Thyroid issues are very common during pregnancy, and can have devastating effects on both the mother and the baby. Unfortunately, thyroid problems are often difficult to diagnose when a woman is pregnant, as the symptoms are very similar to symptoms of pregnancy – including fatigue, aches and pains, dry skin and hair, digestion problems and depression, to name a few.
What is the thyroid gland?
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that produces thyroid hormones. These hormones act on every single cell in the body, to control metabolism, body temperature, heart rate, and various other functions. The main thyroid hormone produced by the thyroid gland is T4, which is an inactive hormone. T4 travels to the liver and there it is converted into T3, the biologically active thyroid hormone.
Iodine in the diet is crucial for proper thyroid functioning and is involved in thyroid hormone production. Without iodine, the thyroid would cease to function. As most iodine is found in sea foods such as fish, seaweeds and sea salt, those that live far from the ocean and who do not consume these foods, are at a high risk of iodine deficiency.
What causes thyroid disorders during pregnancy?
Two hormones are produced in high amounts during pregnancy: hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), and estrogen. hCG acts on the thyroid gland to stimulate the production of more thyroid hormones, whereas estrogen causes an increased level of thyroid binding globulin, which is a protein that transports T4 in the blood (to the liver).
During the first trimester of pregnancy, the growing fetus relies solely on the mother for thyroid hormones. This increased demand on the mother’s thyroid gland can often cause a relative lack of thyroid hormones available for the mother – causing the symptoms of an under-active thyroid. The baby’s thyroid gland doesn’t start working on its own until 12 weeks. If a mother already has an under-functioning thyroid, or isn’t converting T4 to T3 efficiently, the baby will not be getting enough thyroid hormones either.
Postpartum thyroiditis is a condition that can occur after giving birth. It involves an inflammation of the thyroid gland, and causes an over-active thyroid gland for the first couple of months postpartum, followed by an under-active thyroid gland that can last up to a year and sometimes more. This is sometimes a result of autoimmunity, and sometimes just the thyroid gland trying to rebalance itself after the hormone fluctuations of pregnancy.
Effects of low thyroid hormone levels
Thyroid hormones are involved in brain development and the growth of the fetus, so a lack of these critical hormones can cause developmental delays, as well as an increased risk of preeclampsia, anemia, low birth weight and miscarriage. As well as low thyroid function, low levels of iodine can also result in low IQ of the baby.
Fertility can also be affected by low thyroid hormones, and can in some cases make conception more difficult. The active T3 hormone is involved in converting cholesterol into the hormone progesterone, which is an absolutely critical hormone for conception, and also for maintaining a healthy pregnancy. If you know you have a thyroid imbalance prior to pregnancy, it would be well worth your while to correct it before conception.
On a side note, another interesting fact about T3, is that it is also involved in converting cholesterol into bile salts, which help with our digestion of fats. Often times when a woman experiences severe morning sickness or nausea during pregnancy, this can be attributed to a lack of bile and subsequent inability to digest fats properly.
Low levels of thyroid hormones will also hamper milk production – making breastfeeding difficult.
What to do?
Ideally, it is best to identify and take steps to correct a thyroid imbalance prior to conception. The best way to do this will be slightly different for everyone, and usually requires working with a qualified professional, but general rules that apply to most everyone are to ensure you are getting enough of the right nutrients and building blocks to encourage healthy thyroid function and conversion of hormones in the liver, and to avoid substances that are harmful to the thyroid.
Some of the worst offenders to be avoided are chlorine, stress, soy and low fat diets. Chlorine actually competes with iodine in the body, making less of it available to the thyroid gland.
It is also very important to ensure you are eating enough cholesterol, as it is necessary for maintaining healthy liver function, developing babies, brain health and making hormones. As mentioned earlier, cholesterol is also required for the conversion of T4 into its active form of T3, and also for the production of bile salts.
Also mentioned earlier, iodine is paramount to a healthy thyroid.. but there are other minerals as well that are important, namely magnesium, selenium and zinc. These minerals are especially important to the conversion of T4 to T3.
To ensure you are eating a diet high in minerals, add homemade bone broth to your daily routine – it is one of the very best natural sources of minerals and is an extremely nourishing food especially during pregnancy. Add some unrefined sea salt to your broth for even more minerals! (read more about the benefits of sea salt here)
Of course, even if one is eating plenty of cholesterol and all the minerals necessary (as well as avoiding stress and soy and all the bad things)… if the liver is sluggish and toxic, the conversion of T4 to T3 is going to be severely hampered (along with the production of bile salts and many other important functions of the liver).
Therefore, liver function and detoxification is extremely important for healthy thyroid hormone levels and healthy pregnancies. However, if you have read my article on detoxification and pregnancy, you will recall that this should only be done before pregnancy.
If you are at this stage and are not yet pregnant, some easy things you can do to support the liver (along with any detoxification or cleansing routine) are castor oil packs, coffee enemas, dry skin brushing before bed, and infrared sauna’s.
If you are concerned about your thyroid, not sure where to start, or want more personalized recommendations for cleansing, having a healthy pregnancy, or preparing for pregnancy, consider booking a consultation with me. You will get one-on-one coaching and a detailed diet and lifestyle program specifically designed for you.