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Thyroid

Coffee may decrease levothyroxine absorption

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

It seems like everyone has heard of hypothyroidism. But do we really know what it is and why it is important? The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ responsible for maintaining our metabolism. It sits at the base of the neck, just below the laryngeal prominence, or Adam’s apple. The prefix “hypo,” derived from Greek, means “under” (1). Therefore, hypothyroidism indicates an underactive thyroid and results in slowing of the metabolism.

Many people get hypo- and hyperthyroidism confused, but they are really complete opposites. Blood tests determine if a person has hypothyroidism. Items that are tested include thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which is usually increased, thyroxine (free T4) and triiodothyronine (free T3 or T3 uptake). Both of these last two may be suppressed (2).

The thyroid sits at the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple and is responsible for maintaining metabolism.

There are two types of primary hypothyroidism: subclinical and overt. In the overt (more obvious) type, classic symptoms include weight gain, fatigue, thinning hair, cold intolerance, dry skin and depression, as well as the changes in all three thyroid hormones on blood tests mentioned above. In the subclinical, there may be less obvious or vague symptoms and only changes in the TSH. The subclinical can progress to the overt stage rapidly in some cases (3). Subclinical is substantially more common than overt; its prevalence may be as high as 10 percent of the U.S. population (4).

What are potential causes or risk factors for hypothyroidism? There are numerous factors, such as medications, including lithium; autoimmune diseases, whether personal or in the family history; pregnancy, though it tends to be transient; and treatments for hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), including surgery and radiation.

The most common type of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (5). This is where antibodies attack thyroid gland tissues. Several blood tests are useful to determine if a patient has Hashimoto’s: thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibodies and antithyroglobulin antibodies.

Myths versus realities

I would like to separate the myths from the realities with hypothyroidism. Does treating hypothyroidism help with weight loss? Not necessarily. Is soy potentially bad for the thyroid? Yes. Does coffee affect thyroid medication? Maybe. And finally, do vegetables, specifically cruciferous vegetables, negatively impact the thyroid? Probably not. Let’s look at the evidence.

Treatments: medications and supplements

When it comes to hypothyroidism, there are two main medications: levothyroxine and Armour Thyroid. The difference is that Armour Thyroid converts T4 into T3, while levothyroxine does not. Therefore, one medication may be more appropriate than the other, depending on the circumstance. However, T3 can be given with levothyroxine, which is similar to using Armour Thyroid.

What about supplements?

A recent study tested 10 different thyroid support supplements; the results were downright disappointing, if not a bit scary (6). Of the supplements tested, 90 percent contained actual medication, some to levels higher than what are found in prescription medications. This means that the supplements could cause toxic effects on the thyroid, called thyrotoxicosis. Supplements are not FDA-regulated, therefore, they are not held to the same standards as medications. There is a narrow therapeutic window when it comes to the appropriate medication dosage for treating hypothyroidism, and it is sensitive. Therefore, if you are going to consider using supplements, check with your doctor and tread very lightly.

Soy impact

What role does soy play with the thyroid? In a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of studies, the treatment group that received higher amounts of soy supplementation had a threefold greater risk of conversion from subclinical hypothyroidism to overt hypothyroidism than those who received considerably less supplementation (7). Thus, it seems that in this small, yet well-designed, study, soy has a negative impact on the thyroid. Therefore, those with hypothyroidism may want to minimize or avoid soy. Interestingly, those who received more soy supplementation did see improvements in blood pressure and inflammation and a reduction in insulin resistance, but, ultimately, a negative impact on the thyroid.

The reason that soy may have this negative impact was illustrated in a study involving rat thyrocytes (thyroid cells) (8). Researchers found that soy isoflavones, especially genistein, which are usually beneficial, may contribute to autoimmune thyroid disease, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. They also found that soy may inhibit the absorption of iodide in the thyroid.

Weight loss

Since being overweight and obese is a growing epidemic, wouldn’t it be nice if the silver lining of hypothyroidism is that, with medication to treat the disease, we were guaranteed to lose weight? In a recent retrospective (looking in the past) study, results showed that only about half of those treated with medication for hypothyroidism lost weight (9). This has to be disappointing to patients. However, this was a small study, and we need a large randomized controlled trial to test it further.

