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Where to turn? Looking Beyond the Thyroid for Weight Management

thyroid and naturopathic weight management

Many of us are aware that the thyroid gland is the master controller of our metabolism. It controls the way our body uses energy to perform bodily functions.  Essentially, our metabolism involves a vast array of chemical processes that maintain life in any living being.  If you have been diagnosed with a thyroid condition or have been labelled with the term “hypothyroid” or “hyperthyroid”, your thyroid gland is demonstrating signs of dysfunction.

If our thyroid gland is under functioning or in a “hypothyroid” state, it is not producing enough thyroid hormones to drive our metabolism to use energy effectively.  This can help explain why common complaints of individuals diagnosed with this condition will complain about having dry, rough skin, brittle nails, hair loss or straw-like texture to hair, constipation, indigestion, fatigue, cold intolerances, weakness, weight gain or difficulty losing weight and the list goes on.  It’s all related to a decrease in the body’s metabolic rate.

In an over active “hyperthyroid” state, the opposite occurs within the body. The thyroid gland is over-producing its metabolically active hormones, causing the body to promote more energy expenditure.  People can complain of heart palpitations, sweating, insomnia, anxiety, oily or greasy hair and skin, diarrhea, feeling wired but tired and can have unintentional weight loss.

Out of all the thyroid-related disorders, most Canadians are diagnosed with the under active classification, mainly Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, a form of hypothyroidism.

If you’ve been given a hypothyroid diagnosis, chances are you’ve noticed some of the symptoms listed above, and more often than not, weight gain or an inability to lose weight has brought your frustration levels to an all time high.  This is often the number one complaint I hear from patients in my practice.  They have been told they have hypothyroidism and this is the reason why they have either put on weight or cannot lose weight. They have dedicated themselves to every diet and exercise routine and the readings on the scale just won’t budge.  This can be maddening for some individuals and they don’t know what else they can do?  Some are on thyroid medications like Synthroid, the most commonly prescribed medication for hypothyroidism, and even though their blood values show that their thyroid levels are “within the normal range”, they are still experiencing the metabolic challenges of being diagnosed with an underactive thyroid.

The same holds true for patients who are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, they may be struggling to put on weight because they are constantly burning through their energy stores which makes it difficult to maintain or build muscle and retain fat stores.  So, in the end, many men and women are left with normal lab values and without relief of their symptoms.

In my private practice, I always take a more holistic approach when it comes to metabolism that extends well beyond the thyroid gland.  Every patient typically gets a crash course in how to optimize their thyroid function, whether they are on medication or not.  The core foundations of health that need to be addressed that relate to metabolism include appetite and digestion, sleep patterns, diet and exercise.  Women more often than men struggle with both thyroid and adrenal gland dysfunction which complicates the saga of weight gain, however I have treated men with similar complaints and this is where the light bulb of awakening comes on.

Never heard of your adrenal glands before? They are tiny triangular shaped organs that have a vital role in regulating how our metabolism, including our thyroid gland functions.  These important organs release chemicals into our body that have an influence over our appetite, sleep patterns and blood sugar metabolism, blood pressure, and one of the most important functions of all, regulating our stress response in the body affects our metabolism.  The adrenal glands can directly impact the rate at which the thyroid gland functions and can either be helpful for our metabolism or harm it by making it more sluggish.

To make things simpler to understand, if we think of our thyroid as a campfire, the wood (aka the nutrition we consume in the form of food) helps keep the fire alive and creates heat (aka our metabolism).  Now if we add gasoline to the fire, the fire will burn brighter and hotter (increase or metabolic rate).  If we pour water over the fire, it will cool it down or put it out completely.  The agent (aka chemical hormone release by the adrenal glands) we are adding to the fire (our thyroid) affects how it functions, but it is controlling it by something external and not just relaying on the wood alone to keep it going.

This is often the missing link with women and men who are struggling with weight management when they have been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder.  We must look past the thyroid gland and focus on optimizing nutrition and regulating our adrenal gland functions to help our thyroid function optimally.  We should focus on foods that boost thyroid function, optimize physical activity that doesn’t burn out our adrenal glands, and support our body’s ability to use the medication or natural health product more efficiently in order to push past the hurdle of plateauing weight loss.

