So many women come through my clinic doors frustrated by symptoms they just can’t shake. Constipation, mood swings, weight gain, hair loss, depression, and indescribable fatigue are just a few things I hear about constantly. And though some of those symptoms may seem relatively minor, when women are dealing with them every single day, they can be just as debilitating as more severe issues.
Women are coming to me more informed these days, thanks to the wealth of information available. So often, they ask if their symptoms could be thyroid-related. I’m so glad that women are starting to understand how important the thyroid gland is to their health. Long considered the “master gland,” the thyroid regulates metabolism and can have a huge impact on weight and mood. But that’s far from all it does. The thyroid also impacts many critical body functions, including your central and peripheral nervous systems, heart rate, body temperature, cholesterol levels, breathing, and so much more! That’s why it’s so important to know all you can about the thyroid, the hormones it produces, and especially thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), the hormone that is responsible for regulating the main thyroid hormones.
What is TSH?
If the thyroid is known as the master gland, then TSH can be called the master hormone. Your thyroid gland produces two main hormones, Triiodothyronine (T3) and Thyroxine (T4). But your thyroid gland doesn’t operate in isolation – it’s part of a well trained team that works together to keep these two hormones in balance.
The hypothalamus and the pituitary glands in your brain are an essential part of that team as well. These glands communicate to be sure T3 and T4 remain balanced. Thyroid releasing hormone (TRH) is produced by the hypothalamus, letting the pituitary know if more or less T3 and T4 are needed. The pituitary then sends out more or less TSH to let the thyroid know if it needs to increase or decrease production of T3 or T4.
Imbalanced TSH Levels Can Signal Thyroid Disorders
Once TSH hits your thyroid gland, it’s levels are primarily impacted by T3 and T4. There are, however, other factors that can alter TSH levels, including medications, pregnancy, thyroid cancer, exposure to damaging chemicals, too much or too little iodine in your diet, and genetics. That means you can’t assume that a TSH test alone will give a definitive answer about thyroid function. I’ll talk more about that later, and what else you need to look for. But for now, let’s see what a TSH can tell us about your thyroid function.
When I want to know how a woman’s thyroid and metabolism are working, finding out how much TSH is circulating in the blood provides some good information. Is TSH levels are high, your body is likely producing too much “stimulating” hormone — it’s trying to boost a sluggish thyroid, and can indicate hypothyrodism.
If TSH levels are low, your body may be trying to slow down a hyperactive thyroid. When your thyroid gland is operating either too slow or too fast, you can end up with a wide range of those symptoms that just won’t go away. And there’s a lot of ground in between what conventional doctors consider “normal” thyroid functioning and what can cause symptoms. Too many women are left untreated until the situation becomes critical — and that’s what I’m trying to avoid!
What is the Normal Range for TSH?
In 2002, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists changed the range considered “normal” to be between 0.30 and 3.04 mIU/L (milli-international units per liter). While this range is more narrow than the more commonly used 0.4 to 4.0 mIU/L, it’s still wide enough to leave a large margin of error. Women are unique individuals, and if they’re hovering on the upper or lower end, it may be enough to tip the balance towards poor health.
I, and most functional medicine practitioners, believe that most women feel best when they fall somewhere in the middle, with TSH levels at 2 or below. Let’s take a look at what can happen when TSH is even slightly too high or too low.
What Can TSH Levels Tell You About Thyroid Health?
As I said before, there are other factors that can change TSH levels, but for now, let’s look at what an abnormal TSH level might be telling us about your thyroid. It’s important to remember that a reading that’s close to the high or low end – even if it falls within the establish normal range – could indicate a problem.
Hypothyroidsim (underactive thyroid) is often indicated by high TSH levels. This means your pituitary gland is trying to make up for low levels of thyroid hormones by releasing extra TSH into your bloodstream.
When thyroid hormone levels are low, your body slows down. This can lead to the symptoms of hypothyroidism, including fatigue, dry skin and lackluster hair, constipation, aches and pains, weight gain, depression, hoarseness, memory issues, and lack of libido, among other symptoms.
Hyperthyroidsim has a number of potential causes, including autoimmune disorders, radiation therapy, thyroid surgery, treatment for hyperthyroidism, and certain medications.
If levels of T4 are too high, your pituitary gland will release less TSH. Therefore, a low TSH reading can indicate that your thyroid is operating on overdrive, a condition called hyperthyroidism.
Although hyperthyroidism is relatively uncommon, it can bring a host of uncomfortable symptoms, including restless energy, hand tremors, losing weight even when your appetite increases, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, skin and hair problems, diarrhea, sweating, muscle weakness, fatigue, and in more severe cases, a goiter (swollen thyroid gland) and eye problems. Because many of these symptoms occur with several other medical conditions, hyperthyroidism is sometimes easy to miss.