WARNING: The FDA has a black box warning on thyroid medications — they should never be used as weight loss drugs (10). They could put a patient in a hyperthyroid state or worse, having potentially catastrophic results.

Coffee

I am not allowed to take away my wife’s coffee; she draws the line here with lifestyle modifications. So I don’t even attempt to with my patients, since coffee may have some beneficial effects. But when it comes to hypothyroidism, taking levothyroxine and coffee together may decrease the absorption of levothyroxine significantly, according to one study (11). It did not seem to matter whether they were taken together or an hour apart. This was a very small study involving only eight patients. Still, I recommend avoiding coffee for several hours after taking the medication. This should be okay, since the medication must be taken on an empty stomach.

Vegetables

There is a theory that vegetables, specifically cruciferous ones such as cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli, may exacerbate hypothyroidism. In one animal study, results suggested that very high intake of these vegetables reduces thyroid functioning (12). This study was done over 30 years ago, and it has not been replicated.

Importantly, this may not be the case in humans. In the recently published Adventist Health Study-2, results showed that those who had a vegan-based diet were less likely to develop hypothyroidism than those who ate an omnivore diet (13). And those who added lactose and eggs to the vegan diet also had a small increased risk of developing hypothyroidism. However, this trial did not focus on raw cruciferous vegetables, where additional study is much needed.

There are two take-home points, if you have hypothyroid issues: Try to avoid soy products, and don’t think supplements that claim to be thyroid support and good for you are harmless because they are over the counter and “natural.” In my clinical experience, an anti-inflammatory, vegetable-rich diet helps improve quality of life issues, especially fatigue and weight gain, for those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

References: (1) dictionary.com. (2) nlm.nih.gov. (3) Endocr Pract. 2005;11:115-119. (4) Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:526-534. (5) mayoclinic.org. (6) Thyroid. 2013;23:1233-1237. (7) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 May;96:1442-1449. (8) Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2013;238:623-630. (9) American Thyroid Association. 2013;Abstract 185. (10) FDA.gov. (11) Thyroid. 2008;18:293-301. (12) Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1983;18:123-201. (13) Nutrients. 2013 Nov. 20;5:4642-4652.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

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It is very interesting that the amount of coverage by the lay press concerning thyroid nodules does not reflect the number of people who actually have them. In other words, more than 50 percent of people have thyroid nodules detectable by high resolution ultrasound (1); however, when I searched the New York Times website, the last time it wrote about them was in 2010.

Regardless, you can understand how coverage should be more in the forefront. Fortunately, most nodules are benign. A small percent, 4 to 6.5 percent, are malignant, and the number varies depending on the study (2). Thyroid nodules are being diagnosed more often incidentally on radiologic exams, such as CT scans of the chest, MRI scans, PET scans and ultrasounds of the carotid arteries in the neck (3).

There is a conundrum of what to do with a thyroid nodule, especially when it is found incidentally. It depends on the size. If it is over one centimeter, usually it is biopsied by fine needle aspiration (FNA) (4). This is the cutoff point for asymptomatic nodules found with a radiologic exam. Most are asymptomatic. However, if there are symptoms, these might include difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, pain in the lower portion of the neck and a goiter (5).

FNA biopsy is becoming more common. In a recent study evaluating several databases, there was a greater than 100 percent increase in thyroid FNAs performed over a five-year period from 2006 to 2011 (6). This resulted in a 31 percent increase in thyroidectomies, surgeries to remove the thyroid partially or completely.

However, the number of thyroid cancers diagnosed with the surgery did not rise in this same period. To make matters even more confusing, from 2001 to 2013, the number of thyroid cancers increased by 200 percent.

The study authors call for a need for more detailed guidelines, which are lacking for thyroid nodules.

Though the number of cancers diagnosed has increased, the mortality rate has remained relatively stable over several decades at about 1,500 patients per year (7). Thyroid nodules in this study were least likely to be cancerous when the initial diagnosis was by incidental radiologic exam.

