If you are being treated for an underactive thyroid, medically known as hypothyroidism, and are struggling to lose body fat, you are not alone. Of the estimated 2% percent in the U.K. who have hypothyroidism, many find themselves with undesirable weight gain.
Hypothyroidism is mostly seen in women between the ages of 40 – 50 and is seen in women ten times more often than men. It often occurs during the menopausal years and symptoms are often ignored during the early stages by both patients and doctors if the patient is at this age.
Even after diagnosis and treatment, it may be extremely difficult to lose weight. You may even find yourself gaining weight, so attaining your personal body composition goals seems impossible.
The doctors at our clinics regularly identify thyroid issues. This article aims to provide some basic information about thyroid function and its role in obesity and give you specific steps you can take to lose weight.
The small but mighty thyroid gland
The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland located low on the front of your neck. It secretes several hormones, primarily T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine), that act on every cell throughout the body to regulate metabolism, growth and development, and body temperature. These hormones also affect breathing, heart and nervous system functions, muscle strength, menstrual cycles, weight and cholesterol levels.
The thyroid functions by receiving information from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland located in the brain. The pituitary gland, which is like a thermostat for your body, stimulates the thyroid by secreting Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). When the pituitary senses a low concentration of thyroid hormone in your blood, it produces more TSH to signal to increase production of T4 or T3. If thyroid hormone levels are high, the pituitary produces only tiny amounts of TSH.
If your thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone, you have hyperthyroidism. Common symptoms include uncontrolled weight loss, rapid heart rate, and heat sensitivity.
With hypothyroidism, insufficient thyroid hormone is secreted to meet the body’s needs, and body functions slow.
If you have hypothyroidism, you may gain weight, feel tired, have dry hair and skin, be constipated, and have an intolerance to cold.
Hypothyroidism is treated with daily thyroid hormone pills to replace the amount of hormone your body is no longer producing.
THE LINK BETWEEN HYPOTHYROIDISM AND WEIGHT GAIN
Weight gain or the inability to lose weight is a common concern for people with hypothyroidism. Even when on treatment, there is usually only a modest loss in weight.
The way the thyroid functions to affect weight and body composition is quite complex. Research has found interactions between thyroid hormones and factors directly affecting energy expenditure, such as fat tissue, other hormones, and the brain.
Although clinicians are not certain whether hypothyroidism causes obesity or vice versa, there is undoubtedly a link between the two.
What can you do?
Hope is not lost! Your motivation may be lagging because the weight is not melting off even while taking thyroid hormone replacement. There are proactive steps you can take to address issues keeping you from meeting your goals. All these things should be done in consultation with your doctor.
- Get your thyroid tested – Discuss the results with your doctor to see if your TSH levels are in the higher end of the reference range, or if your T3 or TBG is low. Your doctor may need to adjust your current medication or supplement with T3 in order to find your optimal thyroid levels.
- Optimize your thyroid medication – Discuss any changes in your medications with your doctor and check you are taking them at the best time and whether they should be taken with food, for example.
- Get tested for insulin and leptin resistance – If you have these conditions, discuss treatment options with your doctor.
- Exercise regularly – Lifestyle changes, such as physical activity, which improve body composition (even without a change on the scale), improve thyroid function. Regular exercise raises your metabolism, curbs your appetite, lowers blood sugar levels, and reduces insulin and leptin resistance.
- Change your diet – Work with your doctor to find a diet plan that will provide optimal thyroid health and control your weight while helping to manage or prevent conditions associated with hypothyroidism.
- Change your eating patterns – Larger, less frequent (2-3) meals each day with few or no between-meal snacks may be more effective at controlling insulin and leptin levels, which will optimize fat usage.
- Get your 8 hours of sleep – Getting enough sleep controls insulin and leptin as well as stress hormone levels.