In the course of my practice of medicine in Portland, Oregon, I frequently help patients with a variety of thyroid issues that may not always present themselves on basic thyroid level tests. At times, patients may also exhibit atypical symptoms that may be related to thyroid function such as depression, anxiety, and even muscle pain. To make matters worse, symptoms may begin to creep up and adversely affect patient health and wellness before standard thyroid function tests will show a problem. Basic thyroid tests are typically done on a pass/fail basis with “healthy” and “unhealthy” hormone levels labeled as either good or bad. However, the human body is rarely so binary (yes/no) in its state of health or lack thereof.
Corroborating this deeper understanding, thyroid specialists, endocrinologists, and researchers are continually uncovering the nuances that comprise the delicate balance of the human body’s hormone levels. Consequently, the medical community is slowly beginning to accept the fact that a one-size-fits-all testing procedure may not be the best solution for optimizing each individuals’ health. Unfortunately, there are still many otherwise skilled doctors who simply run a simple thyroid test as a pass/fail and either prescribe a drug or explain to the patient that their hormone levels are within the normal range and do not warrant attention. Perhaps predictably, using this overly simplistic approach to treat the human endocrine system does not always create the best results. Standard thyroid tests will often only indicate a clinically low result when the patient’s thyroid gland is functioning 60% lower than normal.
As a doctor, I don’t think it’s a good practice to wait until things get that bad before we do something. To me, it’s a far better option to maintain healthy thyroid function rather than letting patients’ endocrine function sink so far into disarray before intervening.
At this point, you may be wondering what thyroid function has to do with anxiety, depression and muscle pain. As it turns out, a lot.
Low Thyroid Hormone Levels Can Suppress Serotonin
Low thyroid hormone output can suppress the “happy” neurotransmitter, serotonin. A 2002 study in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry reviewed numerous evidence-based research studies showing that patients with diagnosed hypothyroid showed a reduced 5-HT response, a precursor to serotonin. The reduced 5HT response in the body means that the body’s production of serotonin was also reduced. Low thyroid hormone levels in the body dampen the ability to produce the chemical needed to feel happy. And, without healthy serotonin levels, the spiral of negative feelings of fear and intense sadness can take over. Feeling sad for prolonged periods of time leads to aching muscles or simply feeling tired, exhausted and hopeless. When the above facts are taken into consideration, we are able to develop a much wider picture of patient health and can get to the root of some problems with mood, anxiety and muscle pain by addressing the underlying cause of thyroid function.
Resolving Thyroid Issues Can Stabilize Serotonin
The positive note here is that many patients in studies resolved their depression and other low-serotonin symptoms after their low-thyroid condition was properly treated. The other good news is that there are now many natural and effective ways to help support healthy thyroid function ranging from herbs, dietary/lifestyle changes, acupuncture and other natural remedies all the up to and including naturally derived sources of thyroid hormone. That said, as a doctor practicing naturopathic medicine, I only prescribe thyroid hormone in more extreme circumstances and will continue to work with patients so that their health progresses to the point where taking a hormone can be minimized or deemed no longer necessary. Furthermore, a connection between thyroid function and chronic muscle pain is beginning to emerge in the research as well. This is especially if thyroid function is connected to any autoimmune condition or chronic digestive complaints. Often treating the thyroid, cleaning up the gut (improving digestive health) and supporting the body’s own natural anti-inflammatory responses can work tremendously to alleviate or even clear chronic muscle and joint pain.