DIFFERENTIATING WHEN FINE NEEDLE ASPIRATION RESULTS ARE INDETERMINATE
As much as 25 percent of FNA biopsies are indeterminate. We are going to look at two modalities to differentiate between benign and malignant thyroid nodules when FNA results are equivocal: a PET scan and a molecular genetics test. A meta-analysis (a group of six studies) of PET scan results showed that it was least effective in resolving an unclear FNA biopsy. The PET scan was able to rule out patients who did not have malignancies significantly but did not do a good job of identifying those who did have cancer (8).

On the other hand, a recent molecular-based test was able to potentially determine whether an indeterminate thyroid nodule by FNA was malignant or benign (9). This test was a combination of microRNA gene expression classifier with the genetic mutation panel. I know the test combination sounds confusing, but the important takeaway is that it was more effective than previous molecular tests in clarifying whether a patient had a benign or cancerous nodule.

Unlike in the PET scan study above, the researchers were able to not only rule out the majority of malignancies but also to rule them in. It was not perfect, but the percent of negative predictive value (ruled out) was 94 percent, and the positive predictive value (ruled in) was 74 percent. The combination test improved the predictive results of previous molecular tests by 65 to 69 percent. This is important to help decide whether or not the patient needs surgery to remove at least part of the thyroid. The trial used hospital-based patients, but follow-up studies need to include community-based practices.

IS A NEGATIVE FINE NEEDLE ASPIRATION DEFINITIVE?
We know that FNA is the gold standard for determining whether patients have malignant or benign thyroid nodules. However, a negative result on FNA is not always definitive for a benign thyroid nodule. When this occurs, it is referred to as a false negative result. In a recent retrospective (looking back at events) study, from the Longitudinal Health Insurance Database in Taiwan, 62 percent of thyroid nodules that were cancerous were diagnosed with one biopsy and 82 percent were found within the year after that biopsy (10). However, about 17 percent of patients needed more than two FNA biopsies, and 19 percent were diagnosed after one year with cancerous thyroid nodules.

THE POTENTIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF CALCIFICATION ON ULTRASOUND
Microcalcifications in the nodule can be detected on ultrasound. The significance of this may be that patients with microcalcifications are more likely to have malignant thyroid nodules than those without them, according to a small prospective study involving 170 patients (11). This does not mean necessarily that a patient has malignancy with calcifications, but there is a higher risk. The results demonstrated that more than half of the malignant thyroid nodules, 61 percent, had microcalcifications.

THE GOOD NEWS
As I mentioned above, most thyroid nodules are benign. The results of a recent study go even further, showing that most asymptomatic benign nodules do not progress in size significantly after five years (12).

This was a prospective (forward-looking) study involving 992 patients with between one and four benign thyroid nodules diagnosed cytologically (by looking at the cells) or by ultrasound. The factors that did contribute to growth of about 11 percent of the nodules were age (<45 years old had more growth than >60 years old), multiple nodules, greater nodule volume at baseline and being male.

The authors’ suggestion is that the current paradigm might be altered and that after the follow-up scan, the next ultrasound scan might be five years later instead of three years. However, they did discover thyroid cancer in 0.3 percent after five years.

In considering risk factors, it’s important to note that those who had a normal thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) were less likely to have a malignant thyroid nodule than those who had a high TSH, implying hypothyroidism. There was an almost 30 percent prevalence of cancer in the nodule if the TSH was greater than >5.5 mU/L (13).

The bottom line is that there is an urgent need for new guidelines regarding thyroid nodules. Fortunately, most nodules are benign and asymptomatic, but the number of cancerous nodules found is growing. We are getting better at diagnosing nodules. Why the death rate remains the same year over year for decades may have to do with the slow rate at which most thyroid cancers progress, especially two of the most common forms, follicular and papillary.

REFERENCES:
(1) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (2) Thyroid. 2005;15(7):708. (3) uptodate.com. (4) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (5) thyroid.org. (6) AAES 2013 Annual Meeting. Abstract 36. (7) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (8) Cancer. 2011;117(20):4582-4594. (9) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. Online May 12, 2015. (10) PLoS One. 2015;10(5):e0127354. (11) Head Neck. 2008 Sep;30(9):1206-1210. (12) JAMA. 2015;313(9):926-935. (13) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006;91(11):4295.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.