Let’s talk about the under-appreciated thyroid, baby!
While diving in to pro-metabolic nutrition, mysterious gut dysbiosis, and getting to the root cause of cases involving chronic, complex disease, the thyroid and its far-reaching function weaves throughout the stories. Like a flashy gold thread against a black cloth, it asks for our attention.
Swimming in the work of Danny Roddy, Dr. Ray Peat, Georgi Dinkov, Emma Sgourakis, and now the research of Dr. Broda Barnes highlights the need to share this information to empower those not finding answers and only treating symptoms.
What does the thyroid even do?
Almost every function can be traced back to the health of the thyroid gland. (I know, it’s remarkable!)
The thyroid is essential for the production of energy and to live with a state of buoyancy.
It is essential for proper cellular metabolism and therefore detoxification. Without it, everything slows down, draining our quality of life with it.
The thyroid directly influences the production of anti-stress and sex hormones, allowing for muscle relaxation, as well as vitamin D and bile production (which are essential in their own right). Producing and storing glycogen in the liver requires adequate thyroid function, and even the production of digestive enzymes rely heavily on this glands functionality.
“The thyroid gland is an endocrine gland in your neck. It makes two hormones that are secreted into the blood: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are necessary for all the cells in your body to work normally.” 
“Sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, creatinine, albumin, glucose, and other components of the serum are regulated by the thyroid hormones, and can be used along with the various functional tests for evaluating thyroid function.” -Dr. Ray Peat
Low Thyroid Symptoms:
The stereotypical low-thyroid (e.g. low metabolism) symptoms include feeling cold all the time, gaining weight easily, frequent constipation, and just feeling worn out in general. I imagine myself in my most depleted state, literally dragging my body out of bed, brain fogged, fantasizing about crawling back into my warm nest because even walking to the bathroom seemed too large of a feat.
“No single symptom has been found which would apply to every person with low metabolism. Some have fatigue, some have cutaneous disorders, some have dry skin, some have nervousness, some have menstrual difficulties, some have dry hair and some have other symptoms, but none of these signs could be considered reliable in all cases.” -Broda Barnes
“Gradual onset of apathy, gain in weight, edema, especially of hands, feet and face (‘full moon-like’ face and coarse features). Skin dry and scaly. Hair becomes brittle and thin, nails rough, striated and break easily. There are lassitude, fatiguability, drowsiness, imperfect cerebration, even psychosis; poor appetite and constipation; pulse slow, blood pressure low, temperature subnormal; menstruation irregular; may cease or become excessive. Anemia in majority of cases. High cholesterol.” (The Merck Manual, 1947)
How does Stress impact the thyroid?
I find myself talking about stress and the thyroid in almost every conversation when someone asks me what I’m researching at the moment. Just ask my partner. I’m captivated!
Stress remains this oily creature. It gets all of our systems greasy and gunky in all the wrong places, especially the thyroid, the liver, and our digestive system. Every critical function seems to tie back to this relationship, as both stress and thyroid function can either greatly support or complicate the functioning of the body.
The thyroid and stress, thyroid and stress, thyroid and stress… the puzzle pieces finally fit together. The secret is out and I’m here to encourage its spread.
Let’s Talk About Stress! (Again!)
When we enter the flight or flight response, even just in response to our blood sugar dropping between meals, a negative thought, breathing shallowly, or working out when we are sleep deprived and under-fueled, the cascade of chemicals within the body shift towards handling the perceived threat.
Anytime we do not have the energy to meet a demand, the body reads this as a state of stress.
This panic-mode suppresses the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in order to focus on increasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol inhibits the conversion of T4 to T3, which is responsible for the cellular production of energy (ATP) and carbon dioxide.
When your blood sugar drops, as is common in hypothyroid individuals, adrenaline rises in an attempt to raise blood sugar. According to Dr. Ray Peat, “many hypothyroid people compensate with high adrenaline production (sometimes 40 times higher than normal), and this tends to keep the skin cool, especially on the hands, feet, and nose.”
Adrenaline-besides leading to even higher cortisol levels-is lipolytic, meaning that it releases fatty acids stored in our tissues into circulation to burn for quick energy.
