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The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a perfect time for navel gazing and deep thought. Let me share a little bit about where my head is today. This morning I was listening to an interview with thyroid health expert Dr. Izabella Wentz in which she brought up the idea that the population that survived events such as the Irish potato famine may have had a genetic propensity for hypothyroidism, that allowed their metabolism to significantly slow down so they didn’t starve to death. 

Without any referenced studies, this may have been a musing or famine and thyroidpassing theory (hypothyroidism is very common around the world as famines are throughout history), but it caught my ear as my genetic ancestry is 46% Irish/British (don’t like the two being lumped together? take it up with 23andme).

Does my ancestry predispose me to hypothyroidism?? From what I can find, we don’t have the answer to that just yet, but I was intrigued by the example of how thyroid function may respond to stress to help the body adapt and survive tough times.

Let’s consider this theory that changes in thyroid function may be a form of adaptive physiology, whether or not we inherited the genes for it from a specific group of famine survivors. When times are good, the thyroid gland regulates our energy production. A healthy thyroid contributes to a healthy mind & mood, vibrant skin and hair, reproductive success and much more. When the body is severely stressed, the thyroid shuts down. There may not be anything inherently bad or wrong with our thyroid gland – it is simply responding (adapting) to stress!

What kind of stress? I am not stressed!” you reply, “I even go to yoga.”

stress denialOh, how about:

  • The “false famine” of a low-calorie diet and hours at the gym?
  • Exposure to environmental toxins?
  • Exposure to acid suppressants that impede digestion and nutrient availability?
  • Antibiotics and hormones that lead to abnormal gut flora and inflammation?
  • Blood sugar spikes from an inappropriate diet?

There are a lot more ways we stress our bodies than simply over booking our calendar. Unraveling the root causes of thyroid dysfunction is multifaceted, and it begins with the understanding that a “sluggish thyroid” may not be the primary issue, but rather your body coping with other underlying malfunctions and imbalances. 

On the surface, this is a contrasting perspective to many who have written about “fix the thyroid -> fix everything else,” but at the end of the day it comes down to building health holistically and going beyond simply selecting the right prescription or supplement to compensate for a dysfunctional thyroid.

Curious to read more? Here are two resources to get you started:

Who doesn’t love infographics? Here is one drawing connections between stressors and thyroid function from Dr. Izabella Wentz:

Dave Asprey interviewing FDN founder Reed Davis, with an emphasis on the contributing factors to thyroid dysfunction

(this interview, by the way, is a great introduction to the “health building” work that I do with clients, so if you aren’t familiar with Functional Diagnostic Nutrition, bookmark this one for a listen) 

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