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Thyroid As Thermostat: Is Yours Broken? 

It’s a disease that affects approximately 20 million Americans. Yet, up to 60% of people with thyroid dysfunction aren’t aware of their condition.

The cause of the disease itself is largely unknown or at least often misunderstood. Nonetheless, it can wreak havoc on cardiovascular health, bone health, or fertility.

What’s more - the common diagnosis and treatment methods are often vastly ineffective at reversing the disease pattern or alleviating the symptoms people experience.

Metabolic Metaphors

Let’s use an analogy to unravel this story; think of your body as a house. No, not a big house – a “just right” sized house. Your brain is the homeowner – the decision maker and control panel. Your thyroid gland is the thermostat. There are many other parts, but let’s just keep things simple for now. When the homeowner wants to crank up the heat, she adjusts the thermostat to set a new temperature. The thermostat (thyroid) then communicates with the furnace to increase the temperature. Once the temperature reaches the desired level, the thermostat gets the message and stops pinging the furnace to pump out heat (until the temp drops again). 

Ever feel like you’re trying to crank up the heat but the furnace just won’t kick in? Never stop digging for reasons you may lack the energy you want to feel. There are probably reasons your zest and liveliness have been absent, but without assessing your body’s systems at a deep, deep level your search for solutions may turn up nothing but disappointment and confusion.  

If you’ve ever lived in or owned a house (especially an older house, ahem! older body), you’ll quickly realize there are several factors, beyond simply setting the thermostat that play a role in regulating the temperature inside.

For example, there could be a window or door leaking warm air out (akin to your body wasting energy through stress or worry). The temperature outside could get dramatically colder or harsher (similar to major stress entering your life), or the gas line to the furnace could be shut off (analogous to you not paying your nourishment “dues”). If your “house” is dirty or filled with trash and toxins, the air may not circulate through the vents properly, or the thermostat may not accurately read the temperature, and it will be equally difficult to regulate the environment inside. 

There are a few other potential impacts on temperature, but you get the idea. When you don’t feel the heat, never stop digging for the reasons behind that dysfunction. You likely won’t discern, let alone understand, the problem by looking at the outside of the house.

Medical Misunderstandings

Many of you may have been down this road before with your physician. You’ve probably had your thyroid (thermostat) tested when you’ve had trouble losing fat or struggled with low energy only to be told you’re “okay.” This frustrating story is all too common because even the experts aren’t aligned on what it means to have underactive thyroid. 

The American Thyroid Association recommends that all adults be screened for thyroid dysfunction starting at age 35; however, the American Academy of Physicians doesn’t recommend widespread screening for subclinical thyroid disease.

It’s an interesting but not uncommon kind of dissent within the medical community. Still, the very term "subclinical disease" suggests compromised health before the formal diagnosis cutoff. For the person with a “subclinical” set of numbers and a bothersome set of relevant symptoms, that cutoff can feel like a barrier to clarity, let alone help. 

Add to this discrepancy the often inadequate testing that many people who show signs of thyroid dysfunction receive. Typical thyroid screenings look solely at the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH).

Compare this to asking the freezing cold homeowner (who may also be suffering from depression, constipation, weight gain, cold hands and feet, dry or brittle hair and nails, and/or dry skin) how often she’s checking the thermostat to check if the furnace is working. The fact is, simply looking at the thermostat doesn’t tell us the furnace is ok: it merely tells us the homeowner is trying to adjust the thermostat (the brain is indeed sending messages to the thyroid). If TSH is within a very wide range, no interventions are instituted, meaning no further testing is done. 

Only when TSH falls outside medically critical ranges would further investigation start – an actual measurement of the hormones the thyroid is making and activating. Let’s say the thermostat indeed sends a strong signal (the thyroid makes adequate Thyroxine or T4), but the house or furnace does nothing with the signal (the body cannot properly convert Thyroxine to its more active cousin Triiodothyronine or T3). What then?

Sadly, even when TSH and T4 fall out of range, many individuals still aren’t approved to have levels of active thyroid hormone (T3) tested. Nor do they get screened for the most common reason this complicated process slows down! There are more cases of underactive thyroid patterns than overactive patterns in the U.S., and most of these cases are not due to a problem with the thyroid itself!

The most common underlying reason for decline in thyroid function is autoimmune disruption.

With this in mind, we need to screen for thyroid peroxidase antibodies (a.k.a. TPO) as well. A thorough once-over of thyroid health should include the following:

  • TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone)
  • Free Thyroxine (T4)
  • Free Triiodothyronine (T3)
  • Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies (TPO)

Alternative Mindsets

In her Experience Life article, Repair Your Thyroid, Jill Grunewald notes that many experts like Dr. Sara Gottfried believe in starting targeted lifestyle therapies and protocols long before patients reach the thresholds of overt disease states (i.e. treat with proactive measures even when subclinical symptom patterns are found). This approach can accomplish a few powerful things as I outlined in What a Blood Test Can Do.

  • Doctors and health professionals can provide specific lifestyle and nutrition strategies to empower patients to take more ownership of their health.
  • Patients can possibly minimize or avoid medications by acting proactively to manage their health.
  • Bodily processes that are drifting off the optimal path can quickly be re-directed before they break down into serious dysfunction and cause a cascade of related medical issues.

There’s nothing “excessive” about making optimal functioning your goal. This goal, of course, obliges you to make important lifestyle commitments but also to request partnership with your health care providers. Empower yourself with the knowledge that will let you experience optimum health. 

Thanks for reading, everyone.

Would you like to learn how your own thyroid is functioning? Remember that becoming healthy is not an event but a process. To start that process in the right direction, consider the most thorough personal assessment available. Talk with one of our registered dietitians today about our Longevity & Vitality Premium panel. 

In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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