To understand what hyperthyroidism is, it is important to first understand what the thyroid is, and the role of the thyroid in the body. The thyroid is a small gland located at the front of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid is responsible for releasing two thyroid hormones, T3 and T4. These thyroid hormones act much like the accelerator on your car- they determine how fast or slow your body’s metabolism runs.
Thyroid hormones are able to stimulate almost every cell in the body, and control your body’s metabolic rate. This means that thyroid hormones affect the speed at which cells use oxygen and make proteins, and can affect things like heart rate, body temperature, growth, breathing rate, digestion, energy consumption, weight, fertility, and skin health. Clearly, the thyroid is an incredibly important gland!
So what happens when the thyroid is overactive?
When the thyroid is overactive, it produces excessive amounts of thyroid hormones. This speeds up the body’s metabolic rate, and vital functions including heart rate and breathing. This condition is called hyperthyroidism.
Causes of hyperthyroidism
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease where they body’s normal method of regulating thyroid activity is disrupted. In Graves’ disease, the body produces abnormal thyroid-stimulating proteins called immunoglobulins, which are able to bind to normal receptor sites on the thyroid gland and stimulate its activity, resulting in excessive production and release of thyroid hormones.
Symptoms and signs of hyperthyroidism
For many, the main symptom of hyperthyroidism may be unexplained weight loss. Other signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism include increased heart rate, high blood pressure, heart palpitations or abnormal heart rhythms, excessive sweating, loss of bone density, increased bowel movements, poor sleep, anxiety, nervousness, and trembling hands.
Treatment options for hyperthyroidism
There is a range of treatment options available to you, and we recommend an integrated “team approach” to your health management. It is important to note that in thyroid conditions it is possible to alternate between hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Regular monitoring of signs, symptoms, and blood tests by your healthcare team is recommended to prevent large swings in thyroid function. Therapies that you may find beneficial include:
- Medical management: Your GP or endocrinologist may recommend thyroid-suppressing drugs to normalise thyroid hormone levels. Depending on the severity of your condition, your GP may suggest using radioactive iodine to destroy part or all of the thyroid gland, or surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland.
- Dietetics: A dietitian may construct a meal play that ensures nutrient requirements are met, to prevent weight loss, muscle wasting, and nutrient deficiencies.
- Psychotherapy: Stress may contribute to thyroid dysfunction, and may worsen symptoms. A psychologist may assist you in identifying areas in your life that cause you stress, and help you develop stress management techniques.
Naturopathic approach to hyperthyroidism
This section will discuss some of the naturopathic approaches to management of hyperthyroidism. The information in this section is of a general nature only, and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice or consultations with you health care provider. We advise you to consult your health carers before considering commencing any of these therapies.
Compensating for a faster metabolism
Due to the increased metabolic rate, people with hyperthyroidism have an increased need of certain nutrients. To compensate for a faster metabolism, and manage or prevent weight loss, increased intake of calories and protein may be required.
Choosing nutrient dense foods
Due to the increased nutrient requirements, it is important to eat plenty of nutrient dense foods. Fruits and vegetables are especially important as a rich source of antioxidants, as well as whole grains for their high B vitamin content.
Calcium and vitamin D
Loss of bone density is common in hyperthyroidism, and people with hyperthyroidism are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. It is important that your diet contains adequate calcium and vitamin D to promote healthy bones. Sources of calcium include dairy products and fish with edible bones. Food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Supplementation with calcium and vitamin D may be required, but this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Stress seems to play an important role in disrupted thyroid function. Stress management or reduction techniques such as exercise, yoga, meditation, and massage may help to reduce stress levels.
Exercise is important in maintaining muscle mass and cardiovascular health. Weight bearing exercises are recommended as they promote healthy bone mineral density. Be mindful of the intensity and amount of the exercise, as exercise may contribute to weight loss.
Some animal and human studies suggest that L-carnitine counteracts some of the effects of hyperthyroidism by inhibiting the activity of circulating thyroid hormones. Sub-optimal levels of L-carnitine could contribute to or worsen some symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Your integrative team of health care specialists
We believe that a multidisciplinary team of health care professionals is essential in managing all the aspects of hyperthyroidism. Depending on your individual needs, your multidisciplinary team may include general practitioners, endocrinologists, naturopaths, dietitians, osteopaths, acupuncturists, counsellors and psychologists. This comprehensive and holistic approach is designed to support your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.