Hyperthyroidism can be caused by Graves disease, thyroid nodules, excess iodine in the body, and certain medications.
Addressing Imbalanced TSH Levels
It’s clear that both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, if left untreated, can create serious upset in your life. The women who come to see me are often fearful that a thyroid issue means taking medication indefinitely. And conventional doctors do often go straight to medication for treatment of thyroid imbalances. But I like to take a more natural approach whenever possible. With the right guidance, it is possible to reverse minor imbalances without having to rely on a pill for the rest of your life!
Here are some natural solutions for regulating thyroid hormones, which in turn will help keep TSH at an optimal level.
Eat to Support Thyroid Functioning
Changing poor eating habits is so often one of the best paths to better health. Your thyroid is responsible for so many functions; doesn’t it make sense to give it the best possible nutrition to support that important work? It’s not difficult to eat to support thyroid health – there are plenty of delicious whole foods that give you the nutrients your thyroid depends on. Seafood, beef, turkey, nuts and seeds, beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables are just a few of the great choices, and you probably have at least some of these in your house right now! There are a couple of foods to pay attention to if you have thyroid difficulties. Both soy and the brassica family of vegetables (including broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage), have been found problematic when iodine levels are insufficient. Because these foods have some clear benefits, I don’t recommend that everyone cut them out — just be aware of how they make you feel!
There are some key nutrients that can support your thyroid health – and many women don’t have enough of them, and never even know it! Iodine and selenium are both quite connected to how well your thyroid functions. Without iodine, the thyroid gland can’t produce the hormones crucial to body functioning, and without selenium T4 can’t be converted into the more easily used T3. And on top of that, selenium helps regulate iodine – so they’re very connected! Other nutrients important to thyroid function are zinc, copper, B vitamins and antioxidants. It’s really difficult to get enough of everything in our modern food supply, so some supplemental support can really help keep your thyroid gland working on an even keel. I recommend, at the very least, that every woman take a high-quality multivitamin daily. It’s important that the formula include iodine, especially if you aren’t using iodized table salt.
Consider Using Adaptogenic Herbs
So much of what we need can be found in the natural world. Plants can adapt to supply your body with exactly what it needs. Sage, ashwaganda, bacopa monnieri, and coleus forskohlii, when combined with selenium and iodine, are great herbs for boosting energy and supporting a healthy metabolism. Talk to a functional medicine practitioner to come up with the best combination for your unique needs, or visit shop.marcellepick.com to learn how my Thyroid Support formula is specifically designed to help support thyroid health.
I’ll say this again and again until everyone is listening: chronic stress is horrible for your health! But I don’t know one woman who doesn’t say she’s under a tremendous amount of stress all the time. Stress can have a major impact on your thyroid; it’s all connected to the stress hormone cortisol, which can throw all other hormones off kilter when too much is produced for too long. Choosing to consciously address the stress you are under can make a big difference. Make self-care a priority; be sure to get enough sleep at night, eat regularly, and find a way to release the stress through activities you love. You don’t have to find large blocks of time to reduce your stress — even ten minutes of gentle stretching, or a half hour walk outside, can make a big difference!
Testing TSH is Only the First Step
Thyroid testing still isn’t standard procedure for many conventional practitioners, but this information may prompt you to ask your doctor about TSH testing. I think that’s great, but I want to urge you not to stop there.
While a TSH test can give you a piece of information, it often can’t give you the whole story. Recent research suggests that testing for TSH only might leave many thyroid issues undiagnosed. Under some circumstances, such as when obese individuals lose weight, T3 and TSH levels have both declined. And some medications can lower TSH levels in diabetic or PCOS patients with thyroid issues.
To avoid missing something by only looking at TSH, I recommend a full range of thyroid function tests, including TSH, free T3 and free T4, reverse T3, total T3, anti-TPO, anti-thyroglobulin, a micronutrient analysis, and basal body temperature.
You Can Be the “Master” of Your Own Health!
We call the thyroid gland the “master gland”, and TSH the “master hormone” because they’re so important to such a wide range of body functions. But ultimately, you are in control of your overall health — and the first step is paying attention to the vital pieces of the puzzle. Taking the time to make sure your body has the right levels of TSH and other thyroid hormones can leave you feeling like the master of your own universe. And isn’t that how you should feel?
Try my Thyroid Support formula to optimize thyroid health. This premium blend of vitamins, minerals, and botanicals works with your body to support your thyroid, and balance hormone and neurotransmitter health. The formula was created to support healthy levels of cortisol, blood glucose and insulin. Each nutrient was specifically selected to support the thyroid and improve overall thyroid health.