If these fatty acids are polyunsaturated, as if typical for people consuming lots of nut butters, seeds, hummus, chicken, pork, salmon, fish oils, or anything cooked in canola oil (yes, even the organic brussels sprouts from the hot bar at Whole Foods), it inhibits the production and transport of thyroid hormone even further.
These mischievous fats also interfere directly with the respiratory functions of the mitochondria, placing a serious hamper on energy production. To make matters even more intense, adrenaline decreases the conversion to T4 to T3 while increasing the formation of the antagonistic reverse T3.
This stress-driven cycle sets the stage for all-day every day fatigue, familiar as the lethargic heaviness, especially after eating, associated with low metabolism and high toxicity. With the dampening of energy production, digestion becomes sluggish, hormonal production slows down, repair gets saved for a later date, and with it, our creativity and zest for life starts to dwindle.
Our outlook of the world and our place within it may even mirror our internal dysfunction and build up of waste in our digestive system, often misdiagnosed as depression or being mentally ill.
The more stressors we face, the more the thyroid shuts down, the metabolic rate slows, and the less stress resistant we become when the next stressor rears its ugly (and inevitable) head. Yet another vicious cycle.
Besides the obvious stressors of life, sneaky thyroid suppressors commonly confounded with living a healthy lifestyle might be painting more stress into our cellular landscape. In my own past attempts towards healing, I truly believed that my lifestyle choices would one day daily unveil the vitality within me. I clung to the idea that my morning runs and cold showers before breakfast would unlock the key to health. I thought that swapping meat for lentil & nut-laden veggie burgers, and lunching on fistfuls of raw kale, broccoli, sprouted pumpkin seeds, almond butter, hummus, tofu, and specialty, refrigerated omega-3 oils would bring my vibrancy back.
With each lentil cracker and kale-spinach-chia smoothie, I lost even more function, watched my belly swell as if pregnant, stopped having any bowel movements, started losing my hair and the edges of my eyebrows, developed infertility, and watched my sanity scramble into compost.
Unbeknownst to me, I poisoned my fragile cells with every (innocent) attack on my thyroid. I see my friends doing the same, so innocently, as they struggle to deal with their own host of symptoms.
“Besides fasting, or chronic protein deficiency, the common causes of hypothyroidism are excessive stress or “aerobic” (i.e., anaerobic) exercise, and diets containing beans, lentils, nuts, unsaturated fats (including carotene), and undercooked broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and mustard greens. Many health conscious people become hypothyroid with a synergistic program of undercooked vegetables, legumes instead of animal proteins, oils instead of butter, carotene instead of vitamin A, and breathless exercise instead of stimulating life.” -Ray Peat
“High adrenalin can also cause an increase in heart rate, which might mask the symptoms of low thyroid.” -Ray Peat
Ever wake up in the middle of the night sweating, heart pounding, as if your quilt is attempting to smother you? This is due to an adrenaline spike once the thyroid has used up it’s glycogen stores. This high adrenaline can increase the heart rate throughout the day, masking the symptoms of hypothyroidism.
[Insider tip! Experiment with munching on something salty and sugary just before bed to keep stress hormones at bay and fuel the liver for optimal performance for its night-time fast. I’m a fan of parmesan and honey, carrots wrapped in dates sprinkled with salt, a jiggly scoop of bone broth with a gulp of fresh juice, or a big bowl of organic ice cream and some salted melon before I turn in for the night.]
If you do end up waking up in the middle of the night, lowering the surge of stress hormones and refueling the liver might lull you back to sleep quickly. Something simple, salty and sugary, like a spoonful of honey with a sprinkle of salt, can quickly bring your body back to balance. This is a trick I use whenever I wake up at night. I jump right back in bed, almost instantaneously calmed, happy, and flop back into a deep dreamy wonderland next to my deeply sleeping partner.
What is the link between thyroid and the liver?
The intricate link between stress and thyroid health necessarily involves the liver, as thyroid function directly impacts all that this master detox organ does.
“Thyroid function stimulates the liver to inactivate estrogen for secretion, so estrogen dominance can create a vicious circle, in which estrogen (or deficient progesterone) blocks thyroid secretion, causing the liver to allow estrogen to accumulate to even higher levels” -Ray Peat
[Tune in to your body and notice: Does your temperature, especially of your nose, hands, and feet, fall when you are hungry? Do you find yourself warming up as you eat breakfast, or after pausing mid-day for a wee snack?
