Thyroid Issues and Fitness

by Phil Kaplan

I get thousands of e-mails about thyroid issues and individuals diagnosed with hypothyroidism (production of thyroid hormones below the body’s need) struggling to lose weight despite attempts at dieting and exercising.  Because of the overwhelming number of e-mails I receive, it just isn’t possible to provide a personal response to each and every one, although I sincerely wish I could.  In sharing some of the realities about the thyroid gland and how it affects exercise results, I hope I can answer a few of the questions and alleviate some of the surface concerns.

Of course when the thyroid gland itself becomes impaired (such as in the case of Hashimoto’s disease or any autoimmune response that targets, inflames, and damages the thyroid), or when medical conditions require surgery on or removal of a portion of the thyroid gland, additional medical intervention is typically required to normalize the hormonal environment, but most the thyroid issues I come across in clients and customers are not as much related to damage of the gland, but rather compromised interaction of hormones.

Starting with the basics, the thyroid gland, located in the neck region, stimulates metabolic functions through its creation and distribution of hormones which all interplay within the endocrine system.  We typically associate the thyroid with the production of the metabolism regulating hormones T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine or tetraiodothyronine), but the hormonal processes that begin with TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) work to determine a staggering number of hormonal functions.  Thyroid activity helps to determine how much cholesterol is converted into pegnenolone, progesterone, and DHEA, and these compounds begin a process of conversion resulting in the production of testosterone, estrogen, and the “stress hormone” cortisol.

Thyroid issues are diagnosed more frequently in women than in men.  That isn’t a random statistic.  The female hormonal environment is more susceptible to conditions that can adversely impact thyroid activity.  As all hormones, the thyroid hormones interact at a cellular level by attaching at receptor sites within the structures of cells, and in women, the binding of thyroid hormones requires sufficient progesterone.  If progesterone levels are low (as is common in perimenopausal and post menopausal women), while the thyroid gland may be healthy and functional, the hormonal interactions are impaired and with reduced binding of thyroid hormones, metabolism slows.  When estrogen levels rise beyond what might be considered optimal proportions, progesterone levels typically drop leading to compromises in the efficiency of the thyroid gland.

There are many issues, other than the hormonal changes that we associate with aging, that can interfere with thyroid activity.  Repeated bouts with calorie deprivation can compromise the production of T3 and T4, and each successive “diet” may further inhibit metabolic activity.  Medications, stress, digestive difficulties, candida, erratic or excessive intake of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, and compromised adrenal function via the use of stimulants can all challenge thyroid health.

Here’s the good news.  While you can certainly indict hypothyroidism as a culprit if you experience weight gain, you can also get yourself moving back in the other direction, healthfully.  The first trick is to avoid the common mistakes.  I find many people who have a thyroid related weight issue attempt to commit to exhaustive aerobic exercise efforts or long brisk walks.  While this may have great value for the Cardiorespiratory system, it does little to protect muscle mass, and if you lose muscle, metabolism slows further.  As we age, muscle loss is inevitable unless we ask our bodies to challenge resistance.  Aerobic exercise is a piece of the puzzle, but to develop a lean body, a concern for resistance exercise is vital.  The second great mistake lies in avoiding food (restrictive dieting) and/or “snacking” on low-fat cookies or appetite suppressing snacks.  This works to further slow metabolism and while diets might lead to short term alterations in water loss, they will rarely lead to a healthful adjustment in the hormonal cascade.

An important step for anyone with thyroid compromises is to regularly visit with your endocrinologist.  Thyroid “meds” are usually either synthetic T4 (Synthroid) or a mix of T3 and T4 (Armour Thyroid).  An endocrinologist can help you to adjust the estrogen / progesterone balance as well as to compensate synthetically for any thyroid deficiencies.  A program of exercise and supportive eating can only help to optimize the physical outcome, provided the aforementioned mistakes are avoided.

In summary, eat small meals frequently combining lean proteins with small servings of natural complex carbs, avoid simple sugars and bleached flours, exercise both aerobically and with resistance, and check hormonal levels with an endocrinologist.  My 17-Day ANSWER program together with my EAT! recipe book have proven to be of great value to those  with thyroid concerns who came to me in desperate search of fat loss.  With the proper technology in place, and with some patience and commitment, thyroid concerns do not have to prevent you from re-shaping your body virtually any way you want to.

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