Thyroid Health as You Age
People are living longer than ever and want more out of every day. Advances in medicine have extended our life spans far beyond that of our primitive ancestors. Early humans lived and died while their bodies were still young by today’s standards—if they lived to be 35, they were lucky. Our ancestors likely had little concern for their quality of life as they lived in a world where only the strong survived. Today, however, women—and increasingly men—are routinely living well into their nineties. And futurists predict that human life expectancy could reach 120 by the year 2025. However, this newfound longevity is not entirely good news and will not come without its challenges.
America is the richest country on the planet and individual Americans spend more money on healthcare than people in any other part of the world. At the same time, we suffer from greater obesity and chronic illness than anyone else. Sure, we’re living longer. But, are we living or feeling better? The conventional medical model does a good job of treating trauma, acute conditions, and infectious disease. However, for the millions of Americas who suffer daily from chronic conditions—things like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, hormonal, metabolic, or neurological disorders—modern medicine often falls short. Patients are expected to accept a subpar quality of life; a lifetime of taking prescription medications and the side effects that come with them; and, no hope that they their condition will improve. I think that you deserve more.
When treating my patients, one of my top concerns is your quality of life. Every individual is unique and exams, lab results, and tests can only tell physicians so much. I want to know if you are enjoying life. Do you have energy? How do you exercise? Do you have a sense of well being? What about your libido? Are you having fulfilling relationships? Tell me about your diet? The vast majority of people today are suffering nutritional deficiencies and hormonal or metabolic disorders that affect all aspects of health and wellness. Nearly 2/3 of Americans are overweight and 1/2 are obese. I know that for many of these patients who are struggling with their weight, an undiagnosed thyroid problem is likely to blame. Thyroid dysfunction is an insidious scourge afflicting millions—millions who have no idea that there is answer, that they can feel better, that they’re not simply getting old.
A Functional Thyroid Is Essential – It is Your Master Hormone
Show me a person with a happy body and a great attitude and I can almost guarantee that he or she has a healthy thyroid. Most of us do not appreciate the degree to which our overall body function is dependent on our thyroid. The hormones produced by the thyroid gland create power for every cell in your body. Your thyroid is the key that turns on each and every cell and determines the speed at which the cell’s DNA can do what it’s genetically programmed to do. Although the thyroid’s primary role is the secretion of thyroid hormone and the regulation of weight, thyroid hormone affects every cell in your body. It turns your food into energy. Without precisely the right amount of thyroid hormone, your organs cannot perform at optimal levels and your cells cannot produce properly. But, that’s not all. The thyroid gland is critical for the production of sex hormones, as well. So, if your thyroid is out of whack, your testosterone and estrogen levels will follow suit. Once you’ve gone down this slippery slope, your quality of life has long been on the decline.
Thyroid dysfunction is among the most under-diagnosed conditions today. And it is no coincidence that this clinical trend is manifested in the dramatic nationwide increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, and low-T. What’s worse, as we age, our thyroid function begins to decline—this decline, sometimes referred to as thyropause, can begin at any age, and often occurs in patients as young as their twenties. I have learned that is never too early to check your thyroid and recommend that my patients repeat these tests annually.
The thyroid gland regulates all of these crucial bodily functions:
- Body temperature
- Cognitive function
When your thyroid is performing as it should, it is responsible for a myriad of positive benefits for your body—things like increasing the breakdown of fat, which can lead to weight loss and help lower your cholesterol. A healthy thyroid protects against many of the disabling processes that we typically associate with aging, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cognitive decline
- Weight gain
- Loss of libido
- Memory loss
Symptoms of Thyroid Deficiency
When your thyroid is not functioning properly, a number of conditions can develop—and each of them negatively impacts your quality of life. In America alone, 30-40% of people are hypothyroid: put another way, that’s 52 million people. People suffering from hypothyroidism have an underactive thyroid as do people with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease affecting the thyroid. By contrast, an overactive thyroid results in hyperthyroidism. Millions of Americans are afflicted with thyroid disease and only a small fraction is even aware. You can’t treat the unknown. That’s why a proper diagnosis is key.
