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The Link Between Diabetes and Thyroid Problems (and What You Can Do About It)
People with diabetes have an increased risk of developing a thyroid disorder. In the general population, about 6% of people have a thyroid problem in one form or another. However, this percentage increases to more than 10% in people with diabetes.
Indeed, thyroid disorders are very common in the Western world… second only to diabetes as the most common condition affecting the endocrine system.
The endocrine system is a group of glands that secrete hormones that help regulate the use of nutrients by cells, ie these glands play a central role in the proper functioning of your metabolism.
Abnormal thyroid function can have a major impact on the control of diabetes…untreated thyroid disorders can increase the risk of diabetic complications and worsen symptoms of diabetes.
But thyroid problems can be easily diagnosed by simple blood tests and effective treatment is available. Everyone with diabetes should be checked periodically for thyroid disorders.
What is the thyroid gland?
The thyroid gland is shaped like a butterfly that sits around the windpipe in your neck between your Adam’s apple and your collarbone. It makes two hormones, T3 and T4, which set the speed for your metabolism… how fast your heart beats, how deep you breathe, your body temperature, and how your body uses insulin are functions that are related to thyroid gland.
Hyperthyroidismi.e. too much thyroid hormone is produced, increases insulin resistance, while hypothyroidismtoo little of the hormones that are produced increases cholesterol.
Hypothyroidism is much more common than hyperthyroidism.
Both hypo- and hyper-thyroid greatly increase the risk of heart disease.
Symptoms of thyroid problems
The symptoms vary with age and gender, and whether you have hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
The symptoms of hypothyroidism include feeling tired, feeling cold, gaining weight, experiencing depression, dry hair and skin, and constipation.
With hyperthyroidism, you tend to experience weight loss, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, muscle weakness and diarrhea.
Both types of thyroidism, hyper- and hypothyroidism, can cause a goiter, a swelling of the neck when the thyroid gland becomes larger.
Many of the symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. For example, one symptom of a thyroid problem is cold feet. But someone with type 2 diabetes can easily mistake this symptom for diabetic neuropathy.
Testing for thyroid problems
Since you can’t really tell if you have a thyroid problem just from the symptoms, you should check your thyroid regularly with blood tests. This is usually done by testing your blood for TSH, the thyroid-stimulating hormone.
TSH is the hormone that your pituitary gland uses to tell the thyroid gland to work. If thyroid function is low, the TSH level in your blood will be high, signaling that your thyroid needs to produce more thyroid hormones. If the thyroid gland is overactive, TSH will be low, try to slow it down.
A TSH level between 0.4 and 4.0mU/L (milli-units per liter) is considered normal. But some people can have significantly low thyroid function with a TSH of 2.0-4.0mU/L. Levels in this range can already increase your lipids to harmful levels and possibly your glucose. In some European countries, patients with a TSH above 2.0 mU/L may be put on thyroid medication.
How to manage thyroid problems
There are three things you need to do to manage thyroid problems…get tested periodically…take prescribed medications, and…eat a thyroid-friendly diet.
Testing… according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), anyone diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes should be checked for thyroid disorders and then at five-year intervals thereafter. Those with Type 1 diabetes should be screened every year. It’s also a good idea to test if you have unexplained changes in your glucose levels.
Medicines… hypothyroidism can be treated with levothyroxines, a synthetic version of T4, the main thyroid hormone, which is made and released by the thyroid gland. However, you need to try it out in different doses to find the best dose for you, which can take several months.
But levothyroxine does not work for everyone. However, there are other drugs, such as liothyronine, that can be used instead.
Note that it is important to take your thyroid pills at the same time every day.
There are also medical and surgical treatments for hyperthyroidism.
Diet… eating the right food makes a difference.
Iodine is the most important nutrient for your thyroid gland. It is added to most commercially sold salt in Europe and North America. If you use other, more specialized salts or no salt at all, you may need to take more iodine. Sea vegetables (seaweed) and marine animals are the best sources.
Medicines, food and exercise
The most common form of thyroid problems is hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid.
To get your thyroid up to speed you need to:
Medicines… take the correct amount of medicine as prescribed by your doctor. Do not skip doses and take it at the same time of day. Taking it at different times during the day can prevent it from working as it should. Since you will probably have to take it for the rest of your life, make it part of your established daily routine.
Take your thyroid medication on an empty stomach. Food can reduce its absorption, especially foods with high fiber. Fiber-rich foods are good for you, so don’t stop eating them…just eat them a few hours before or after taking your thyroid medication.
Avoid taking calcium supplements or supplements that contain iron (such as a multivitamin) along with your thyroid medication, as these can also block the absorption of the medication.
Food… cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts, and cabbage can affect the production of thyroid hormone. These are very healthy foods, so you should continue to eat them…just don’t eat them at the same time you take your medication. Cooking this vegetable seems to reduce this effect.
Go easy on it soy foods… contains soy genistein, which can reduce thyroid hormone production… and, while you should keep eating them, limit them to a few times a week.
Eat foods that stimulate the production of the thyroid hormone. These foods contain nutrients such as B vitamins, selenium, zinc, tyrosine and iodine. Poultry, seafood, lean meats, whole grains, onions, beans, almonds, avocados, seeds, and low-fat dairy products may be helpful.
Avoid or limit fatty and sugary foods…just as you would to control your diabetes.
Watch your portion sizes. Not overeating seems like a no-brainer. If you need to lose weight, cut back on how much you eat.
A lack of iron is one cause of hypothyroidism. Ask your doctor to check your iron levels if you have hypothyroidism.
Do not take nutritional supplements, such as iodine supplements, aimed at treating thyroid problems without first discussing this with your doctor. Also, don’t stop taking your thyroid medication in hopes of “treating” hypothyroidism through diet alone.
Work out… not necessary to solve your thyroid (or your diabetes), but helps the process. Keeping fit with a daily exercise routine will boost your efforts…you’ll feel better for it too.
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