Recently, I was talking to my friend Angela, a 47-year-old woman who was frustrated because she was having difficulty losing weight. She also felt disheartened because she had low energy, fatigue, and often found it hard to get up in the morning. After asking her a few questions, she told me her hands and feet were often cold; she had bouts of mental sluggishness; and her breasts were often sore. Taking into account her responses, I advised her to get her thyroid checked. I suspected that she might be one of the 25 percent of perimenopausal women who had problems with her thyroid.
Angela told me that her doctor HAD checked her thyroid by running the usual thyroid function tests—TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), and T3 and T4 (both thyroid hormones). I wasn’t surprised to learn that the tests had come back “normal.” While it’s true that many women suffer from a variety of different thyroid conditions (such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Grave’s disease, and goiter), the vast majority of women with thyroid conditions have what’s known as “subclinical hypothyroidism.” The term subclinical refers to the fact that the standard thyroid tests come back within the normal range even though a woman has symptoms. Often, she’s told that nothing is wrong with her thyroid. Part of the reason why this occurs is that the symptoms associated with subclinical hypothyroidism are vague and difficult to diagnose—many women have the same complaints Angela has. So, it might be the thyroid; it might not.
Ideally, your TSH should be 1.5 mU/L or below. (TSH is a pituitary hormone that stimulates your thyroid to produce thyroid hormones.) If it’s higher than that, it means that your body is trying to stimulate your thyroid to produce more, but it’s not working as well as it should. Here’s the rub: For most reference labs, the “normal” TSH range goes up to 5.2! Many experts now agree that this level is too high for optimal thyroid function. Yet many doctors still accept this high level as normal—thus treating the lab test as more important than the patient!
If you have the same symptoms as Angela, have your health care practitioner check your TSH, T3, and T4. While you’re at it, check for anti-thyroid antibodies. If your anti-thyroid antibodies are positive, your problem is NOT subclinical hypothyroidism. It’s a bit different—and beyond the scope of this article. But even if your TSH, T3, and T4 are normal, your thyroid may still need help—in the form of extra iodine.
Many people (perhaps the majority) are deficient in iodine. Iodine is found naturally in sea vegetables and seafood, and it’s added to some brands of salt. But given that people are now limiting their salt intake or switching to sea salt, most of us don’t get enough iodine in our diets. And there are other reasons for iodine deficiency as well. Fluoride (found in water and toothpaste) actually interferes with iodine metabolism. So does bromide, which is used in bread making. Chlorine can also disrupt the body’s ability to absorb and utilize iodine.
If you’ve had your thyroid function checked and everything is normal or your TSH is a bit on the high side, before you decide to take thyroid medication, check to see if you need more iodine in your diet (or as a supplement). There are a number of ways to check for iodine status, including a 24-hour urine sample. Working with a health care practitioner who is familiar with iodine metabolism is ideal for this. But since many health care practitioners aren’t, here’s a quick and relatively accurate way to test it yourself.
Get a bottle of Iosol (which can be purchased from TCPS Direct). When you arise in the morning, put several drops on your wrist and rub them around with the applicator until you have an iodine patch that is about two inches by two inches. Monitor this patch every 30 minutes until the iodine is absorbed into your skin. If your iodine level is adequate, you’ll still have some iodine visible on your skin when you go to bed in the evening. In other words, the iodine should stay on your skin for at least 10 hours. (I’ve done this test with many individuals. And some women absorb the iodine in as little as 20 minutes! That’s right. It completely disappears!)
If you absorb the iodine in under 10 hours, you may want to take a supplement. Despite the fact that many (if not most) women are iodine deficient, iodine supplementation should be approached in a balanced and judicious way—especially if you are already on thyroid medication. If you are unsure about what to do, consult a physician before beginning supplementation. A typical course of treatment is to start with a recommended dose (per package instructions) upon arising and continue for a month. Then do the iodine patch test again. I recommend taking the iodine daily until it stays on your skin for 10 hours or more.
