time as other issues that you may be experiencing. This is because none of the issues you have – thyroid or otherwise – operate in a vacuum.
They are all interrelated.
With that being said, if you are fortunate enough to become aware of the importance of thyroid health and it’s impact on the entire body, then the question becomes are you getting the right facts, and proceeding towards optimizing things in the right fashion?
Getting Optimized: First Things First
Before we get into some more specific steps you can take to optimize your thyroid, let’s review some issues and points that you should be aware of to help you on your path towards being as healthy as possible.
Issue / Point #1:
There are also other thyroid hormones in the body that you want to pay attention to, and you’re going to want to also try to test their levels (if possible). Most doctors will tell you that you only need to know the levels of T3, T4, and TSH, (and some will tell you that you only need to measure TSH) but the truth is if you can run the levels of some of the other thyroid hormones you’ll be in an even better position.
If you can’t and can only get your T3, T4, and TSH levels tested that’s still ok and you can get pretty far, but try to find a doctor that will do as comprehensive of a thyroid blood panel as possible.
Issue / Point #2:
Paying attention to both how you feel as well as the blood results you obtain are both crucial and should be weighed equally. If you have a doctor that ignores your symptoms and only pays attention to blood results, while flat out denying treatment or any other further testing, this is a red flag.
If your medical expert takes this stance, while also providing no substantially helpful alternative suggestions when you get blood results that don’t show that you have issues, despite you having symptoms, then you should start looking for a new physician.
An expert will take into account both how you feel (what symptoms you have, and how you’re functioning overall), as well as what the blood results show, in order to come up with an appropriate and effective treatment plan.
Issue / Point #3:
Do not come off or tweak your current thyroid medication or other medication you’re on if you’re currently taking prescriptions or supplements. Once you get an expert opinion on what’s going on with your body, and hopefully a full treatment plan, you may be able to make changes – but changing things without consulting an expert is not smart and can lead to further issues.
Issue / Point #4:
“Natural” treatments are not better than prescription treatments or vice versa. Do not get caught up in thinking that one is great while the other is harmful or ineffective. You have to find what works for you, but also need an expert to help you. Trying to be as objective and emotionless about the process, and the tools you’ll be using is the best approach you can take.
Issue / Point #5:
Realize that if you’re already experiencing issues you need to fix or you even just want to protect or enhance your current normal level of functioning, there are going to be a lot of factors involved. Your lifestyle, diet, supplements, sleep, exercise, stress, and medications all play a role in optimizing your thyroid.
Everything that affects your health in a general or specific way is going to affect your thyroid and vice versa.
Issue / Point #6:
If you have a medical professional that tells you your thyroid issues are a function of your age (IE getting older), and doesn’t offer a solution to help you begin to improve your health, fire them. Your thyroid may change with age, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be optimizing the functioning of the body you have now with whatever resources available to you.
Getting Optimized: What to Do
So at this point you can see that the thyroid can be a tricky thing to manage and potentially challenging to optimize. There really is a lot to it and anyone who tells you differently isn’t someone whose advice you want to take seriously. At the end of the day though, the goal is to improve your thyroid in the easiest and most effective way possible.
If you do this you’ll give yourself the best chance at cranking up your metabolism and optimizing your overall health in the process.
And you can do it.
So let’s start by reviewing the best ways to improve thyroid function so you can get on the path to better health today.
When you break it down the most important elements to be aware of when it comes to thyroid function, as mentioned above, are the following: sleep, supplements, exercise, nutrition, and stress
Let’s take a look at each of them individually both from the standpoint of how they influence the thyroid as well as how you can control or tweak them to optimize your thyroid.
Sleep is as important as any of the other factors listed below when it comes to your thyroid. A lack of sleep or sleeping very weird hours can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm, thereby wrecking your thyroid. Sleep deprivation has an impact not only on the thyroid hormones themselves, but also other hormones in your body like testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol in both men and women.
When these sex hormones become suboptimal they can have a negative impact on thyroid hormones, even if your thyroid hormones were already ok.
The trick with sleep is three fold:
First of all make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night.
Secondly, make sure the sleep is high quality (if you sleep a lot but don’t wake up rested, there is a chance you’re not getting quality sleep).
Finally, try adding naps into your routine if you find yourself tired or feeling burned out during the day.
It’s better to get more sleep than you need versus less, but unfortunately you can’t build up a surplus. But your body will definitely keeps tabs on things when you’re not getting enough.
So get better sleep, and get it when you can.
The idea behind supplements is two fold: they allow your body to get nutrients you aren’t getting in your diet currently. They also help to give you an optimal level of certain micronutrients that you could still struggle to take in and absorb for one reason or another – even with a perfect diet.
Nutritional supplements are those defined as having a positive impact on health and validated by science to help support levels of key nutrients in the body. The differentiation here between regular supplements is that nutritional supplements in particular are shown to provide specific things for the body, helping to improve overall health.
