Low Functioning Thyroid: The Body’s Butterfly Shaped Gland And How It Relates To Your Health

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

Are you feeling tired, overworked or worn out? Are you having trouble concentrating, thinking, or even remembering things? Ever thought about having your thyroid tested to see if it is working properly or if you have a low functioning thyroid?

What You Need to Know About Low Functioning Thyroid

low functioning thyroid can be a problemA low functioning thyroid, also known as hypothyroidism, is when your thyroid is not making enough thyroid hormone. Hypothyroidism plagues many people across the world while both men and women suffer from this condition, it is more commonly seen in women. This condition can cause a slew of health problems that can upset your day to day living with symptoms like fatigue, slow metabolism and brain fog. Also, typically, not having enough iodine in your diet from fish, salt, bread or other sources can lead to hypothyroidism. If you have hypothyroidism during pregnancy that is not treated it could lead to growth delays or development in the baby. Overall, it is definitely something worth getting tested for if you are exhibiting any of the signs of a low functioning thyroid.

On the other side is a high functioning thyroid or hyperthyroidism – where your thyroid is producing a lot of thyroid hormones. This can be caused by conditions such as: Grave’s disease, goiters, thyroid inflammation and toxic adenoma. It can also cause other symptoms that can have serious effects on your life.

Understanding Your Thyroid

Your thyroid is a butterfly shaped, located in your neck, and controlled by your pituitary gland – which stimulates it to make hormones. These hormones are then transported throughout the body to aid in different functions. This organ is part of your endocrine system. The endocrine system is a group of glands and organs that produces hormones that regulates some of your body’s functions such as: growth, reproduction, mood and even sleep patterns.

Your thyroid contributes to many physiological functions within the body. If it is not working properly – whether it is working too hard or too little, it can upset the balances in your body and cause several different problems. Your thyroid aids in controlling many functions such as:

  • Heart Rate
  • Nervous System
  • Body Weight
  • Breathing
  • Body Temperatures
  • Menstrual Cycles

Since this little gland – your thyroid – plays such a big role in your body, it’s important to ensure that it is working properly. Of course, you can live without your thyroid if it becomes diseased with such things as cancer. However, without a thyroid to make the hormones – you will be on thyroid medication for the rest of your life. You need those hormones to survive.

Symptoms of Low Functioning Thyroid

You can actually have a low functioning thyroid and not even have hypothyroidism. Typically the TSH levels of 2.8 to 4.0 are considered a risk, however, it does range by laboratories and different countries. It is important to note that the numbers are not absolute. Clinical correlation is needed for best interpretation. Several symptoms that may indicate that your thyroid is low functioning may include:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Slow Metabolic Rate
  • Weight Gain
  • Dry Hair/Hair Loss
  • Brain Fog
  • Decreased Libido
  • Dry Skin
  • Cold Intolerance

A low functioning thyroid can cause chokingOther possible symptoms of a low thyroid function may include:

  • Puffiness In The Face
  • Muscle Weakness
  • Frequent Choking
  • Constipation
  • Poor Growth In Children and Teens

Testing Your Thyroid

If you believe you are having low thyroid function, it is so important to talk to you doctor and get tested. Doctors test your thyroid by measuring the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels in your body to determine how your thyroid is functioning. This is done with a simple blood test in a laboratory. TSH is produced in the pituitary gland and is meant to stimulate your thyroid gland to produce the hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). If your TSH levels are low, then your free T3 and free T4 levels are low – indicating possible hypothyroid.

The TSH test could also show if you have hyperthyroidism, Grave’s Disease, a tumor in your thyroid, Hashimoto’s disease, or other conditions related to your thyroid gland.

Normal levels of TSH are typically in the scale of 0.4 to 4.0. Having a TSH level of 2.8 or less is considered ideal by most, but not every physician agrees. Anything 2.8 to 4.0 is considered at risk. Some consider the historic cut-off point of 5.0 still valid. Therefore, interpreting the meaning of these scales does depend on who you are talking too. Levels also vary due to age or pregnancy. For example, a baby will have lower levels than an adult would – which is perfectly normal. A TSH level of 4.0 or above is considered hypothyroidism or a low functioning thyroid. Adversely, a TSH level less than 0.4 is considered hyperthyroidism.

However, some studies have shown that relying solely on TSH tests alone can cause a misdiagnosis or even remaining undiagnosed. This can be caused by many factors – such as medications interfering with the tests. Also, some doctors may not even test your thyroid if they believe it is not the issue. Luckily for you, there are home TSH tests you can do if you believe it could be a thyroid issue. However, don’t solely rely on the home test. If the home test suggests that you have a low functioning thyroid, then talk to your doctor or specialist about doing more tests to give you an accurate diagnosis. It’s very important to get a proper diagnosis before beginning any form of treatment for a low functioning thyroid. Hypothyroidism is typically treated with thyroid replacement medications or iodine stimulants.

