According to The British Thyroid Foundation, as many as one in twenty people in the UK, mainly women, suffer from some form of thyroid disease. This only counts people who are diagnosed – you may be one of the many people living with undiagnosed thyroid issues.
You may not connect the two, but did you know that your gut health can affect your thyroid? To coincide with Thyroid Awareness Month, read on to discover more about the close link between these two organs, and how looking after your gut could help improve your thyroid function.
Your thyroid is a small gland sitting at the base of your neck. It produces the thyroid hormones T3 and T4. These act like your very own accelerator pedal, affecting every single cell in your body. If your thyroid isn’t functioning optimally, you’ll lack energy, and you may have dry skin and hair, constipation, low mood, sensitivity to cold, low libido, and a tendency to gain weight.
Residing in your gut are trillions of micro-organisms – bacteria, fungi and even viruses – collectively called your microbiome. This inner ecosystem usually lives unnoticed in your gut, creating as part of their lifecycle a huge range of chemicals to be carried in your bloodstream to all parts of your body.
Recently the microbiome has been found to influence the health of all many other organs of the body, so it’s not surprising it affects hormone balance. However, so close is the connection between the gut and the thyroid that scientists have coined a new term: the gut/thyroid axis.
Over two-thirds of your immune function sits in your gut, with the bacteria in your microbiome dictating how well your immune system functions. So, any disturbance to your microbiome leaves you with an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is inflammation of the thyroid caused by immune system cells mistakenly attacking it instead of an invader. This damages the gland and it can’t produce sufficient thyroid hormones to go around. Up to 90% of low thyroid issues in adults are thought to be down to the immune system going rogue.
Research has discovered the bacteria in the guts of people suffering from thyroid disorders are different to those of healthy people, with certain species being more plentiful while others are scarcer. Their bacterial ratios in people with thyroid issues were similar to those seen in sufferers of metabolic diseases like Type 2 diabetes.
In fact, the connection is so strong researchers have suggested measures of bacterial balance in the gut could be used to diagnose people at risk of developing thyroid disease.
Some bacteria naturally found in your gut manufacture substances called short-chain fatty acids by fermenting fibre from plant foods. These play major roles in helping your gut communicate with the rest of your body, as well as regulating inflammation. The types of gut bacteria in people with hypothyroidism tend not to be very good at making these fatty acids.
A healthy microbiome creates a healthy intestinal lining. If the bacteria in your microbiome is unbalanced, the lining of your intestines can become too permeable. When this happens, toxic substances are absorbed into your bloodstream, initiating a chain of events leading to inflammatory molecules travelling to your thyroid gland.
The bacteria in your microbiome affect the metabolism of thyroid hormones, including converting the hormones into their active form. This applied to hormones produced by your thyroid gland itself as well as those given as medication.
Once thyroxine has been processed by your liver it’s transported to your intestines. Gut bacteria can latch onto the thyroxine and store it, providing a hormone reservoir to reduce blood fluctuations of thyroxine.
Unbalanced gut bacteria reduce the absorption of minerals essential for your thyroid. These include iodine, iron and copper, needed to make thyroid hormones, and zinc and selenium, important for converting thyroid hormones to their active form.
As you’ve seen, it’s impossible to consider the health of your thyroid independently from your gut. This concept of connectivity underpins Functional Medicine, which considers you as a whole, with all parts of your body affecting the others. Functional Medicine recognises everyone is different, so the factors causing your thyroid to become unbalanced will be unique to you, depending on your health history, nutritional status and lifestyle. These are the factors taken into account when constructing your treatment plan.
Functional tests can examine what shape your microbiome is in and the messenger substances the bacteria are releasing. A functional thyroid test will reveal your levels of active hormones plus any antibodies your body may be producing against your thyroid gland – a GPs test doesn’t usually measure these.
Following this, nutrients to support your gut and your thyroid will be recommended, along with dietary suggestions like eating plenty of plant fibre and fermented foods to support your microbiome
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