If so, your liver might be the main cause of your hypothyroidism. Simply eating some carbohydrates, regularly throughout the day, could be enough to raise your temperature and boost your metabolic rate, refueling your glycogen stores to fortify against the effects of low blood sugar.]
What does low thyroid function mean for the rest of your body?
Just a little recap…
When hypothyroidism plagues you, the digestive system slows down, decreasing transit time and therefore, allowing ample opportunity for microbes to feast and flourish. Overtime, this might lead to:
- Estrogen dominance
- Liver toxicity
- SIBO/SIFO and secondary infections as the body’s toxic load builds up and welcomes invaders
- Poor dental health
- Irritability when you “should” be feeling fine
- Increased TSH from the pituitary gland
- high prolactin, cortisol, and adrenaline, which break down bones and tissues, leading to osteoporosis and muscle wasting, further stressing your thyroid and liver
To counteract these systemic disturbances and help your thyroid heal, some wonderfully easy steps might include:
- Keeping your blood sugar up and stress hormones low by eating carbohydrates, sodium and generally balanced meals or snacks frequently. Let your intuition guide you. Honey, maple, coconut sugar, and ripe fruits and their juices will provide a balanced range of minerals to revitalize your cells. When combined with protein and fats, you can avoid blood sugar crashes.
- Keeping stress low by continually seeking stillness, fun, rest, and meaning, always asking yourself, “What do you need?” Some days, you might need extra rest, an extra loop around the block before driving to work, extra hugs, an extra glug of maple in your coffee, or maybe just 15 minutes to lay down and breathe before getting back to work. Other days, you might need just 5-minutes to dance around your kitchen as the sun shines in. Allow yourself these small moments to refuel your energetic reserves.
- Swapping polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats like grass-fed butter, ghee, tallow, and coconut oil, which protect against the damaging effects of highly unstable, unsaturated oils.
- Getting plenty of protein and ample B-vitamins. This might mean about 100-150 grams or more a day, depending on the context and the size of your meat-suit. To balance the amino acid profile and limit inflammation, favor protein from gelatinous broths, homemade marshmallows, grass-fed and pasture raised meats, calcium rich organic dairy, pastured egg yolks, and even pasture-raised pork rinds to boost your glycine levels.
“When too little protein, or the wrong kind of protein, is eaten, there is a stress reaction, with thyroid suppression. Many of the people who don’t respond to a thyroid supplement are simply not eating enough good protein.” -Ray Peat
- Exercising less. When it comes to exercise in a hypothyroid state, less might be more. Trade in your cardio, even excessive walking, for weight lifting and functional movements, stopping before you reach exhaustion. The goal is to support metabolic activity, not tax it even further. A good indicator of the appropriate dose is feeling the same if not better after a workout. Any movement activity that you find enjoyable, meaningful, or even interesting will boost the metabolic rate, versus something you dread or find stressful or boring, which will dampen it. Why not try some new dance moves with some sets of push-ups in between? Or checkout that rock-climbing gym that just opened downtown instead of running on the treadmill!
- Loading up on fat soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K, and sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Salting your food to taste, cooking with high quality saturated fats and dairy products, and choosing potassium-rich fruits will work wonders on your thyroid. Incorporate organ meats into your weekly routine. You’ll notice a difference in your energy and gusto! If you can’t stomach liver, find a freeze-dried version that you can take daily.
- Keeping your bowels moving! The sooner waste moves through you, the less likely toxicity from estrogen and bacterial byproducts have a chance to build up. Colonics, enemas, and even herbs like cascara sagrada (when properly aged) are great therapies while you’re addressing the root cause of your delayed gut motility (e.g. constipation).
- Following the beauty! Living in ways that stimulate curiosity, inspiration, hope, relaxation, and connection. When your life feels meaningful, your cells know it. It is easier to feel good when your life feels good. It is easier to have fun when you’re having fun. Ask yourself, if this were your last day, how would you want to be thinking and feeling? What would you be doing?
“Do every act of your life as if it were your last.”-Marcus Aurelius
In a coming post, I will discuss three simple ways to measure your thyroid function that are more reliable than commonly used thyroid panels. In the meantime, I hope this sheds some light.