This is especially true if you are deficient in certain nutrients. While the whole topic of supplements is a very interesting one as it relates to our overall health, when it comes to thyroid optimization, here are five of some of the more important supplements you may need:
Vitamin D – research has found that most people with hypothyroidism (or an under active thyroid) tend to have lower levels of Vitamin D than those without thyroid dysfunction. Vitamin D is not only used to create many hormones throughout the body, but it has direct impacts on mood, bone density, insulin levels and energy. Ideally you want your levels of Vitamin D when tested to be between 50-80 ng/ml.
Vitamin C – this supplement, like Vitamin D, is also found in food, but some argue that we need more of it than we get through the foods we eat. People who eat a processed food diet often struggle to obtain optimal Vitamin C levels. Vitamin C not only helps with immune function and recovery from exercise, but it is a strong antioxidant and also has a direct impact on reducing stress and inflammation, at least partly due to it’s ability to lower cortisol levels in the body.
Zinc – this powerful supplement helps the body convert T4 to T3 so it plays an important role in optimizing thyroid functioning. Studies have also shown that a zinc deficiency caused thyroid hormone levels to drop and lowered people’s resting metabolism. While zinc is important in both men and women, studies have also shown that zinc can help support healthy testosterone levels in men, which can have a positive impact on other hormones in the body including the thyroid hormones.
Selenium – this supplement is taken by the body and turned into glutathione, a very potent antioxidant, which plays a role in reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. Because of it’s ability to do this, selenium may also reduce antibodies that may be present if you have a more serious form of thyroid disease. Or, it may reduce your chances of developing antibodies if you’re otherwise healthy.
Selenium also is crucial in helping the body convert T4 (the inactive form of thyroid hormone) to T3 (the active form). Getting Selenium through food is a great goal, but is often difficult, especially if you want to optimize things. It’s also important to note that if you have a deficiency of iodine in your body, then selenium can worsen thyroid function; so get iodine levels checked before adding selenium to your supplement stack.
Magnesium – this natural supplement is responsible not only for converting T4 into T3 like Selenium, but is also helps the body make T4. Magnesium is also important because if you don’t have enough of it, you’ll be more likely to develop goiter, or an enlarged thyroid gland. Iodine, mentioned above, is also important for preventing goiter.
Additionally, Magnesium, like most of the supplements mentioned here, is also important for other processes in the body so it’s important to take a look at whether you have a thyroid issue, want to optimize your thyroid, or even just want to look at how to optimize your health.
Exercise is as crucial to the health of our thyroid as any other factor, via the effects it has on the entire body. Exercise, when used appropriately has a number of benefits that relate directly to the thyroid. It allows the body to more efficiently produce hormones that contribute to the creation and maintenance of thyroid hormones, as well as being important in and off themselves.
It has a positive impact on neurotransmission and neurotransmitter levels, which control how the brain communicates with the body as well as having a strong impact on the heath of our hormones. Exercise also reduces fat and reduces stress, both of which are things that can hamper proper thyroid functioning when present in larger amounts.
Additionally, exercise helps the body eliminate toxins through sweat, which otherwise could affect the thyroid and other areas of the body in a detrimental way.
But exercise is dose dependent.
This means you want to do enough to get the positive benefits, but not so much that you start to harm your system. When it comes to working out, the key is to do enough to stress your system, but to also make sure you’re recovering from said workout.
If the body starts to get into a state where it’s playing catch up on recovery, then the exercise begins to be perceived by the body as a stress versus a boon.
This creates a vicious cycle where the body has more trouble maintaining proper adrenal function and hormone levels – and the thyroid is almost always affected to some degree.
The key is to exercise enough to slowly get stronger both in terms of your cardiovascular conditioning as well as your muscle strength. You also want to try to reduce your body fat if this is a problem as that in and off itself will often improve how your thyroid is working.
The other main aim with working out is to get the body to utilize and eliminate the stress hormones that accumulate in our systems throughout the day, which would otherwise have a negative impact on our health.
Although nutrition is often a hotly debated topic and there’s always some new diet trend that one person loves and the next hates, nutrition as it relates to the thyroid does not have to be difficult.
In short, whole natural nutrient rich food items are going to be your best bet when it comes to optimizing your thyroid. It doesn’t matter if your thyroid is already out of whack, or you’re just trying to be healthy to prevent thyroid issues, this is going to be the way to go.
To keep it simple, what this means is that you should avoid some of the following things as much as possible: processed foods, soda, alcohol (in moderation or not at all), as well as other foods that may not agree with you. If you find certain foods seem to make you sick or bloated these may be necessary to avoid.
The ill feeling and bloating could be an indication that the food item is something your system is sensitive too and it could be causing both gut inflammation as well as increasing inflammation throughout the rest of your body. Inflammation is a natural process, but too much of it is bad – both for your thyroid as well as the rest of the body.
For the most part, you should be experimenting with minimizing your intake of dairy as well as that of gluten. That’s not because these foods are bad per se, but because they are often culprits in increasing gut and systemic (total body) inflammation.