When you start taking iodine, you might get a reaction in the form of a rash, headaches, or a general feeling of malaise. This is because the iodine can cause a ‘detox’ reaction in your body as it displaces excess chlorine, fluoride, bromide, and even heavy metals, from your body. Don’t panic. This isn’t a reaction to iodine. It’s your body detoxifying itself! Cut way back on the amount of iodine you are taking, then gradually increase it. This sort of detox reaction is also common when you start taking a good vitamin supplement.
If you’re already on thyroid hormone, you may find that you need a lower dose if you supplement with iodine. In fact, you may even be able to discontinue your medication altogether. So make sure you and your health care practitioner are on the same page with all of this. Or find someone who is. (If your current practitioner isn’t up to speed on the thyroid/iodine connection, I recommend you look for a health care practitioner who has been trained in Functional Medicine. Check out the Institute for Functional Medicine’s Web site to find someone near you.)
A word about breast tenderness: Believe it or not, the female breast needs more iodine each and every day to stay healthy than does the thyroid. Iodine expert Dr. Sherri Tenpenny points out that it takes about 3,000 mcg of iodine daily to keep breasts optimally healthy. That’s far more than the thyroid needs. And it’s also why women who get enough iodine in their diets often recover completely from breast pain!
As with all physical ailments, getting to the root of the problem is key to long-term health. A sluggish thyroid often begins with adrenal fatigue, which happens when we’re under chronic stress, eat a lot of sugar, drink alcohol, and don’t get enough rest. Adrenal fatigue has reached epidemic proportions in our society. (Learn more about the role your adrenals play in my books Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause.)
The thyroid is located in the fifth chakra, along with the throat, vocal cords, and everything in the neck and mouth area. The fifth chakra governs will, self-expression, and timing.
Fifth chakra health is enhanced by developing your will. Will is the ability to stick with a task long enough to see tangible results. I’m betting that you’re really good at doing this when you’re working on behalf of someone else (like a family member or a boss). But can you stick with something when YOU are the primary beneficiary?
The health of the fifth chakra is also enhanced by being able to have your say in a relationship, at work, or with your spouse or children—even when they don’t want to hear it! Midlife is the time when you simply MUST develop this skill. It’s no coincidence that many perimenopausal and menopausal women develop problems with their thyroids at midlife.
Fifth chakra health is also enhanced by changing your relationship to time. Do you feel as though you’re always rushed? Always running out of time? Can never get everything done that needs to be done? Welcome to the new millennium! I believe that “hurry sickness” is at the heart of just about every illness out there. Hurry sickness often manifests in adrenal exhaustion and/or a sluggish thyroid before showing up in other areas of the body.
Start developing your will and ability to speak up for yourself by saying the affirmations below. These will also help improve your perspective on time. Commit to saying the affirmations below out loud in the mirror at least once per day for 30 days. That alone will strengthen your fifth chakra organs.
Eat for thyroid health. Seaweed helps restore iodine levels and is an excellent food to help the body detox from heavy metals (like mercury and lead). One particularly good source, known as modifilan, is made from dehydrated kelp juice from organically processed seaweed. Taking this supplement often helps people lose weight, too.
Other foods that stimulate thyroid health include organic vanilla extract (which can be added to water or shakes) and unsulfured, unsteamed dates. Eat these with a bit of healthy fat such as a few macadamia nuts or walnuts. You can also benefit from eating alkalinizing foods such as lemons, limes, tomatoes, parsley, figs, and pineapple. Choose organic foods as much as possible. Pesticides have been known to interfere with thyroid function.
Vigorous exercise is important to thyroid health, too. It is well documented that a single bout of vigorous exercise increases the metabolism by 20 percent. And it stays that way for hours thereafter. Exercising vigorously at least five days a week for at least 30-60 minutes helps “reset” your metabolism. Include weight training in your routine. Increased muscle equals a faster metabolism!
There you have it — thyroid health in a nutshell. May your adrenals, your thyroid, and your entire self exude the energy of self-expression, pleasure, and joy. And may you claim time as your ally and friend.