Updated: June 2023
Proper thyroid gland function is critical for good health. The thyroid gland has many functions. One thing for certain is that without a proper functioning thyroid gland, catastrophic consequences are most certainly on the horizon.
Thyroid Gland Functions
- Controls Metabolism (Internal energy production in the body)
- Regulates Breathing
- Makes Hormones (T4 and T3)
- Regulates Vital Signs
- Controls Heart Rate
- Maintains Internal Body Balance (Homeostasis)
- Monitors Body Weight (Slow metabolism will produce decreased weight loss)
- Helps Regulate Body Temperature (A high metabolism can create higher body temperature. Hot flashes are common with thyroid dysfunction)
- Can increase or decrease Total Cholesterol (Hypothyroidism can cause high levels of cholesterol due to the slow metabolic rate)
- Promotes Protein Synthesis (Critical function of a healthy body. Protein synthesis is necessary for the maintenance and production of cells throughout the body.)
Common complaints of patients who have chronic thyroiditis are: low energy, severe fatigue, brain fog, poor digestion, diarrhea, constipation, digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), chronic infections (viral – Epstein Barr, parasitic, fungal, protozoal, bacterial – H. Pylori), thinning or loss of hair, loss of the outer 3rd of the eyebrows, dry or coarse skin, bloating after meals, burping, inability to lose weight, gas, acid reflux and many others.
How can Iron Levels affect Thyroid Function?
One often overlooked area of thyroid gland function (that can have profound effects on your health and the way you feel) is iron levels in the body.
Many females understand iron all too well. When a woman is on her menstrual cycle, she loses a lot of blood. An adult female has approximately 4-6 quarts of blood. Therefore, even a “normal” menstrual cycle causes a major depletion of blood.
Red blood cells in blood carry oxygen to all tissues throughout the body. They also transport wastes such as carbon dioxide out. Red blood cells contain a protein molecule called hemoglobin.
Hemoglobin also has iron. So, when a female has her cycle, she is literally losing iron. Iron that binds oxygen. That is what can cause the symptoms of anemia such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, fatigue, hair loss and a feeling of being unhealthy.
What is Ferritin?
You may be thinking, how could this effect my thyroid function and what is ferritin? Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in the body. Ferritin stores iron in the tissues throughout the body.
Even though high levels of ferritin can be dangerous, you have to have it in order to live. Ferritin carries iron. Iron binds to oxygen and carries it throughout your body. Ever heard of too much of a good thing?
Excessive amounts of ferritin can cause destruction of your joints and organs due to oxidative stress and free radical damage.
A genetic condition which can cause dangerously high levels of ferritin is called hemochromatosis.
People with hemochromatosis have to watch their ferritin levels very closely and sometimes require therapeutic blood draws in order to stay within as safe of a range as possible.
Iron rusts metal. The process of “rusting” is called oxidation. Literally, too much iron being stored in the ferritin can damage your joints and organs in the same way.
It has been said that all of aging is because of oxidative stress and damage from free radical production inside of the body.
Ferritin is also a marker of inflammation. In fact, ferritin is called an “acute phase reactant”. That means that when the body is really inflamed, ferritin levels can be increased.
An acutely inflamed person can have ferritin spike that goes up quickly and can stay elevated for some period of time. I’ve worked with patients who were very inflamed who had high ferritin.
One had a level of 1,357! My Dad. Ferritin can be a marker on blood tests and laboratory analysis to monitor inflammation levels. High ferritin = inflammation. Low ferritin = fatigue or malaise.
Yes, I ordered blood testing on my Dad and his ferritin level was 1,357. It was terrifying to understand what it meant to see a ferritin level that high in my own father.
To put this in perspective: A ferritin level of 500 or more is severe inflammation and can cause damage to your joints and organs.
Don’t worry. My Dad was a great patient and did everything that I recommended. He got much healthier overall and his levels came down quickly.
I recommended that he get genetic testing to see if he had hemochromatosis and he did not. My Dad’s test came back negative and we worked very aggressively to help him through heavy antioxidants, eating healthier and of course, exercise.
In the body, there is a phenomenon called the “iron withholding defense mechanism”. I know, it sounds like a missile defense mechanism or something super high tech.
What this really means is that when the body has something serious going on, it can literally sequester iron and store it in the form of ferritin.
Ferritin has been linked to serious diseases such as cancer and others. Of course, having high ferritin doesn’t mean that someone has cancer or other immediate life threatening condition but high ferritin levels absolutely warrant immediate attention and detective work.
Elevated levels are a clue to your Dr. that something serious is going on and further lab testing may be indicated to look for the cause of your high ferritin levels.
