Are you tired all the time? Feeling foggy in the brain and slow to “get up and go”? Despite the extra layers you may be wearing, do you feel cold, or tend to be sensitive to the cold? I know, it’s January, everyone is cold and little sluggish. But if these feelings linger, it may be more than winter that’s getting to you.
Thyroid issues are a big women’s health issue. According to the American Thyroid Association, women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. These problems include: hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease and thyroid nodules (lump in the gland). These conditions mess with our metabolism, our heart health, our bone health and even our fertility.
Shockingly, most people with a thyroid problem – up to 60 percent – don’t even know they have a problem. They just think they are in a slump, a case of “the blues,” chronic fatigue coupled with mood swings and inability to lose weight. They may even go to their doctor and try a prescription for antidepressants as a band-aid solution.
Therein lies my motivation to contribute this post to my favorite health literacy initiative – a desire to make sure people understand the root cause of what ails them before they start a treatment plan. I also want to share a little secret about fertility tracking and how it helps me monitor my thyroid health.
Master of your metabolic rate
Your thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ about 2 inches long located in the front of your neck just below your voice box and above the notch between your collarbones. It releases hormones, namely T3 and T4 thyroid hormones, that control your metabolism—the way you use energy. That’s huge! Your thyroid is command central for energy flow. No wonder thyroid is often suspect when women complain of lethargy, fatigue and related mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Thyroid hormones regulate ALL our vital body functions, including:
- Breathing and heart rate
- Central and peripheral nervous systems
- Body weight and blood lipid levels
- Muscle strength
- Menstrual cycles
- Body temperature
You obviously want this gland working properly.
Now, I’m not an internist, and would never consider myself an expert on thyroid matters. (Hence why I include repeated references to a site I do consider expert.) However, I do know that in working with women – particularly mothers – a significant percentage are struggling to keep their thyroids happy.
If you want to learn more about what can go wrong when T3 and T4 levels get out of wack, please check out the doctor-recommended patient advocacy site called Stop the Thyroid Madness. This site connects the dots between stress (adrenal fatigue), inflammation and thyroid-based symptoms. I find it very useful for explaining lab tests and the nitty gritty of treatment options, so please do take the time look at it. For this post, however, I want to focus on our womanhood and how it can be affected by thyroid hormone imbalances.
Your temperature, your thyroid health—and your progesterone levels
If you’re a regular follower of our blog you’ll know there are several ways to know if you are fertile (i.e. ovulating and capable of conceiving) or not. You monitor your cervical fluid or you can monitor what’s called your basal body temperature (BBT) and double check that with what your cervix is telling you.
Basal body temperature is the temp your core is at when you are completely at rest first thing in the morning, before you move around, get up to go pee, drink water or coffee, or get the baby. You stick the thermometer under your tongue for three minutes while lying in bed. I’m usually making a to-do list in my head or planning what to pack for lunch. Plotting the temps on a graph with each box representing 1/10 of a degree allows you to see the small changes that are significant to your ovulation, among other things.
After ovulation, the release of your egg signals the formation of the so-called corpus luteum, a yellowish vessel that starts pumping out progesterone. Progesterone = pro-gestation, as one brilliant cycle charter pointed out in her TED talk. It means your “nest” is getting nice and warm, your body is primed to receive a new life to incubate. Hopefully.
If your BBT doesn’t go up, you may want to investigate with the help of a natural-minded doctor, especially if it’s a consistent pattern of low temps month after month. A body that burns low tends to be more susceptible to infections that die off when we get closer to the 98 F mark regularly. You can read more about the health implications of a low body temp here.
On the other hand, if your BBT does go up and stays up for 18 days or more, I’d take a pregnancy test. You may be gestating!
I used to do cervical fluid only, but then my handy dandy NaproTechnology-trained doctor uncovered some low thyroid hormone levels that could be messing with my cycle and my mood and energy levels. So now, just because I’m curious, I throw in BBT to see if I’m still burning low or if my body temp is getting up to a healthy 97.7 to 98.3 F post ovulation.
That’s my secret trick – I don’t use my thermometer just to keep tabs on what cycle phase I’m in. As of late, without T3 medication or consistent supplementation, I’ve hit 98 F every time I’ve checked. That doesn’t mean everything is A-ok; I’d still seek blood work to check levels of thyroid antibodies as a marker of how autoimmune I am, but at least I’m in the “pro-gestation range.”
The stress connection
I cannot write about thyroid without including a word on the effect of stress on this important master of your metabolism – and your fertility. Dr. Christiane Northrup aptly calls thyroid disorders a mind-body issue. Because it sits below our voice box, Northrup, a best-selling women’s health author, links the stress of feeling unheard to low thyroid function.
While I cannot attest to any clinical proof for this theory, I can look at examples of feeling unheard or misunderstood in my own life (i.e. how many times do I have to tell them to put their own dishes away?!) and see how these mundane but persistent annoyances added up to chronic stress. And stress, as my Creighton chart has told me, throws off my cycle. It also drains my adrenal gland, producer of the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol and thyroid hormones work in concert. If cortisol levels are low, as in the case of exhaustion, your thyroid becomes less efficient. If this stress hormone is too high, your cells may stop responding to communication from your thyroid all together, a case of thyroid resistance (instead of the commonly talked about insulin resistance). This resistance affects how well your body responds to progesterone, estrogen and testosterone.
Indeed, stress is at the root of many women’s health obstacles. The “cure” for stress? If I knew for sure, I’d be trying to sell it, but I can only guess. Perhaps knowing (and believing in) thyself is a good place to start, and sticking to the basics of healthy eating, regular exercise and proper sleep.
Manage by monitoring
The alternative, nutritional strategies for managing hypo- or hyperthyroidism abound. Gluten free, sugar free eating was advised to me. Definitely helping. The Autoimmune Paleo Approach is also helpful, though can be somewhat difficult to stick with in the long term if you aren’t extremely motivated (and organized). Supplements like selenium, vitamin D, bioflavonoids or adaptogenic stress formulas that support adrenal function, are also commonly recommended. Hit and miss for me.
Conventional medicine would have the thyroid patient on T4 or T3 or a combination of both. I strongly suggest reading the aforementioned patient advocacy website before starting on T4.
Is there a 100% safe and effective solution to the epidemic of thyroid issue striking women? I wish I knew. All I know is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. You have to track your body’s markers and bring it to the discussion with your doctor to find your simplest, most effective thyroid-adrenal healing process.
Monitoring something as simple as body temperature provides a huge clue to your health. I’m hoping it will become like flossing your teeth. And if you happen to have an issue, your management strategy can be fine-tuned based on the patterns revealed in your temperature charts.