When your nutrition is good, you exercise regularly, manage your stress levels and take good care of yourself, it's incredibly frustrating when your weight just won't shift. One possible cause of your weight loss struggle could be an under active thryroid.
Your thyroid is a small, butterfly shaped gland found in your neck. It only weighs about one ounce yet one of its most important roles is to control your metabolism, which in turn controls your weight. And thyroid problems are more common than you think. Approximately one in 20 people in the UK suffer with a thyroid disorder and it tends to be most common in women over the age of 40.
What doesn't help is that many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) can also be symptoms of peri menopause and menopause as I've highlighted below.
Symptoms of Menopause include:
- Weight gain - particularly around the middle
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Increased anxiety
- Disturbed sleep
- Mood swings
- Changes in cycle length (shorter or longer)
- Bleeding more or less
- Aching muscles and joints
- Inability to concentrate
- Increased digestive discomfort
- Hair loss/brittle hair
- Lower sex drive
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism include:
- Weight gain
- Inability to concentrate
- Often feel cold
- Constipation/digestive issues
- Irregular or heavy periods
- Hair loss/brittle hair
- Low energy levels
- Dry skin
- Thinning of outer third of eyebrows
- Muscular aches
- Fluid retention
If you suspect you have an under active thyroid you can ask your doctor for a blood test to check your thyroid function. The standard test in the UK looks at how much TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) you are producing to determine whether or not your thyroid is functioning effectively.
But your thyroid is a complex gland. Having 'normal' TSH levels does not mean that your thyroid is functioning well. Here's a basic overview of what's going on in the thyroid gland:
However, your TSH levels could be within the normal range yet your thyroid might not be working optimally. Ideally, these are the tests you want:
- TSH - This is the standard test that most doctors will run
- CBC (complete blood count) - this is important to check for possible issues such as anemia - low iron levels can impact the thyroid gland
- Free T4 - needs to be available to be converted to T3
- Free T3 - switches your metabolism on
- Reverse T3 - switches your metabolism off
- T3 uptake - this will highlight high or low levels of TBG (thyroid binding globulin) which can be affected by high/low estrogen and testosterone levels
- Thyroid antibodies - this test will check whether you have an autoimmune disorder such as Hashimotos
- Homocysteine - high levels can cause thyroid receptor resistance
- Adrenal Stress Index - cortisol levels can have a huge impact on how well your thyroid works
(These are the tests recommended by one of the worlds leading experts in metabolism, Dr Jade Teta).
As you can see, a simple TSH test won't give you the whole picture. It won't tell you if your body is efficiently converting T4 into T3, it won't tell you if your T4 and T3 are out of balance, it won't tell you if your immune system is attacking the proteins that make thyroid hormones, it won't tell you if your thyroid hormones are interacting correctly with your cells etc., etc.
In the UK it's unlikely that you will get such a thorough test on the NHS, you will probably have to pay to have it done privately. But if you're already taking thyroid medication or if you've had a basic TSH test and you still suspect that your thyroid is under active, it may well be worth the investment.
There are dietary and lifestyle steps you can take to improve or maintain the health of your thyroid:
A diet with a good variety of these nutrients will help support and healthy thyroid:
Iodine and tyrosine are absolutely essential for the production of thyroid hormones.
- Good sources of iodine include fish, shellfish, sea vegetables, dried prunes
- Tyrosine is an amino acid that is readily available in protein rich foods such as chicken, turkey, cottage cheese and yogurt. Other tyrosine containing foods are peanuts, avocados, bananas and almonds
Please note: You need to be very careful when supplementing with iodine or tyrosine and should always consult with a qualified practitioner such as a Nutritional Therapist before taking any over-the-counter supplements.
Iron, zinc and selenium are all essential for the healthy production of thyroid hormones and the prevention of diminishing T3 levels.
- Good sources of iron include spinach, liver and other organ meats, legumes, black beans, tofu and dark chocolate
- Selenium rich foods include brazil nuts, fish, eggs, oats, pork
- Zinc rich foods include red meat, legumes, hemp seeds, shellfish
Please note: Iron can decrease the absorption of thyroxine so please consult with your doctor before supplementing with iron if you already take thyroid medication.
Reduce your Stress Levels
Your stress levels can seriously impact the health of your thyroid. High cortisol levels are known to reduce the levels of T3. Add to that the fact that cortisol is a huge contributory factor when it comes to storing belly fat, you can see that if you're constantly under stress, losing weight will be very difficult.
Staying active is important but if you're struggling to lose weight be careful not to overdo the amount of exercise you do as this will act as an additional stressor to your body. Aim for 30-45 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week that makes you breathless along with some resistance training (2-3 times a week) plus plenty of restorative movement such as yoga, Pilates and leisure walking.
If you do decide to get your thyroid tests done privately, take a look at this page from Thyroid UK for a list of companies that offer comprehensive thyroid panels.