We usually don't think about our thyroid when we are battling skin woes. In fact, we rarely think about our thyroid at all when it comes to our health. Yet, this gland plays a pivotal role in our overall wellness. If you are struggling with skin troubles, it could be the culprit.
We partnered with the thyroid experts at Paloma Health to bring you this crash course on the relationship between your thyroid gland and your body's largest organ, and the steps you can take if you think something might be out of whack.
What You Need to Know About the Thyroid
The thyroid is a small but mighty endocrine gland located at the nape of your neck. This butterfly-shaped organ produces and releases thyroid hormones that regulate your body's energy use, along with many other vital functions.
When your thyroid hormone production changes, your body processes change, too, affecting virtually every other system. Undiagnosed thyroid disease puts patients at risk for ailments like cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, or infertility.
Two primary conditions affect the thyroid:
Hypothyroidism: In this condition, your thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormone to support your body, which causes your internal systems to slow. Hypothyroidism is the most common thyroid disorder. It affects millions of people in the United States, and is often caused by the autoimmune disease Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
Hyperthyroidism: When your thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone, the result is hyperthyroidism, which speeds up your body systems.
Your Skin and Thyroid Are Intimately Connected
When your thyroid is not functioning properly, the skin struggles to do what it is supposed to: protect your body. Your skin and scalp are covered in thyroid hormone receptors that receive information about how much moisture should be in your skin, the amount you should sweat, and the speed and thickness of hair growth.
If you aren’t producing enough thyroid hormone due to hypothyroidism, you may notice some or all of the following symptoms in your skin and hair:
Dry skin and scalp
Hair loss on your head and other parts of your body (including your eyebrows)
Brittle, thickened nails
Slowed healing time
Sweat glands secrete moisturizing factors like lactate, urea, sodium, and potassium to keep skin hydrated. A healthy, moisturizing barrier forms when secreted sweat mixes with oil on the skin’s surface.
However, when your thyroid hormone production drops, body processes slow down and change, including sweat gland secretion. Skin without enough moisture can quickly become dry and flaky.
Hypothyroidism may cause the skin to appear pale due to abnormal dermal mucus and dermal water content. Additionally, an increase in dermal beta-carotene (provitamin A) may cause a yellowish pigmentation on the palms and soles.
On the other hand, too much thyroid hormone due to hyperthyroidism may cause smooth, thin skin or changes to the hair including fine hair or Alopecia, a condition characterized by hair loss.
There are very few studies that explain why hyperthyroidism causes these changes in the skin. The connection likely has more to do with autoimmunity than direct thyroid hormone action. Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder that can cause hyperthyroidism, and it may also result in a build-up of hyaluronic acid in the skin, which can cause the skin to thicken in places.
Testing Is Key to Treatment
If you experience skin symptoms, consider taking a thyroid blood test to understand how your thyroid is functioning. Many labs only look at thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which is a hormone produced in the brain that stimulates the thyroid gland to produce the thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
But it's also critical to measure fT3, fT4, and TPO antibodies (antibodies that mistakenly attack healthy thyroid tissue) to understand the full picture of your thyroid health.
Should your results show that your thyroid is underactive (high TSH and low T3/T4), it is easily treatable for almost everyone. Optimizing your thyroid levels with thyroid hormone replacement medication is usually the first step in minimizing thyroid-related skin symptoms.
Beyond taking medication, you can support your thyroid function with nutrition and lifestyle modifications. Talk to a doctor who can assess your symptoms, history, and lab results to determine the best treatment plan for you.
Lifestyle Changes to Support Your Thyroid and Skin
Beyond taking a thyroid hormone replacement medication, you can support your thyroid with a few lifestyle changes.
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet: The more dietary stress you put on yourself, the more likely you will experience inflammation that can interfere with your thyroid function. There is no specific eating method that people with hypothyroidism should follow. Still, studies show that certain foods can help control inflammation, like fatty fish, green leafy vegetables, and olive oil.
Stay hydrated: Water is essential for your skin — especially the outer layer — to function normally. Aim for half of your body weight in ounces of water every day. And if you have coffee, alcohol, or sweat for 30 minutes, drink an extra 8-ounce glass.
Get enough sleep: Sleep plays a vital role in regulating immune system function. Changes in your immune response may affect collagen production, the main component of the skin. Studies also show that poor or short sleep can impair skin integrity. Consider your sleep environment, your wind-down routine, and schedule a bedtime to ensure you are getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
Take vitamins that support your thyroid: The thyroid needs several different nutrients to function properly. Cells in the thyroid gland produce hormones by combining iodine (a mineral) and tyrosine (an amino acid). These thyroid hormones then circulate throughout the body to regulate metabolism.
Similarly, minerals like selenium and zinc help convert T4 (inactive thyroid hormone) to T3 (active hormone). In particular, selenium deficiency impairs thyroid hormone metabolism by inhibiting iodothyronine deiodinases, a family of enzymes that are crucial to making this conversion.
Zinc is also a catalyst for many different enzyme reactions required by the body. It helps regulate thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) released by the hypothalamus, which stimulates the release of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary gland, which triggers thyroid hormone production from the thyroid gland.
Make sure you are getting these nutrients by taking a daily thyroid supplement.
Getting your thyroid back in working order will not only boost your overall wellness, but it also will ensure that your skin looks good and is doing its job to keep you healthy.