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If you’re tired and woolly-headed all the time, it might be your thyroid that’s the culprit, not lack of sleep.

Your thyroid gland lies just over the windpipe at the front of the neck. “It is immensely important, as it produces the hormone thyroxine that controls how fast our bodily functions work,” says Dr Ronald McCoy, spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (www.racgp.org.au). “It produces two hormones, thyroxine (T4) and tri-iodothyronine (T3), that increase metabolic rate; thus, the more thyroid hormone in the blood, the faster our metabolism.”

Hypothyroidism (an under-active thyroid) is the most common thyroid disorder and usually strikes after age 40. Thyroid disorders are common, especially among women, but their onset is gradual, meaning they may not be diagnosed for months, or even years.According to Thyroid Australia, about 7.5 percent of Australian women and 1.5 percent of men suffer some form of thyroid dysfunction. “However, many people go undiagnosed, as many of the symptoms are typical of the lifestyle we lead today,” warns McCoy.

Your thyroid can become under-active for several reasons. “The most common is an autoimmune thyroid problem, where the body makes antibodies against itself,” says McCoy. According to Thyroid Australia (www.thyroid.org.au), the most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto's thyroiditis, where antibodies and white blood cells attack the thyroid. An under-active thyroid can result from some medicines, after surgery or childbirth, and in association with diabetes and coeliac disease. Insufficient iodine in the diet can also cause hypothyroidism.

What you can do

“Hypothyroidism is easily diagnosed through a blood test,” says McCoy. “The blood test will check your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) level. If it’s above the normal range, this may indicate that your thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormone and the pituitary gland in your brain is sending message to make more,” he explains. “If TSH is low, you may not be getting enough.”

However, this test alone may not be enough to determine the overall health of your thyroid. Also, you should request a full thyroid panel, as many experts believe that the current TSH test is not sensitive enough to catch many cases of hypothyroidism. “Ask your GP to test for TSH, free circulating T4, T3, and reverse T3,” advises McCoy.

“Most people will be given a synthetic version of the thyroid hormone, levothyroxine,” he says. “It may take some time to get the dosage correct, so it’s important to keep track of your health during this time. Over the course of your life, you’ll need to continue taking the medicine, and an annual blood test is given to see if the dosage needs to be adjusted.”

Environmental alert

Thyroid function can be altered by many substances in the environment, including herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (PHAHs) - which include dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), human-made compounds used in plastics, transformers, and other industries – bromine, found in flame-retardants, and chemicals in cigarette smoke. These can all disrupt the delicate working of the body’s hormones, including those involved in thyroid function. To avoid your exposure:

* Choose organic food as much as possible.
* Avoid contact with old transformers, capacitors, fluorescent lighting fixtures, and old electrical devices and appliances.
* Choose low-fat meat products and trim excess fat off meat.
* Limit or avoid eating predatory fish or fish from sources known to be contaminated with PHAHs.
* Choose non-toxic home furnishings and organic clothing where possible.
* Avoid cigarette smoke.

What are the alternatives?

Change your diet Naturopath and medical scientist Annalies Corse (www.annaliescorse.com) suggests cutting out soy products like tofu and soy milk and reducing Brassica vegetables, like broccoli and cabbage which contain goitrogens that may interfere with thyroid hormone production and worsen symptoms.

Ban the sugar According to personal trainer and author of the Clean and Lean Diet (KyleCathie), James Duigan, sugar wears out your organs. “It forces your internal organs to cope with changes in your body chemistry … too much sugar depletes vitamin and mineral stores in the body, which may impact on the immune system.”

B your best Three supplements that may help are riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (B3), and pyridoxine (B6). These all play roles in making thyroid hormone, and also boost energy. Take a B-complex supplement to ensure you’re getting enough.

Add some iodine A deficiency can cause hypothyroidism and, say Boston University School of Medicine researchers, will also cause weight gain, fatigue, and impaired brain function. Add 150mcg of iodine, either via supplementation, or by eating seaweed and saltwater fish, like cod, haddock or perch. But have your levels checked first; Thyroid Australia warns iodine supplementation can be taken too far.

Head for bed Get seven to eight hours sleep every night. It’s the only way to allow your adrenal glands to rest: once these are exhausted, your body cannot absorb the thyroid hormone you make.

Say ‘omm’ If you’re constantly stressed, your thyroid hormone production may drop. Exercise, particularly yoga, keeps stress levels down; plus, inverted postures like the Plough encourage blood supply to the thyroid area.

Buyer, beware The American Thyroid Association has issued an alert about over-the-counter ‘thyroid support’ supplements which are derived in part from animal thyroid glands, as they may be dangerous. Seek professional advice.

QUIZ: Are you at risk?

Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

* Tiredness/low energy
* Poor memory
* Weight gain
* Constipation
* Deepened voice
* Swelling in the neck
* Lowered tolerance to cold
* Puffy eyes and dry, thickened skin
* Thinning of the hair
* Heavy or less frequent menstrual periods
* Weakness and muscular aches
* Joint pain
* Depression
* Slow heart rate
* Goitre

Thyroid Australia advises that if you have several of these symptoms you should check them out with your GP.