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A Functional Medicine Approach To Thyroid Labs

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

The rise of alternative medicine over the past few decades has seen the use of different approaches to thyroid issues. One of those is functional medicine, which can sometimes take a thorough testing approach to various health problems. So, what are functional medicine thyroid labs, and how can practitioners use them to treat patients?

What Is Functional Medicine?

Functional Medicine is a system of medical practice based upon the premise that the human body is a complex system influenced by both internal and external factors. Its goal is to examine these factors to get to the root cause of a given health problem and find the most naturally efficient way to correct it.

Functional medicine takes a patient’s history, genetics, lifestyle, diet, environment, and lab work, and works with the patient around these elements to figure out what is causing the health issue and how to best address it.

Because the thyroid is a complex system involving various components, performing different functions, and affected by different things at different times, a Functional Medicine Practitioner will often want to run a comprehensive test on all elements of the thyroid system. This is where a functional medicine approach to thyroid testing comes in.

What Does The Thyroid Do?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that is part of the endocrine system, which helps regulate all of the body’s processes. It produces hormones central to cellular metabolism and maintaining appropriate calcium levels.

The process begins in the hypothalamus in the brain. It sends TRH (thyroid releasing hormone) to the pituitary gland, which in turn sends TSH (thyroid signaling hormone) to the thyroid gland, which then releases the thyroid hormone.

The thyroid hormone is made up of T3 (20%) and T4 (80%), which form an active and inactive pairing. The body then utilizes these, activating T4 into T3 when needed. When the body senses too much of this hormone in the system, it signals TRH to stop producing, shutting down the system until the body senses a need for it once more [1].

Functional medicine thyroid labs

This system affects numerous body functions, including:

  • Metabolic rate (the rate at which your body uses calories)
  • Heart rate
  • Body temperature
  • Rate of digestion
  • Brain development
  • Muscles contraction
  • Rate at which your body replaces skin and bone cells

Factors like stress and micronutrient levels can have an impact on the body’s ability to turn T4 into T3, disrupting normal production.

An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, with up to 60 percent of those being unaware of their condition, and a majority being women [2]. Traditionally, these conditions have been treated with medication or surgery, but the rise of alternative medicine over the past few decades has seen the use of different approaches to this health issue.

The thyroid has a significant role in overall body health. It is beneficial then to know what levels of these hormones are considered healthy versus unhealthy, so that a doctor can look at potential problem factors.

Optimal Functional Medicine Thyroid Levels

Functional Medicine Practitioners believe that traditional medicine’s testing and interventions for thyroid issues are limiting and reductionistic.

Historically, doctors have tested the TSH levels to determine whether or not someone may have a thyroid problem, and then prescribed medication to either increase or decrease those levels. The obvious fact here is that this approach is ignoring the rest of the interactions in the system and all of the potential impacting factors. It is an incomplete picture, hence why some practitioners prefer a functional medicine approach to thyroid labs.

More recent research has also called into question whether the ranges within the tests for what are considered to be normal levels of hormones are too broad. In this case, the functional medicine practitioner may consider the high end of the traditional “normal” range to be worthy of intervention.

The standard “normal” range for TSH is 0.45-4.12 mlU/L. However, the research indicates that 95% of people come in under 2.5 mlU/L. In subgroups that rarely get hyperthyroidism (too much TSH), the number is down to 1.8 mlU/L. Thus, some practitioners consider the functional medicine TSH range of 0.5-2.5 [3].

For a functional medicine approach to thyroid health, the practitioner also believes that the entire process should be looked at, meaning that testing for all hormones involved is required to get a fuller picture of any potential problems. It is possible for someone to test normal on TSH and be having symptoms of thyroid disorder.

Not all tests have a more “optimal” range by functional medicine standards. The particular hormones are more limited in their values in order to better prevent the development of thyroid problems and optimize thyroid health. Functional medicine practitioners can make use of this kind of information to help keep patients healthy and prevent future diseases.

A tool such as SelfDecode Pro can help practitioners track and analyze thyroid test results and provide targeted interventions based on test results.

What happens when a patient is outside of these optimal thyroid lab ranges? How does the doctor know when testing is appropriate? That will depend on the patient’s presenting information.

What Are Symptoms Of Poor Thyroid Function?