We all want to be healthy. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. Sometimes, a quick and inexpensive test such as ferritin can save someone’s life. It’s not hard to do and can give your clinician a lot of invaluable information about your health.
It’s ironic that an inflamed body can cause high ferritin and yet high ferritin can cause an inflamed body. Something that is often overlooked by physicians worldwide is low ferritin.
Since ferritin is the storage form of iron, ferritin itself can become too low. As is the case in subclinical anemia. I have seen so many blood tests in which serum iron looked fine. However, the ferritin was low which can cause all of the signs and symptoms of anemia.
Anemia and Low Ferritin
Many people are familiar with the term anemia. Most people think of anemia as “low iron”. What low iron really means is low oxygen.
It’s possible for serum iron to be normal and ferritin to be low. This can be a sign that your body is depleting your iron storage (ferritin) in order to maintain the iron levels in your blood.
I’ve seen many blood tests where serum iron was tested and looked “normal”. That’s good. You always want a normal lab test, right? Of course!
But, you don’t want your body to rob Peter to pay Paul. That is often what goes on inside of the body. Your body is always looking to create and maintain a balance.
A great example of that is sodium and potassium. When one goes high, the other tends to go low. That is what our bodies are always doing non-stop, 24/7 – maintain a balance.
Is Protein Important?
Another example of give and take is when the body is deficient in dietary protein. Low protein will cause what is called a catabolic process in the body.
I think of it as catabolism as self-cannibalism. A protein deficient body will break itself down from the inside out. The 3 most common places of breakdown are the skeletal muscles, skin, and digestive tract.
Let’s say that you don’t get enough protein in your diet. Or, maybe your body can’t digest and break down protein efficiently. That will cause your body to strip amino acids from the lining of your gut, your muscles and skin.
It’s no wonder that when I work with patients, they get healthier and less inflamed and almost without fail, have improvements in complexion.
The skin in their faces just looks healthier and almost takes on a shine or gleam. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. Just think of all the money people could save on cosmetic surgery or “plastic surgery” if they would just get their body to stop stripping proteins from their skin.
Okay, back to ferritin. How many women suffer from chronic signs of anemia who have “normal” iron? I will say that it is a very large number of women. Way more than is recognized by conventional medicine.
I’ve seen women with normal iron tests on their bloodwork but had low ferritin and were suffering from complete exhaustion and fatigue.
A ferritin below a 70 can cause a woman to feel unhealthy and have thinning hair. Often, women will have improvements in the quality and thickness of their hair after getting their iron stores up.
Since low ferritin is a common finding in women, I have been able to work with and increase ferritin levels in women who were suffering from anemia (hypoxia) due to low iron storage levels (ferritin).
Since low ferritin means low iron storage, a woman with low ferritin can suffer from hypoxia (low oxygen levels) throughout her entire body.
This includes the brain and can explain the mental fog, low energy levels and iron deficiency headaches that women will often experience.
The Thyroid and Ferritin Connection
How does proper thyroid gland function factor in with low ferritin? Iron is absorbed in the small intestine. Women with thyroid dysfunction often have a chronic infection of some type that can be driving the thyroiditis.
In fact white blood cells that fight infections can sap iron stores in the body which could lead to low ferritin. Also, parasites can take iron from the body and cause low ferritin and anemia-like symptoms.
These are the same types of infections that can contribute to irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders.
In my clinic, I not only test my patient’s ferritin levels, I understand how to interpret the total serum iron, total iron binding capacity, % transferrin saturation and other tests to find what could be contributing to low iron stores.
It’s not enough to look at one marker on a lab test and say that everything is okay. It’s impossible to get a complete picture of iron metabolism by just checking serum iron alone.
Some common causes of low iron storage (ferritin) could be: iron deficiency anemia, pregnancy, severe protein deficiency, cancer, antacid use, chronic blood loss, copper deficiency, vegetarian and vegan diets, and heavy menstrual flow.
What do I do to help my Anemia?
Strategies for helping women who suffer from the symptoms of subclinical iron deficiency anemia (borderline low serum iron and low ferritin) can be complex and are not as simple as taking more iron. Remember, iron can also be very damaging if serum iron or ferritin levels become too high. This can lead to iron toxicity and overload.
Also, women who have iron deficiency are often immunocompromised and need nutritional support to help boost immune system function while going through the process of regulating their iron and iron stores.
The real question is, why are the iron and ferritin levels low? There is always a cause and effect and that is what I am always thinking about when I work with patients to help them become healthy again.
Health is Happiness,
Dr. Keith Currie