How An Underactive Thyroid Can Affect Your Fitness Goals

How An Underactive Thyroid Can Affect Your Fitness Goals

People suffering from an underactive thyroid - a condition referred to as hypothyroidism - often struggle with weight loss. Weight issues arise as the thyroid gland produces the wrong amount of hormones that regulate the body's metabolic processes (Source). People suffering from hypothyroidism can benefit from making lifestyle and dietary changes. Several studies have shown that exercising can alleviate many symptoms associated with hypothyroidism. Similarly, the food that one also eats significantly impacts the working of a defunctioning thyroid gland.

In this article, we will endeavor to answer some of the critical questions associated with this condition: What is hypothyroidism? What causes it? How does hypothyroidism affect the level of physical activity in a person? Can exercising help alleviate its symptoms? And, how can one naturally improve the thyroid function?

Let's first establish the basics

What Is Hypothyroidism?

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland present at the base of the neck. The primary function of the thyroid gland is the production of two hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). The thyroid gland releases both of these hormones into the bloodstream, through which they reach the various parts of the body. Within the cells and tissues, T4 is converted into T3. Of the two, T3 is the hormone that biologically affects the capabilities of human cells and tissues.

T3 directly affects the metabolic power of cells and determines the rate at which cells work. Thus, a higher concentration of T3 in the body translates into cells working faster than usual. This condition is called hyperthyroidism. People suffering from this condition have an excessively high metabolic rate. On the other hand, low production of T3 translates into slowed cell activity and thus, low metabolic rate. This condition is commonly known as hypothyroidism. People suffering from this condition often experience a slower heart rate.

Other than actively determining the body's metabolic and heart rate, the thyroid gland is also responsible for supplying energy to almost all organs of the body. Thus, people suffering from an underactive thyroid experience slowed natural functions. Hypothyroidism is more common in women than in men, and its chances increase as a person ages.

What Causes It?

We have established a clear understanding of hypothyroidism. Let us now strive to understand what causes hypothyroidism. There are many factors and causes. Here we highlight the three most common reasons.

  • Autoimmune Diseases: The autoimmune system of the body protects against bacteria and viruses. However, if the autoimmune system is not regulated well -- which is what happens in people suffering from an autoimmune disease -- the autoimmune system starts attacking healthy tissues, including the thyroid gland. Hashimoto's Thyroiditis is one such autoimmune disease that directly affects the working of the thyroid gland. Many other autoimmune disorders also negatively impact the function of the thyroid gland.

  • Radiation Therapy and Medication: People diagnosed with severe forms of cancer, such as lymphoma or leukemia, almost always have to undergo radiation therapy. Radiation therapy either significantly reduces or completely stops the production of the thyroid hormone, often leading to hypothyroidism in cancer patients. Similarly, several medicines, especially those given to treat psychological and heart diseases, can sometimes significantly hamper the activity of the thyroid gland.

  • Genetics: Genetics has a vital role to play in the determination of TSH concentration and thyroid hormone. Studies have revealed that up to 67% of TSH and thyroid hormone concentration is genetically determined. Thus, genetics can also be held responsible for thyroid-related issues in many individuals. As a matter of fact, 15 to 20 percent of cases of congenital hypothyroidism is genetic.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Hypothyroidism?

The symptoms of hypothyroidism vary from person to person and are also determined by the severity of the condition. Thyroid symptoms are often difficult to identify as these symptoms are also commonly visible in completely healthy people. However, as the severity of the condition increases, the symptoms also become more identifiable. Common symptoms associated with hypothyroidism include weight gain, tiredness, depression, slowed heart rate, higher blood cholesterol levels, muscle weakness, menstrual changes, puffiness in the face, and dry skin (Source).

There are many people suffering from hypothyroidism who exhibit very few symptoms. So it’s always a good idea to get a blood test done from time to time.

How Is Hypothyroidism Diagnosed?

The only way to know for sure if a person is suffering from hypothyroidism is to get a blood test done (Source). If you feel you are seeing specific symptoms associated with this condition, visit your doctor. The doctor will ask you specific questions, get an idea of the signs, and advise you on whether you need the blood test done or not. If they see that the symptoms indeed resemble those associated with the condition, they will ask you to do a blood test. In most cases, doctors prescribe the TSH test.

The blood test done to diagnose hypothyroidism is called the TSH test. The TSH test studies the activity of the pituitary gland to establish the possibility of hypothyroidism. When the body is producing insufficient thyroid hormone, the pituitary gland boosts the production of TSH as TSH stimulates the production of thyroid hormone. Thus, in people suffering from hypothyroidism, the TSH levels are found to be high.

In most cases, a single test is enough to establish the presence and severity of this condition, but sometimes more than one test may be required as there may be some false positives. The Thyroxine test is another test used to diagnose hypothyroidism. The TSH and T4 test together form the most efficient diagnosis for hypothyroidism.

How Does Thyroid Affect Exercise Performance, Physiology and Recovery?

Athletes must be excessively careful about hypothyroidism as the thyroid hormone regulates metabolism and protein synthesis in various ways, and hypothyroidism can actively get in the way of your ambition.

