What does the thyroid do?
The thyroid is a gland located in the neck that produces thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormone production is important for hormone balance, metabolism, and energy levels–and basically every other system in your body. Thyroid hormones also help to control other essential functions such as heart rate and blood pressure.
The most common type of thyroid disease is hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism–or low thyroid–occurs when the thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormone.
This can cause a number of problems, including weight gain, fatigue, and depression.
Many people with hypothyroidism don’t notice symptoms until the condition has progressed. By that time, it can become more difficult to treat.
What it feels like if you have a thyroid issue
If you have any issues with thyroid dysfunction, you’re not alone. As many as 20 million adults in the U.S. have some form of thyroid disorder (1). Symptoms of
thyroid problems include:
- Fatigue no matter how much you sleep at night
- Unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- Brain fog, poor concentration, and poor memory
- Anxiety and depression
- Cold hands and feet
- Dry or cracking skin
- Hair loss, or brittle hair
As many as 60 percent of those who have thyroid issues are completely unaware they have any issues with their thyroid (1). This may be due to thyroid dysfunction symptoms often overlapping with what people consider “normal” signs of aging or chronic stress.
Speak with a patient care coordinator about testing your thyroid function.
How does thyroid function affect weight loss and weight gain?
When it comes to weight loss, thyroid health is one of the most important players in integrative medicine.
There are a few different ways that the thyroid can affect weight loss or gain:
- Thyroid hormones help to control the body’s metabolic rate. The metabolic rate is the rate at which the body burns calories. A sluggish thyroid can lead to a reduced metabolic rate.
- The thyroid helps to regulate appetite. Thyroid hormones can affect–and be affected by–blood glucose and insulin. When these are out of balance, thyroid problems may increase cravings and appetite (2).
- Thyroid hormones help to control how much energy the body uses (3). Without sufficient thyroid hormone production, your cells aren’t able to make enough energy to keep you motivated, alert, and focused.
Thyroid hormones directly impact the basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the number of calories your body burns at rest. They also help to control how efficiently the body uses energy from food and influences carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism.
To illustrate just how important healthy thyroid function is, remember this: Every single cell in your body has a receptor for thyroid hormone. The only other thing that comes close to the whole-body effects of thyroid hormone is vitamin D (4).
Hashimoto’s is the most common type of hypothyroidism
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or just Hashimoto’s, is the most common type of hypothyroidism. It is an autoimmune thyroid disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the thyroid gland. Those with autoimmune thyroid disease will likely find it hard to lose weight until the root cause of their low thyroid is addressed.
The thyroid gland is responsible for producing two main hormones: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). T3 is the active form of thyroid hormone and is responsible for the body’s metabolic rate.
T4 is the storage form of thyroid hormone and is converted to T3 as needed. With autoimmune thyroid disease, like Hashimoto’s, the body makes antibodies to certain thyroid hormones, preventing them from doing their jobs and also reducing thyroid function.
Functional Medicine testing for Hashimoto’s and other thyroid problems
To test for autoimmune thyroid disease, your doctor will need to detect the presence of thyroid antibodies. These tests typically aren’t included in most conventional metabolic panels. In integrative medicine, doctors can help you determine if a full thyroid panel that includes testing for autoimmune thyroid conditions is appropriate for you.
If you’re experiencing any thyroid symptoms, speak with your provider about the following labs:
- TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone)
- Free and total T4
- Free and total T3
- TPO Ab (thyroid peroxidase)
- Thyroglobulin Ab
- RT3 (reverse T3)
Hashimoto’s is a progressive thyroid disease, which means it gets worse over time. The earlier it is diagnosed, the better the chance of reversing some of the damage.
In functional medicine, treatment for Hashimoto’s may include a bioidentical thyroid hormone replacement, as well as diet changes like omitting gluten and optimizing other nutrients like iodine and selenium.
Blood sugar, thyroid health, and weight
Another major factor that makes it very difficult to lose weight is the balance of blood glucose and insulin within the body. These two factors are also relevant for thyroid function.
Studies show that insulin resistance and inflammation may increase the amount of damage to the thyroid in those with autoimmune thyroid diseases like Hashimoto’s (5).