While you may have been eating these foods for years without feeling any negative symptoms, this does not mean they are necessarily good for you or are not having a negative impact on your system.
As far as foods you should focus on? Think about focusing on the following: nutrient rich meats, eggs, fish, vegetables and some seeds and nuts. To a lesser extent fruit and some dairy can be added, as well as low gluten or gluten free grains, but these should be ancillary to the former items.
Note: one supplement that was not mentioned above (there are a few more out there) was B12, which is great to supplement, but can be gotten in eggs, meat and health vegetables. (so more reason to eat those foods!)
The trick is to see how cutting out some foods that you think may be bothering you (and affecting your overall health) improves how you feel and then go from there.
If you start to cut out bad foods slowly while adding in “good” foods, you will eventually get to a place where healthy eating becomes natural and you have a better shot at keeping your thyroid optimized – or fixing it if you are already struggling to a greater degree.
#5. Stress Reduction:
Stress reduction is last but definitely not least on the list of things you want to manage to optimize your thyroid. In fact, stress reduction is probably as important as any other item on this list.
Reducing your stress levels, like improving many other things you’re doing, will go a long way to improving your overall health. Most people get this and have heard it before. But what you may not know is that not only will improving stress levels help your thyroid, but helping your thyroid will also decrease the way you experience stress.
It’s a two way street, and you want to attack health optimization from both directions.
As mentioned briefly above, when we are experiencing stress but are healthy, we have defenses we can use to combat the situation. But when we are unhealthy or overly stressed, the body’s defenses begin to weaken and submit to the stressor. This then begets more stress because even if the stress hasn’t increased, our body is weakened and will struggle to maintain balance with any form of stress.
Stress can come in many forms. It can be psychological, it can be hormonal, physical, or even environmental. Some of the main ways we encounter stress is through work or relationship situations that may weigh on us, workouts or physical movement that may be breaking us down, lack of sleep, poor diet, and a stressful living environment.
As you can see, stress is a little bit more complicated than we sometimes realize. The good news is that there are quite a few ways to reduce stress, which of course is the goal, and it really just depends on your situation and what works for you.
For most people there are a variety of angles of attack that will help reduce stress, based on your specific circumstances.
For instance, if you are struggling with your diet, then you need to slowly remove the bad foods that are increasing inflammation and body fat and add in good foods that will help to strengthen your body.
If you are struggling with psychological stress, then you may need to try stress reducing activities such as yoga and meditation and exercise, or even look into counseling or medications and other supplements (in addition to the ones mentioned above) that can help your mental health.
If you are struggling with a stressful personal or work relationship or situation or living environment then you need to look into whether the relationship or situation can be changed or perhaps remove yourself (if possible) form the situation entirely.
If you are struggling with sleep, you need to look into the myriad ways you can improve the amount or quality of sleep you’re getting until you find something that helps you.
If you are struggling with workouts that are too hard or a physical demanding lifestyle then you should look into ways you can reduce the physical load you’re dealing with, increase recovery, or – ideally – both.
What is interesting about all the situations mentioned above is that if you improve one, you’ll likely automatically improve the other. As you begin to reduce stress, the way you perceive other stressors may change in a positive way (IE the other stressors won’t seem so bad).
Another thing that often occurs is that as you improve your thyroid, previous stressors can also seem easier to bear. At this point should still try to eliminate or reduce them, but if you cannot, you have the resources to endure them if they can’t be lessened at present.
Should I take Thyroid Medication to get Optimized?
Medications can definitely play an important role in recovering from a thyroid illness or even just optimizing your thyroid. The answer as to whether or not you should take medication depends on a variety of factors that only you and a doctor can decide.
If you’ve been struggling with thyroid related issues and have tried other approaches to no avail, then medication may be something to consider.
There are both natural and pharmaceutical based medications available. The most common prescription medications you will hear about are cytomel or liothyronine as well as levothyroxine. These are essentially the same as T3 and T4, but in pill form.
Depending on your symptoms and what type of expert you go to see, these medications may be recommended or natural approaches may also be offered. Both can be effective, but again it depends on your body and your symptoms, as well as your past medical history.
Not to mention your personal feeling and confidence level about each approach.
Many people can recover from less serious thyroid issues with a combination of diet and supplementation, while others need medication as well as an improvement to their eating habits and (likely) supplementation and lifestyle changes as well.
For people who are scared at the prospect – or even feel guilt or shame – about taking medications to help their thyroid, you’re not alone. The thing to remember is that the goal is to improve your health and get back to feeling good. And the road is yours and yours alone, so try not to worry about the opinion of others as it relates to your own health.
Another important point to realize is that often times a medication treatment may be temporary, and if it improves your health, there will likely be very few downsides to taking the medication. At the same time, some people need to take these medications long term, and that’s ok too if overall your health has improved with the help of these specific tools.
The goal is to get better, make that your focus, and to continually try to learn more about your body as you go, because as with many areas of life, health optimization is a long term and never ending process.