If you are worried about your thyroid, think it may be causing you to gain weight or have noticed your thyroid numbers changing as you lose weight, read on.
In addition to weight gain and stalled weight loss, low thyroid hormone levels, known as hypothyroidism, can cause you to suffer from feelings of cold, constipation, brain fog (memory or concentration issues), fatigue and lack of motivation among other things. You may also notice excessive sleep, feelings of or actual clinical depression, hair loss, mood swings or dry skin.
Thyroid dysfunction is estimated to affect up to 15% of the population at some point in their lifetime. Women are up to eight times more likely to be affected than men, and the numbers go up as you age. While that is a lot of people, some estimate that more than half of those with thyroid dysfunction do not know they have it. Incredibly, thyroxine, the most frequently used medication to treat hypothyroidism, is already one of the most frequently prescribed medications in the country.
So, why so much thyroid dysfunction? Is the thyroid the true culprit for our obesity epidemic? Or is it the victim?
The thyroid gland is in the lower front end of the neck and produces thyroid hormones. These hormones are responsible for communicating with nearly every cell of your body, and they regulate the speed of all the biologic machinery that makes you function. Unfortunately, with a plague of chronic stress, nutritionally depleted food sources, contaminated water and frequently toxic environments, our thyroid may not be functioning how we would like it to.
While there are many hormones that play a role in the production of or suppression of thyroid function, the hormones directly involved include thyroid secreting hormone, T4 and T3. The later two can also be measured as free T4, free T3 and reverse T3. TSH is the hormone that stimulates secretion of thyroid hormone and is the most frequently tested hormone when assessing thyroid health. The problem is that this hormone doesn’t show the whole picture.
TSH levels can remain within “range” despite significant thyroid dysfunction and sometimes look “off” despite normal function, particularly when recovering from obesity.
When assessing thyroid health or looking for an autoimmune cause of dysfunction, the measurable thyroid hormones and antibodies should all be ordered. Even if the correct tests are run, only a partial picture, of the thyroid state of being can be revealed. There are myriad additional labs that could be ordered to help complete the picture including sex hormones and nutrition labs, but even with all this information some aspects of thyroid function are not fully known, and the interaction with food and energy consumption is one of them. To understand each individual situation, the symptoms, labs and history must be considered.
So what happens when you lose weight, and does weight loss cause hypothyroidism? You can be fairly certain that your hormone levels will drop with weight loss. This is often normal and can be completely explained by the higher hormone levels associated with obesity beginning to “normalize” with successfully achieving optimal body alignment. Reduction in hormone levels could merely represent your body coming back to homeostasis. However, some weight loss can result in worsening thyroid function to varying degrees. According to Dr. Doug Lucas, PHD Weight Loss’ chief science officer, two factors worth considering are: 1) the extent of calorie restriction and 2) the type of dietary fat consumed. These two items appear to play the largest roles in determining the deleterious effects of weight loss on your thyroid. Choosing the right approach can separate weight loss and maintenance successes from failure.
Severe calorie restriction and the consumption of highly processed polyunsaturated fats (e.g., vegetable oils) can negatively affect the thyroid. Research shows that carbohydrate restriction alone, and especially when done with healthy dietary fat consumption, will have much less effect on T3 levels and function. If you experience reduced T3 levels, but are following this dietary approach with a well-formulated meal plan, it is likely the result of normalization of your hormones as weight is let go and optimal body alignment is achieved. Lower levels could also be evidence of a more efficient system and less demand for thyroid function. As a bonus, human studies about longevity demonstrate an association of a longer life with lower levels of T3. Reduced T3 without symptoms is likely a sign of a well-functioning system that has reached optimal alignment and efficiency.
If you’re looking to support your thyroid while dropping weight or maintaining weight loss, here are some tips:
Don’t simply restrict calories and exercises more to lose weight. How you drop weight is key to maintaining a healthy thyroid.According to Doug Lucas, optimizing your sleep, stress and toxic exposures has significant impact on thyroid health as well.Avoid foods known as goitrogens. These are toxic for your thyroid. These include gluten, grains, dairy, nightshades (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, white potatoes), sugar, caffeine, alcohol – and for those with possible or confirmed autoimmune cause of thyroid dysfunction, eggs. Cruciferous vegetables can and should be consumed if possible, but if you are worried about your thyroid consider cooking or fermenting these nutrition-packed plant foods. If you choose to consume dairy, try goat products or A2 cow products. There is a tremendous amount of noise and misinformation about the thyroid. An accurate diagnosis and good understanding of what is happening can help you feel empowered and confident. Remember that thyroid hormone levels are not as important as how you feel. If you are concerned, start with the basics: sleep, stress and nutrition. If you have symptoms, consider working with your health care team to determine if treatment is right for you. If you’re in the process of dropping weight or are following a lower carbohydrate lifestyle, fluctuations may well be temporary and a new “set point” may be established while your body adjusts to its new optimal you.
Ashley Lucas has a doctorate in sports nutrition and chronic disease. She is also a registered dietitian nutritionist. She is the founder and owner of PHD Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. She can be reached at 764-4133. She is married to Dr. Doug Lucas, who is an orthopedic surgeon and precision medicine physician.