According to the American Thyroid Association, adults ages 35 years old should have a thyroid check done, and then every five years thereafter. One of the reasons for this timeframe is that thyroid disorder odds go up with age. The U.S. Preventive Task Force says that screening isn’t necessary unless certain symptoms are present. Functional medicine practitioners, however, may want to check annually [4].

Why the variance? The main reason is that there is no definitive testing criteria that designates a clinical diagnosis. A person can be out of the normal range and not have a thyroid disorder, as well as being within normal range and exhibiting symptoms. This allows for some diagnostic flexibility and discretion on the part of doctors.

When it comes to thyroid health, functional medicine practitioners will screen more often because they believe maintaining optimal levels of thyroid is better for overall health. What are the symptoms they look for though?

Depending on which way someone’s hormone levels are changing, it can cause symptoms indicative of either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Hypo indicates lower levels of the hormone, while hyper indicates higher. The symptoms often associated with these disorders include the following [5]:

Symptoms of Hypothyroidism:

  • Fatigue
  • Cold intolerance
  • Weight gain
  • Dry skin, thick skin, hair loss
  • New snoring, carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Irregular menses
  • Slow heart rate
  • Constipation

Functional Medicine Thyroid

Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism:

  • Irritability, nervousness
  • Increased sweating
  • Heart racing
  • Shaky hands
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Thinning of your skin and hair
  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Weight loss despite good appetite
  • Irregular menses

Functional Medicine Thyroid overactive

What may be apparent here is that many of the symptoms can be indicators for other issues besides a thyroid imbalance. They could indicate a thyroid problem along with something else. This is exactly the sort of complexity that functional medicine is trying to resolve by getting to the root causes of issues instead of just treating symptoms.

To that end, it’s important to understand what factors can impact thyroid function, so that issues can be addressed that may prevent future health issues and the need for unnecessary testing.

What Factors Interfere With Normal Thyroid Functioning?

Given that the thyroid hormone operates throughout the body, it should come as no surprise that there are other factors that can impact its functioning. Genetic factors contribute up to 65% of interindividual variations in TSH and thyroid hormone levels, but many environmental factors can also affect thyroid function [6]:

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Pollutants (chemicals and heavy metals)
  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Iodine (micronutrient taken from the diet)

These factors can impact the thyroid system at various points which is one of the reasons that functional medicine practitioners will do a full thyroid screening, to make sure all elements of the system are functioning properly.

Functional Medicine Thyroid Levels: The Role of Genetics

Every structure and process in the human body is informed by DNA. Because the thyroid system is so complex, the number of genes involved throughout the process is enormous. So, having a thorough understanding of a patient’s DNA and knowing if they have particular gene mutations that can impact the system at any point, can be greatly beneficial to informing potential interventions, particularly when thyroid issues are subclinical.

For this purpose, software such as SelfDecode can be essential for health practitioners. This genetic analysis examines over 83 million of these mutations, offering the greatest chance to inform the FMPs intervention measures and help fine-tune them for the patient. Here are just a few of the pieces of information SelfDecode has on hand to inform the FMP about their patient:

In addition to informative personalized blog posts, SelfDecode also offers two dedicated DNA reports for thyroid health, providing personalized health recommendations based on each client’s genetic data. For a functional medicine approach to thyroid health, practitioners can also utilize SelfDecode’s lab analyzer tool to look at their clients’ lab results.

Functional Medicine Thyroid Levels: Final Thoughts

Thyroid screening is a complicated issue and currently debated within the medical community as to when, how often, and to what extent screening should occur. There is a large gray area of symptomatic but not diagnosed thyroid disorders out there in the population, which generates debate over best practices when it comes to when and what to screen and the proper interventions to take.

Functional medicine tends to cast a wider net when it comes to the thyroid, which tends to draw scrutiny from standard medical practice, and this can be justified or not depending on the context.

Comprehensive thyroid screening can be beneficial to patients. It could indicate thyroid issues when there weren’t symptoms to indicate such. It could also indicate other health problems if there are symptoms but thyroid functioning is normal. It might also indicate nothing other than establishing baseline markers for ongoing health maintenance.

Depending upon the situation, it may be worth the cost or not for the patient. This is why such information and transparency are always required between practitioner and patient so that the best course can be decided and agreed upon.

For a functional medicine approach to thyroid health, there are tools practitioners can use to help them analyze their clients’ health data and provide better care. Book a demo call today to discover how SelfDecode can help you build a thriving practice.

About the Author

Jim Duncan

MSW
Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.

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