by Marilyn Vaché
Recent integrative medicine research shows there is a strong connection between thyroid abnormalities and mental health conditions. What we eat and the environmental toxins we are exposed to greatly affect the thyroid, which has a significant connection to how our brain functions.
Fatigue, weakness, anxiousness, irritability, weight gain and memory loss are symptoms both depression and thyroid problems that commonly affect women. As debilitating as all these symptoms can be, about half of people with low thyroid hormone production remain undiagnosed. Conventional medicine has become over-reliant on a narrow definition of thyroid problems as determined by the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) screen.
While the TSH screen is a common test to check for thyroid dysfunction, it won’t necessarily point physicians toward the right treatment for symptoms of depression. A few other tests may also prove helpful in sorting out depression from the complex of hormone symptoms that include poor thyroid function: saliva tests for cortisol (a measure of adrenal function, which affects thyroid function), blood tests for glucose and insulin (also related to adrenal and thyroid function) and some vitamin tests.
Thyroid dysfunction and depression— two complex disorders—are linked by many factors and can dramatically improve with a holistic approach to health. A diet loaded in soy products or high in carbohydrates, especially sugar and alcohol, can affect hormone balance. Stimulants like caffeine and some prescription and street drugs may also put stress on the adrenals. The adrenals need a lot of B vitamins and vitamin C to function optimally, and some diets just don’t supply enough.
Many modern diets also lack sufficient quantities of iodine and selenium, necessary for manufacturing thyroid hormone; and vitamin D deficiency, endemic even in sunny climates, can contribute to both depression and autoimmune thyroid disease. The protein gluten, found in wheat, soy, spelt and barley, can affect both the thyroid gland (by producing antibodies to the thyroid and other organs) and mood (by producing breakdown products of gluten that actually resemble morphine). Along with gluten sensitivity, chronic imbalances of gut bacteria can trigger thyroid symptoms and depression.
A family history of other autoimmune disorders like arthritis, lupus or colitis often predicts autoimmune thyroiditis. Although difficult to tease out, environmental toxins, from lead to bromine (a common food additive) to pesticides and plastics, may lie at the root of thyroid, depression and other disorders.
Some people, after years of living with thyroid and other hormone imbalances, will develop depression as a separate but overlooked condition that persists even with good care. These patients will need expert cognitive-behavioral therapy to challenge the habits of negative thinking and to replace the “lifestyle of depression,” breaking up patterns of inactivity, isolation, under-achievement and low expectations. Holistic care will, in some cases, include anti-depressant medications. Many patients that have complex autoimmune, hormone and toxin-related diseases often have difficulty tolerating anti-depressants, experiencing numerous side effects with one medication after another.
The good news is that more scientific research and clinical experience are presenting more tools to help diagnose and treat patients with mental health illnesses. These include genetic and blood testing, diet changes, better medications, natural treatments and non-pharmaceutical medical advances, like transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses a type of magnetic coil found in MRI machines to send highly targeted bursts of electromagnetic energy to areas of the brain most affected by depression.
These tools allow clinicians to understand each individual’s underlying conditions so practitioners can blend and synergize treatments to gain wellness. A scientifically holistic approach to wellness can make a real difference for a woman, her family, her workplace and her community.
Dr. Marilyn Vaché practices integrative psychiatry at Austin TMS Clinic for Depression. For more information, call 512-458-1000 or visit AustinTMSClinic.com.