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Hypothyroidism: An Introduction


February 5, 2015 | Published by

doctors with patient by Flickr user Mercy Images

What is Hypothyroidism?

Simply put, hypothyroidism means an underactive thyroid gland. Despite its small size, everything slows down when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormone to keep the body running properly. It is estimated that 4.6% of the US population aged 12 and above has some form of hypothyroidism. Those most affected are people aged 50 or older, particularly female.

Before we go further into hypothyroidism, let’s talk about the gland itself. The thyroid is an endocrine (hormone-secreting) gland located at the front of the neck, just above the sternum. Your thyroid has some big responsibilities. In addition to controlling metabolism (the rate at which cells perform functions essential to life), the thyroid also helps keep the body warm. These important tasks are performed by releasing T4 and T3, hormones produced by the thyroid gland.

What Does Hypothyroidism Feel Like?

The thyroid plays a big part in many functions of the body, so symptoms of hypothyroidism can vary from person to person. Symptoms tend to develop over time, and can increase in severity if left untreated. Here are some of the more common symptoms of low thyroid function:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain not explained by diet or lifestyle
  • Constipation
  • Thin and brittle hair, skin and nails
  • Decreased tolerance for cold weather
  • Heavy and irregular menstrual periods

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can also lead to decreased sense of taste and smell, slow or slurred speech, mental health issues and infertility.

What Causes Hypothyroidism?

One of the leading causes of lowered thyroid production is autoimmune disease. These occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks a ‘good’ part of the body, like the thyroid gland. Autoimmune thyroiditis can begin suddenly, or develop over time. Hashimoto’s disease is a common example of hypothyroidism caused by autoimmune disease.

Hypothyroidism can also be caused by surgery and/or radiation on the thyroid gland. With surgery, part of all of the thyroid gland may need to be removed due to nodules, goiters, Grave’s disease, or even cancer. When part of the gland is removed, the remaining bit may be able to produce enough hormones to keep things relatively normal. If the whole gland is removed, hypothyroidism is certain.

Some other potential causes of lowered thyroid function are congenital hypothyroidism, thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland), certain medicines, damage to the pituitary glands (which gives the thyroid instructions to produce) and irregular levels of iodine.

The Thyroid-Adrenal Connection

About 80% of those suffering from adrenal fatigue also have a number of symptoms of low thyroid. Supporting the adrenal glands can also go a long way in supporting the thyroid gland. Underperforming adrenals can tax the thyroid, and vice versa.

Because thyroid controls metabolism and how efficiently the body uses energy, it affects every other system and organ in the body. The adrenal glands impact the thyroid too. Rising levels of cortisol (a stress hormone produced by the adrenals) can decrease the production of thyroid stimulating hormone, thus decreasing thyroid hormone production. High levels of cortisol can also cause thyroid hormone to be converted to a weaker form, creating low thyroid symptoms.

Because of their relationship, both low adrenal function and low thyroid function can create fatigue, sluggishness, lowered sex drive and depression.

How Do You Know if You Have Hypothyroidism?

Hypothyroidism shares symptoms with other conditions and diseases, so a physical exam and testing are usually required to find out for sure if you have a thyroid problem. There are different tests available to measure the presence and levels of thyroid hormone in the body, and vary by need. For example, there are different tests to determine the presence of Hashimoto’s disease.

Some types of hypothyroidism, using Hashimoto’s again as an example, require lifelong treatment. This typically involves the daily use of synthetic thyroid hormone, like Synthroid. Dietary changes are also recommended, as there are foods that can help (and foods that can inhibit) thyroid function. There are also vitamins and herbs that can help support thyroid function, such as selenium, zinc, Omega-3 fats, antioxidant vitamins (like A, C and E) and B vitamins.

Image Credits: Flickr user Mercy Health

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  • katherine yager says:

    my TSH reading has dropped from 0.07 to 0.05 in a year – have low thyroid after radiation due to pituitary tumour removal. What will bring this reading back to normal?

    • Hi Katherine,

      It’s difficult for us to say for sure. With hypothyroidism, it may be necessary to start a thyroid hormone treatment. The best way to know for sure, and determine the best treatment plan for you, is to speak with your practitioner. If you need help finding one in your area, we may be able to help.

  • Marlene Jenkin says:

    I have Hashimotos diagnosed 2005 and Crohns diagnosed 1973. At 68 I seem to have found a balance and feel well. I live in Crete and a recent 24 hour Saliva Test is confusing me. I have read that the readings recorded in ug/dl are not reliable for diagnostic purposes. All my readings are raised. I have been using progesterone cream and have read that this can cause cortisol to be raised. I do not seem to have symptoms of raised cortisol which is making me question the validity of the tests. Looking for comments/suggestions…

    • Hi Marlene,

      Micrograms per deciliter is a valid unit of measurement. many of the tests here give results measured in pg/ml (picograms per milliliter), which can be converted to ug/ml and vice versa. Any time you add hormones to your body, your hormone cascade can be affected. That’s not to say for certain your cortisol levels are being affected by the progesterone cream. Hormone testing, both before and after using hormonal treatments, would likely be the best way to know.

      • Sue says:


        I have read that someone with adrenal fatigue should not take any thyroid medicine (including armour thyroid) because it can worsen the adrenals and then people can have bad reactions. What does a person do who has moderate to severe adrenal fatigue but also has hypothyroidism? Thank you.

        • Hi Sue,

          Sometimes it is necessary for people to take thyroid medications. For some people, their thyroid simply will not produce enough thyroid hormone, which must be compensated in some way. There are many people who support their adrenal and thyroid glands simultaneously with little to no negative affect. Are you currently working with a practitioner?

  • Heather says:

    I’m a long time sufferer of Adrenal and Thyroid, but I never got the help I needed because doctors didn’t want to believe in adrenal issues and wanted to put me on Synthroid after they removed my thyroid. Well I educated myself and realized you also need T3 which is energy and metabolism, which surprise surprise not everyone makes and Synthroid only produces T4. Cause your thryoid just doesn’t produce t4 only..So I found a doctor that is helping me cure my Adrenal fatigue and put me on WP or Nature thyroid that is T4 and T3 combo and sometimes one might need Cytomel for extra T3. So if your fighting the bulge and can’t explain why you keep gaining and doing everything, that is why and request when they draw blood they check your T3 levels or reverse T3 if maybe your producing too much. Also one might want to be put on Armour, WP brands. That is one step in controlling your issues and getting on the right path for health. Good luck

  • Tracy says:

    I took Dr Wilson’s adrenal fatigue test and came up at moderate fatigue. In his book he mentioned some indicators of low functioning thyroid such as feeling worse after exercise, morning temperature and thinning hair. I previously was on synthroid but now my doctor says tests are normal and I am off synthroid. Dr Wilson mentioned some that his website would have information on supplements to support thyroid as well as those I can take for adrenal fatigue. Also, can you recommend a practitioner that is expert at adrenal fatigue and thyroid treatment in Santa Barbara County. Thank you!

    • Adrenal Fatigue Team says:

      Hi Tracy,

      Thank you for writing. The supplements in Dr. Wilson’s Adrenal Fatigue Quartet (Adrenal C Formula, Adrenal Rebuilder, Herbal Adrenal Support Formula, and Super Adrenal Stress Formula) can help to support the thyroid by supporting the adrenal glands and the entire stress response system. Dr. Wilson does have a formula specific to thyroid support, Thyro-Balance, that will be available later this year. We’ve sent you an email including practitioner referrals for the Santa Barbara County area. Please let us know if you did not receive it. Please let us know if we can help with anything further!

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