 

Here are my 3 Tips to optimize thyroid function to boost metabolism:

 

1. Check all the Thyroid Hormones

Ensure that you have had all your thyroid hormones checked and not just TSH. To have an accurate look at how your body is regulating its thyroid function, you cannot just look at one thyroid hormone. You need to look at these 4 parameters: TSH, T4 and T3 and reverse T3 (rT3).  Most medical professionals will monitor TSH and T4 in patients who are on medication.  TSH is not a hormone produced by the thyroid, it is actually produced in our brains and signals to the thyroid to make T4 and T3.  These are the hormones in the body that turn up or down or energy burning capabilities.  We actually make more T4 than T3 within the thyroid gland itself.  But why are we only getting half the picture of thyroid function on blood testing? What about T3 or reverse T3.  We can produce more T3 by changing the chemical structure of T4 once it is released from the gland which is why T3 is often referred to as the more metabolically active thyroid hormone.  If T3 is low, your metabolic rate will be lower, making it easier to gain weight and difficult to lose it.  Conversely, if your rT3 is high or high end or range, this means you are converting your T3 into it inactive form, blocking its ability to act on tissues to support your metabolic functions.  These latter two hormones identify a conversion issue that can often explain why individuals who are medicated are not relieved of their symptoms.  What can cause a decrease in T3 and/or an increase in rT3 you may be wondering?  The answer lies within the adrenal glands and the hormone cortisol.

2. Stress

Stress is something we are all constantly dealing with. Whether it is mental/emotional stress, physical or a mixture of both it will almost always slow down our metabolism. This is protective mechanism for our body to conserve energy.  What controls our stress response in the body? Remember those adrenal glands I keep mentioning, this is one of their critical functions.  They help release the stress hormone cortisol when our body needs it.  We need cortisol to be release in the morning when we wake up, when we’re are sick with a cold or flu to keep our inflammatory response in check.  We need it when we are working a deadline and need more energy to powder through.  It gets released when we are exercising to signal to the body to break down our sugar stores in the liver to give our muscles more fuel to build muscle.  What we don’t want to happen is have our stress hormone circulating through our body all the time, 24 hours a day.  This causes our adrenal glands to over work and eventually they will give up because they cannot keep up with the demand our body is putting us under. This is what happens when people are dealing with “chronic stress”.  It will suppress our immune system for an extended period making us more prone to illness.  It will eventually make us feel drained and fatigued and affect our concentration, and it will slow down our thyroid’s metabolic rate to help us conserve energy, which eventually can lead to weight gain.

So… we always should make sure our adrenal glands are supported by finding effective ways of managing our stress in our lives, and when I say managing stress I don’t just mean distracting ourselves from our worries… I mean actually DEALING with the stress.  We must try to take more time for ourselves and given less of ourselves to others.  We need to ask for help when we need it and not let our pride get in the way.  We should prioritize our lives to have a better work/life balance so we are not just focusing on our duties and responsibilities.  We must nourish our adrenal glands by eating whole, fresh, real food and not the foods high in refined sugar which are quite toxic to our bodies, promoting inflammation which can further deep the hole of struggling to lose weight.

3. Inflammatory Foods

From a general health perspective, you should try to cut out inflammatory foods from your diet. It is not enough to just take a “pill” and expect your body as a whole to be in perfect condition.  You must give your body the best type of fuel it needs in order to promote the most optimal function.  Eating lots of fresh fruits and cooked vegetables, reducing caffeine intake, increasing protein consumption to promote repair, and cutting out the processed sugar and saturated fats will positively boost thyroid function and metabolism, helping your body burn fat more efficiently, and at times requiring you to take less medication.  Cutting out sugar and caffeine specifically also put less burden on your adrenal glands, allowing them to not “burn out” and negatively influence your thyroid gland.

Supporting our metabolism in the face of a thyroid disorder is challenging, true, but if we approach our health from a holistic few to ensure all organ system involved in influencing our metabolic rate are in balance and functioning optimally, we can influence how effectively our thyroid gland is functioning and burning energy to tip the scales in favour of weight loss.

For more information, consult your naturopathic doctor to unlock your metabolic potential, naturally.

Health and harmony,

Dr. K

 

“Health is not just about treating the symptoms of disease. Health is an aspect of our wellbeing that allows us to live the most fulfilling and gratifying life.  It starts with optimizing our physical, mental and spiritual selves in the absence of disease”.

-Dr. Kaitlin Martinello, BSc ND

As one of Windsor-Essex premier Naturopathic Doctors with two private practices within the South Windsor and Tecumseh regions, , Dr. Kaitlin is passionate about optimizing the health of her patients through her integrative approach of developing the most individualized treatments while incorporating best practice and science to address the root cause of disease.  She is an advocate for patients, employing a collaborative approach with other practitioners, and strongly believes in empowering her patients through health education.

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