Why every woman needs to know about her thyroid

Read a list of symptoms for hypothyroidism and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was simply a list any woman might have written at the end of another busy week.

Fatigue, brain fog, feeling cold, weight gain or an inability to lose weight, mood changes, depression or anxiety, hair loss, dry skin – all symptoms women routinely dismiss as a part of ageing or every day busyness and lifestyle.

The symptoms are so familiar to women today, I’d go as far as saying that thousands of working women and mothers are living with them AND a stressed thyroid and they don’t realise it.

Given what contributes to thyroid dysfunction – poor diet, stress and chemical overload – I’d also say that potential thyroid disorders are a ticking time bomb for our generation and our daughters if lifestyle changes aren’t more widespread.

Understanding your thyroid, its role in your body, the signs of an overloaded thyroid and its symptoms are I believe compulsory information for all women these days.




The thyroid, at a glance

Your thyroid is a gland that sits at the base of your throat, in front of your windpipe, and it plays a role in the function of your entire body. It essentially takes iodine out of food and converts it to two thyroid hormones (known as T3 and T4) and those hormones travel through the body to control your metabolism – how your body uses energy.

Every cell in your body depends on these hormones for metabolism.

Like all of our body’s different systems, the endocrine system works in a delicate balance and not in isolation. The thyroid is controlled by the pituitary gland which detects levels of T3 and T4 and secrets a thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) when it detects low levels of thyroid hormone in your system.

The most common problem is to have an underactive thyroid – hypothyroidism. Here is a great in-depth piece on it by Chris Kresser. Hypothyroidism is often preceded by the autoimmune disease Hashimotos (Sarah Wilson of I Quit Sugar is well known for having Hashimotos and has blogged extensively about her experience with it).

An over-active thyroid is known as hyperthyroidism. It has different symptoms to the ones above: an inability to tolerate heat, sleep problems, irritability or nervousness, muscle weakness or tremors, and weight loss among others.


When something goes wrong

Jackie Isles – a wellness and life coach and food therapist – was working at her job at a health retreat when she realised she didn’t know her name, what she was doing or who the client was in front of her.

It was the terrifying moment her thyroid gave way.

“I was 33, working ridiculous hours, 60-hours a week at a health retreat, teaching work-life balance ironically and on call three nights a week.

“I was in a session counselling a client at the Golden Door and I didn’t know my name, what I was doing or who this person was in front of me.

“It was the scariest moment of my life.”

Even before that moment, Jackie suspected her thyroid was under stress.

“Previous to that I had flu like symptoms all the time. Even though I had never carried a lot of weight – I was always a size 8-9 – but over two weeks I had put on a dress size, and my flexibility went from being able to reach 30cm past my toes to not being able to touch my knees.

“My lymphs were up and I thought this must be my thyroid.”

Jackie went to see her GP and requested thyroid tests but the doctor refused, and instead said Jackie needed a psychological referral.  Depression is also a symptom of thyroid dysfunction, and is one of the reasons it can be misdiagnosed.

“A lot of women talk to a doctor and are whacked on anti-depressants,” said Jackie.

“Often the doctor will go: ‘you’re depressed, have an anti-depressant’, without realising it’s actually the thyroid.”

{For more on depression and thyroid issues, read this article

Jackie stayed at the doctor’s office though, demanding a full thyroid blood test and refused to leave until she was given the paperwork she wanted.

She had the blood test and all the while her body continued to crash, to the point that she had a full blown panic attack driving across Brisbane’s Story Bridge in peak hour morning traffic.

“I turned off the road and found myself at another doctor’s clinic,” she said.

“In the mean time, messages from the original doctor were on my phone.”

The results were in and Jackie was told she was 48 hours away from being admitted to hospital because her thyroid was ‘fried’ and her adrenal system had packed it in.

“I was anaemic, had no digestive function, had muscle wasting and fatigue, no metabolism and my body temp had plummeted. My thyroid had shut down,” she said.

Jackie was off work for two months and literally crawled her way back to functioning.

“It took years to get it stable,” she said.

“I always felt under par. Nothing seemed to hold me. There was a feeling that I was always under a cloud.”

Jackie was on daily thyroid medication, as is the standard treatment, and years later, after the birth of her two children and once again working hard in business, she received another wake-up call that her thyroid was again under pressure and that she was also pre-diabetic.

At the same time, a decision to change her children’s diet resulted in a major shift for Jackie as well. She removed all gluten, dairy, and sugar from the family’s diet.

“I had been taking shortcuts (with my diet). I would use a cake mix, or buy crackers a lot. Just cutting corners and not being as diligent reading labels.

“So anything processed went out the door. It had to be whole, real food.

“Within a couple of weeks, I began to feel racey – it was starting to work.”

Her thyroid had started to kick back in of its own accord, and after 10 years of medication, Jackie’s meds needed to be lowered.

“So I started reducing the medication and going more into diet.”