The thyroid impacts your blood sugar levels, which means that thyroid dysfunction may result in unhealthy blood sugar levels (6). Unfortunately, this only places you at increased risk for metabolic syndrome, the symptoms of which include increased body weight.
Why ‘normal’ thyroid hormones may still make it hard to lose weight
Subclinical hypothyroidism is a condition in which you have some, but not all, of the symptoms of hypothyroidism. Many people with subclinical hypothyroidism don’t know they have it because their thyroid hormone levels fall within the normal range on standard blood tests. The most common cause of subclinical hypothyroidism is autoimmune Hashimoto’s (7).
If you’re finding it hard to lose weight while eating healthy and staying active, you may want to get your thyroid checked out. Subclinical hypothyroidism can be treated with thyroid hormone replacement therapy, as well as dietary changes and supplements like iodine and selenium (8).
In functional medicine, we take a holistic approach to healing hypothyroidism by addressing the root causes of the problem. This may include diet and lifestyle changes, as well as supplements and thyroid hormone replacement therapy.
Get started: Weight Loss with Integrative Medicine
Integrative treatment for underactive thyroid function
In Integrative medicine, the holistic treatment for an underactive thyroid may include dietary changes, supplements, and thyroid medications.
For autoimmune thyroid disease, and others, the goal of treatment is to keep thyroid hormone levels as close to normal as possible. This helps to protect the thyroid gland and prevents it from being further damaged.
Foods to eat (and avoid) if you have low thyroid function
Some of the dietary changes that may be recommended if you experience thyroid issues include omitting gluten–especially for Hashimoto’s–and foods that can reduce gut health, eating plenty of healthy fats, and consuming iodine-rich foods like seaweed and sea vegetables.
Your functional medicine practitioner may also recommend taking supplements like selenium, magnesium, and zinc.
In general, it’s best to avoid processed foods and eat a whole-food diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins. In general, this eating pattern is supportive of weight loss after you address the root cause of your low thyroid hormone production.
Some of the best foods to eat if you have hypothyroidism include:
- Organic meats like beef, lamb, chicken, and turkey
- Fish like salmon, cod, tuna, and halibut
- Organic fruits and vegetables like berries, apples, kale, and broccoli
- Healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds
A nutrient-rich superfood powder can help boost nutrition during busy days
When it comes to foods to avoid if you have hypothyroidism, some of the biggest culprits are foods that are high in sugar and refined carbs. These foods can cause blood sugar spikes, which can have a negative effect on thyroid health.
Some of the foods to avoid include:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas and fruit juices
- Refined carbs like white bread, pasta, and rice
- Packaged snacks like cookies, cake, and candy
- Processed meats like hot dogs and bacon
- Artificial sweeteners like aspartame
When you eat a nutrient-rich diet, your body has the tools it needs to heal and function optimally.
The importance of getting regular checkups with your doctor if you have thyroid problems
The best way to approach problems with your thyroid gland is by working with a Functional Medicine physician who’s equipped to address the root cause of your issues–not just their symptoms. Depending on what’s causing your difficulty losing weight, your doctor may also recommend targeted supplementation and/or medication as well as lifestyle changes, like removing gluten from your diet.
This is where it helps to have a collaborative team of professionals who specialize in the functional approach to helping you overcome your health issues. At CentreSpringMD your care team might include:
- An integrative physician to order diagnostic testing and blood work, and to oversee treatment
- A nutritionist or dietitian to recommend targeted diet changes, like removing food sensitivities, and inflammatory foods
- A health coach to guide your healthy habits
- An energy healing or mindfulness expert to help you learn how to maintain balance in your overall well being
Learn more about holistic hormone balance support at CentreSpringMD
Integrative Medicine for Weight Loss
If you’re experiencing difficulty losing weight despite exercising and eating healthy, it could be that your thyroid hormone levels are not within the optimal range. Hypothyroidism makes weight loss very difficult for men and women alike. It is estimated that up to 20% of adults in the U.S.–or about 30 million people–have hypothyroidism, but go undetected on conventional tests because their TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) level falls within what’s considered “normal”.
If you suspect hypothyroidism may be interfering with your ability to shed pounds – talk with an integrative medicine doctor about testing your thyroid levels.