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Several studies have linked hypothyroidism and exercise fatigue. This fatigue is due to numerous reasons. To start with, an underactive thyroid leads to a slower heart rate. Thus, in people with an underactive thyroid, the heart's ability to pump blood gets reduced. This decreases the amount of food and oxygen reaching different cells of the body, which, in turn, leads to reduced athletic performance (Source) . An underactive thyroid also leads to chronic inflammation, which makes a person feel tired all the time, therefore reducing willpower and drive to win.

Similarly, the hypothyroidism also leads to reduced fat extraction from cells. The right amount of fat is needed to facilitate muscle contraction while working out (Source). This reduced extraction of fat further reduces athletic performance and also leads to weaker muscles. Hypothyroidism is also linked with poor bone metabolism and thus, porous and brittle bones (Source). It is also known to lead to reduced insulin sensitivity, which makes it difficult for cells to extract sugar from the blood. This sugar is needed for effective anaerobic training. It also considerably reduces recovery time between training sessions.

It is now a known fact that the T3 hormone promotes type II muscle fibers. These fibers are essential for athletes to perform well. Similarly, only an active thyroid can lead to increased thyroid hormone production to complement any increase in exercise intensity. Thus, an underactive thyroid affects an athletes' performance and physiology in many ways. Athletes must, therefore, get their thyroid tested from time to time, and those suffering from the condition should stick to hypothyroid exercises and diet to ensure good health.

How to Improve Fitness in People with an Underactive Thyroid?

Hypothyroidism is not an uncommon disease. Millions of people around the world suffer from it. However, it shouldn’t be a hindrance to achieving your fitness goals. People suffering from an underactive thyroid must seek medical advice and take medication, if necessary. Unfortunately, medication, sometimes, has harmful effects on the body. If you are suffering from an early form of an underactive thyroid, try these natural ways to improve thyroid function.

Avoid starvation diets

For people battling an underactive thyroid, losing weight may seem like an arduous task. However, it is possible to achieve the target goal by making a few dietary changes. For starters, people looking for weight loss plans for low thyroid condition should make a conscious effort to stay away from starvation diets. Consider following the Zone Diet (Source). This diet focuses on the consumption of protein-rich and low-carb foods. This diet advises people to consume meals that contain 40 percent carbohydrate, 30 percent fat, and 30 percent protein. Carbohydrate sources with a low glycemic index and unsaturated fats are favored as they support the slow release of insulin into the body. This slow release of insulin leads to increased fat reduction. Hypothyroidism patients should also stay away from foods containing goitrogens, as goitrogens negatively affect thyroid hormone production.

Exercise regularly

Exercise can play a pivotal role in reducing the intensity of many symptoms associated with hypothyroidism (Source). People with an underactive thyroid gland experience a reduced heart rate. This reduced heart rate can become problematic if left untreated. Similarly, this condition has also been associated with ventricular arrhythmias. Thus, people suffering from hypothyroidism should include cardio exercises, such as running, walking, etc., in their workout regime. These exercises strengthen the cardiovascular system of the body and a person's overall cardiac health. People suffering from this condition should stay away from strenuous activities and instead, include low-impact exercises, such as yoga, swimming, pilates, etc. Lastly, to counter the effect of a low metabolic rate, people dealing with an underactive thyroid should focus on building muscles through strength training (related article).

Stay Hydrated (related article)

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, every individual should consume at least three quarts of water each day. Many studies have proved that drinking water can increase metabolism. A study revealed that drinking water considerably increases the calories a person burns while sleeping. Since an underactive thyroid is primarily linked with a slow metabolic rate, increasing water consumption can help people alleviate specific symptoms. Water consumption regulates body temperature and reduces fatigue. People with hypothyroidism also often suffer from constipation. Water helps in loosening stools. However, make sure you are drinking clean water as the chlorine and fluoride present in unpurified water can block iodine receptors. The role of water, therefore, in undermining the effects of hypothyroidism cannot be neglected.

Eat foods rich in Zinc, Selenium, and Iodine

If you want to boost thyroid function naturally, eat foods rich in zinc, selenium, and iodine. Zinc plays an integral role in maintaining the proper health of the immune system and thyroid functioning. Zinc is naturally found in ricotta cheese, wild rice, lentils, yogurt, and nuts and seeds. Iodine, on the other hand, is absorbed by the digestive tract and plays an essential role in maintaining gut health and thus, thyroid hormones. Iodine is found naturally in iodized salt, saltwater fish, and sea vegetables, such as nori. Selenium is another element that can help fight hypothyroidism. The body needs selenium for T3 production. Thus, people fighting hypothyroidism should consume foods rich in selenium, such as sardines, dates, brazil nuts, Swiss chard, etc. The amino acid tyrosine also boosts thyroid function, and its regular intake is also often advised by nutritionists to people fighting an underactive thyroid. Tyrosine is found in turkey, chicken, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, avocados, pumpkin, and sesame seeds.

Putting It All Together

Hypothyroidism is not an uncommon condition in the UK (Source). Millions of people around the world are fighting this condition. The good news is hypothyroidism can be controlled if a person decides to make a few changes in their life. There are many natural ways to boost thyroid function. These ways have also proved their effectiveness time and again. However, it must be highlighted here that anyone suffering from hypothyroidism should not entirely rely on natural remedies. While natural remedies can help people alleviate specific symptoms, medication is the only way to treat hypothyroidism in the long run.

If you feel that you are experiencing could be symptoms of hypothyroidism and subclinical hypothyroidism, speak with your GP.

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