For more than two years now, Jackie has focused on diet as a way of reducing her need for medication, with great results not just for her but for her entire family.

“It’s been a process. You don’t just come up with Hashimotos overnight. You can’t expect you are going to change it overnight either. There’s no magic pill.

“If you want any lifestyle change it does take time to work.

“It really comes down to choice. I feel well, more energised, more me than I ever have.”

Jackie now coaches clients, and also works as an advisor at the Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, and says she believes thyroid dysfunction is a highly undiagnosed condition and on the rise.

“Back when I started working in health retreats 25 years ago, you’d be lucky if you saw one person a week with depression, whereas now, it’s incredible – you see the words depression, anxiety, thyroid disorder on so many forms. It’s common place.”


What to do if you suspect something’s wrong

Naturopath Louise O’Connor, author of The Natural Thyroid Diet says the statistics show around 1-in-7 Australians will have a thyroid disorder and women are more likely to suffer from one than men.

She says it’s a diet and lifestyle issue – brought on by a combination of mainly a poor diet and nutrient deficiencies, chemical overload and stress.

“The main factors are really diet, specifically a lack of iodine and selenium,” she said.

“Also increased exposure to environmental chemicals – if you’ve got fluoride and chloride in your water, and pesticides, PCBs they get into the thyroid cells and cause disruption as well.

“We’re all exposed to environment chemicals in the air we breathe, from what we eat, and the water we drink, so it’s about minimising the affects.”

She says stress lowering the immune system also contributes to further pressure on the thyroid, as can pregnancy and menopause.

“For most women going into that transition – menopause – the weight and mood changes seem normal but there’s usually some physical reason for it,” she said.

“Pregnancy is already a stressful time for the thyroid so this is why you see more thyroid problems in women who are older when they have babies, or in multiple pregnancies closer together.

“The thyroid is important in pregnancy because it produces hormones that fuel the development of the baby’s central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord.

“During pregnancy, there’s extra demand and increased thyroid hormone. It’s already under stress and then you add more stress to the body going through pregnancy.”

One of the common problems in diagnosing thyroid dysfunction is incomplete blood tests. Thyroid hormones exist in a delicate balance, and looking at just one part of the equation will give false results.

“It’s not enough to just test for TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone),” said Louise.

“You have to look at the whole picture. The body might be producing TSH as a way to sending messages but unless you test for all levels, you don’t know if the message is being heard.”

The advice from both Jackie and Louise is to specifically request your GP to have the full complement of tests done.

Ask for the blood test to include: Free T3, Free T4, TSH, Thyroid antibody and Reverse T3.

As for diet, Louise says avoid the usual suspects – gluten, sugar, soy, trans fats, seed oils and processed products.

Instead look at boosting your fresh fruit and vegetables (organic where possible), activated nuts and seeds, sea vegetables (for iodine), legumes, Celtic sea salt, coconut oil, gluten-free grains like rice, grass fed meats and fermented foods.

Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale) often come with a warning attached for women with thyroid issues. For more details on why they’re OK to eat, read here and here.

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Comments 4

  1. I’ve had problems with my thyroid for years so can really relate to this. Luckily, when first diagnosed I had a good psychiatrist who picked up on the fact that GPs don’t usually consider tests to be out of whack, when in fact they are. My thyroid was low, worsening my depression and adding to fatigue, weight gain etc. She put me on thyroxine and monitored it for several years until we got back to normal. More recently, we discovered I had hashimoto’s and two nodules. Over several years of good eating and exercise my nodules disappeared. (The endocrinologist said he would only remove when they got to a certain size and they were just under that size). I am still having symptoms though, and now in the country where my GPs don’t seem to understand the disease at all. Back to the city I think.

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      Hi Bronnie – how lucky you were to have a psychiatrist at the time who showed such an understanding of underlying issues. And it sounds like you have done well to manage your illness and even overcome much of it.
      Thank you for sharing your story here – so many women fall through the cracks and are misdiagnosed as there are still plenty of knowledge gaps among the medical and health fraternities. I think the gap is closing, but it still pays for individuals to inform themselves so that they can seek the answers they need for their own health. Hearing stories like yours helps other women piece the puzzle together.
      Good luck with the rest of your wellness journey 🙂

  2. I was so happy to come across this post and thank you for sharing these fabulous tips with your readers. This article really reminded me of a book I read recently called, “Is Mid-Life Mooching your Mojo?” by author Dr. Joni Labbe (http://mojogirlfriends.com/). Her book is a God send for women and looks at thyroid issues as being the culprit for insomnia, weight issues, hot flashes, etc. She is a certified clinical nutritionist and is someone who has gone through menopause and was diagnosed with Hashimoto and Celiac’s. She tells you the way to go through LOW cost lab testing and recommends the right science based nutrition. If you have tried just about everything and nothing seems to work READ THIS BOOK. I cannot recommend it enough

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