Over 200 symptoms are related to thyroid deficiency. Here are some of the most common:
- Low energy
- Poor sense of well-being
- Changes in memory and cognition
- Loss of mental clarity
- Feeling cold
- Thin hair and nails
- Weight gain or loss
- Adverse effect on mood
Now, this is only a partial list of symptoms and many of these are also characteristics of other conditions—that’s why it is essential that your physician order the proper labs.
Thyroid Confusion by Conventional Medicine Practitioners
So why are physicians missing this critical diagnosis? For the past 40 years, medical students and doctors have been trained to evaluate thyroid problems by ordering blood work to check your levels of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). Functional Medicine practitioners know that TSH is only one-fourth of the picture. It is imperative to always test for all the functional thyroid studies, which include: TSH, Total T4, Free T3, and TPO (Thyroid Peroxidase).
The conventional medicine approach to thyroid testing misses an unacceptable amount of thyroid dysfunction, primarily because of the tests that they order to assess thyroid, along with the way they interpret the results. My colleagues at the American College of Gynecology are among those conventional practitioners who are getting it wrong. In a recent Pause magazine statement, ACOG submitted that the “thyroid can affect many of your bodily systems and is an important regulator of your metabolism…you should get it checked starting at age 50 and every 5 years thereafter.” These are the same recommendations espoused by the American College of Physicians. This is just bad medicine.
The principle problem with their position is that standard range for what is considered a “normal” thyroid reading is dead wrong. In addition, people can and do develop thyroid dysfunction at any age. So, even though your doctor tells you that your thyroid labs are just fine, if you’re still experiencing symptoms, get a second opinion—and a third, if necessary.
Optimizing your thyroid is increasingly significant as we age. The older you get, the harder it is for your body to convert T4 to T3. Why is this important? Over time, the amount of thyroid hormone decreases as a result of a decreased production by the gland. Additionally, age-related loss of effectiveness at receptor sites causes low thyroid symptoms in spite of “normal” blood levels. The only successful treatment for thyroid disorders is prescribing T3 and T4 combination-thyroid hormone along with key nutrients to support the thyroid. If your physician isn’t recommending this course of action, then find a new one.
Thyroid Health and Your Heart
Heart disease is still the number one killer of both men and women and your thyroid health is intimately tied to the health of your heart. Hypothyroidism particularly, is a major contributor to heart disease—its sufferers are at great risk for a cardiovascular event. But when your thyroid is optimized, your likelihood of a heart attack dramatically declines because thyroid hormone fortifies your immune system and reduces inflammation. Less inflammation in your arteries reduces plaque formation and allows more oxygen-rich blood to be pumped to your heart. In fact, 90% of predicted heart attacks could be prevented if hypothyroidism were properly controlled. Makes you wonder why cardiologists aren’t routinely testing for thyroid health.
Nutrients Necessary to Optimize Your Thyroid
Now the thyroid gland cannot act alone. Without help from certain nutrients, your thyroid will not manufacture thyroid hormone. In addition, your body requires specific nutrients to convert T4 to T3, for T3 to enter its cells, and to promote all around thyroid function. The modern food supply no longer provides many of the significant nutrients your body requires for T3 to reach even adequate—much less—optimal levels. For this reason, it is important that your physician tests for these key nutrients to promote optimal thyroid function. If my patients are low in any of these nutrients, I recommend supplementation with medical-grade vitamins and nutraceuticals.
- B vitamins
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K2
Dr. Prewitt’s Last Word
I want my patients to feel as good as I do. When my thyroid patients first come to see me,they remind of Dorothy from the original black-and-white Wizard of Oz. Once we optimize their thyroid and get them on nutraceuticals, it’s as if they are finally seeing the world in Technicolor.