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and Low Functioning Thyroid

Adrenal fatigue is a dysfunction in your adrenal glands that is not related to Addison’s disease. It’s a condition not often recognized in the conventional world of Western medicine. This condition is typically caused by stress, diet and other factors. Adrenal fatigue occurs when you have low cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol is a key factor in stress management of the body. Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) can include but are not limited to:

  • Getting The Flu often
  • Weight Gain
  • Increase In Infections
  • Brain Fog
  • Needing Stimulants Such As Coffee
  • Difficulty Getting Out Of Bed
  • Depression
  • Lack Of Energy
  • Brain Fog
  • Loss Of Hair
  • Dry Skin
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Nervousness
  • Trouble Sleeping

A word cloud associated with low functioning thyroidWhen it comes to people who may suffer from AFS, we typically see symptoms related or similar to low functioning thyroid. These people may be slightly under the TSH scale for hypothyroidism however. They have symptoms of a low functioning thyroid, but their free T3 and free T4 are considered “within the normal range” or even higher. They are not diagnosed with hypothyroidism or a low functioning thyroid. Some of the symptoms they may have are not limited to but include: brain fog, weight gain, losing hair in eyebrows, low metabolic rate and even dry, flaky skin. All of these symptoms point to a low functioning thyroid (at least lower than normal), but not necessarily hypothyroidism.

AFS and hypothyroidism have many of the same symptoms. While a low functioning thyroid may be part of adrenal fatigue, these are still two very different conditions. One of the biggest cons to treating a low functioning thyroid (if you suffer from AFS) is that if you give thyroid replacement medication to an already fatigued body it could then worsen the symptoms of AFS. At first, it may seem that this treatment is working, and it can give your body a burst of energy. However, this treatment will ultimately increase fatigue, and you will end up feeling worse in the long run. This is because thyroid replacement medications oftentimes increase metabolic functions and energy levels. This puts an already distressed, already fatigued body into overdrive, so to speak, and could lead to your body crashing.

It’s also important to understand that stimulants like iodine, kelp and thyroid glandulars may have an adverse and even serious affect on someone with adrenal fatigue syndrome. These stimulants could actually throw the the thyroid from low to high function causing a hyperthyroid swing. Low thyroid function in people who have AFS can NOT be treated the same way as hypothyroidism.

The best way to treat symptoms of a low functioning thyroid and AFS is by supporting the adrenal glands. This is typically done by dietary changes and reducing stressors in your life. If you have AFS, it’s important to talk to a nutritionist specialist who understands adrenal fatigue syndrome and could help you properly regulate your diet by giving you nutritional coaching. In addition to proper diet, start reducing stress factors in your life. By treating adrenal fatigue syndrome, you will also be treating your low functioning thyroid and helping it to be healthier and more balanced.

NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response And Your Thyroid

Whereas one area of the body will affect another area, the NEM stress response model is a conventional model that shows how physical and emotional stressors affect our body’s systems, glands and organs in a corresponding way. The endocrine system is in charge of most of our body’s stress responses and hormonal levels. Most of our stress response falls on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) hormonal axis. If the HPA hormonal axis is not working properly and the adrenals are not producing adequate amounts of cortisol, then our body will not be handling stress very well at all. In order for us to handle stress – all of our body’s systems, glands and organs have to be in working order.

The adrenals and low functioning thyroidThe adrenal glands are also an important factor in managing our stressors. If you suffer from AFS, it will be hard to manage stress properly due to cortisol levels. Also, since the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland are important agents in stimulating your thyroid gland – all of these factors have to be working properly in order to have proper thyroid function. If your pituitary gland is not creating accurate amounts of TSH, then your thyroid will not create the right amounts of T3 or T4. This could lead to either a high functioning thyroid or low functioning thyroid. Overall, it is important for all of the aspects of the neuroendocrine system to function properly in order to handle stress and keep your body functioning in a healthy manner. The good thing about the NEM stress response is it also shows how when one area of the body is working properly, other areas will be working properly as well. This is why treating AFS will also treat a low functioning thyroid. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response is like an inter-connecting web of passages that correlates organs and body systems. One area of the NEM can affect another area.

Final Thoughts

The butterfly shaped gland known as your thyroid is a very important gland in your body that regulates many different physiological functions. If the thyroid is not functioning properly, it can cause hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism and a low functioning thyroid may be interrelated to Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), however, they are two separate conditions. Most people with AFS have a low functioning thyroid, but not necessarily hypothyroidism.

If you remove the causes of AFS, it will help your thyroid gland to get healthy as well. It’s important to avoid thyroid replacement medications and iodine stimulants if you have adrenal fatigue syndrome. Instead, talk to a specialist and nutritionist in order to combat AFS and help your thyroid at the same time. Understanding how your thyroid works and what adrenal fatigue is will help you take charge of your life again. Ignoring the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue syndrome can lead to your body crashing. It can also have adverse affects on your thyroid – so it is important to learn how to manage and treat it properly before it worsens.


© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

A low functioning thyroid can lead to many symptoms