Thyroid Hormone for Weight Loss: Physiologic and Metabolic Effects
Thyroid Hormone for Weight Loss:
Physiologic and Metabolic Effects
It has been over 100 years since the discovery by Magnus-Levy that thyroid hormones play a central role in energy homeostasis, and 75 years since the hormones were first used for weight loss. Despite this great length of time, the precise mechanisms by which thyroid hormones exert their calorigenic effect are not completely characterized, and still actively debated. Despite numerous clinical studies having shown that the administration of thyroid hormone induces weight loss, it is not currently indicated as a weight loss agent. This is probably due to the number of side effects observed during thyroid hormone use at the relatively high doses used in the majority of obesity treatment studies. These deleterious effects include cardiac problems such as tachycardia and atrial arrhythmias, loss of muscle mass as well as fat, increased bone resorption and muscle weakness. Nevertheless, thyroid hormones, particularly triiodothyronine (T3) are a mainstay in the arsenal of drugs used by bodybuilders for fat loss. The widespread underground use of T3 warrants an understanding of its mechanism of action, as well as a knowledge of how it is most effectively and safely used, with an eye to minimizing side effects.
Thyroid Function and Physiology
Before jumping right into a discussion of the use of thyroid hormone for fat loss, a little review of thyroid function and physiology might be in order. The thyroid gland secretes two hormones of interest to us, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). T3 is considered the physiologically active hormone, and T4 is converted peripherally into T3 by the action of the enzyme deiodinase. The bulk of the body's T3 (about 80%) comes from this conversion. The secretion of T4 is under the control of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) which is produced by the pituitary gland. TSH secretion is in turn controlled through release of Thyrotropin Releasing Hormone which is produced in the hypothalamus. This is analogous to testosterone production, where GnRH from the hypothalamus causes the pituitary to release LH, which in turn stimulates the testes to produce testosterone.
In addition to T3, it has recently been recognized that there exist two additional active metabolites of T3: 3,5 and 3,3' diiodothyronines, which we will collectively call T2. Studies have shown that 3,3'-T2 may be more effective in raising resting metabolic rate when hypothyroid subjects are treated with T3, than when normal (euthyroid) subjects are given T3. Therefore in normal subjects 3,5-T2 may be the principal active metabolite of T3 (1)
Like the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, the thyroid gland is under negative feedback control. When T3 levels go up, TSH secretion is suppressed. This is the mechanism whereby exogenous thyroid hormone suppresses natural thyroid hormone production. There is a difference though between the way anabolic steroids suppress natural testosterone production and the way T3 suppresses the thyroid. With steroids, the longer and heavier the cycle is, the longer your natural testosterone is suppressed. This is not the case with exogenous thyroid hormone.
An early study that looked at thyroid function and recovery under the influence of exogenous thyroid hormone was undertaken by Greer (2). He looked at patients who were misdiagnosed as being hypothyroid and put on thyroid hormone replacement for as long as 30 years. When the medication was withdrawn, their thyroids quickly returned to normal.
Here is a remark about Greer's classic paper from a later author:
"In 1951, Greer reported the pattern of recovery of thyroid function after stopping suppressive treatment with thyroid hormone in euthyroid [normal] subjects based on sequential measurements of their thyroidal uptake of radioiodine. He observed that after withdrawal of exogenous thyroid therapy, thyroid function, in terms of radioiodine uptake, returned to normal in most subjects within two weeks. He further observed that thyroid function returned as rapidly in those subjects whose glands had been depressed by several years of thyroid medication as it did in those whose gland had been depressed for only a few days" (3)
These results have been subsequently verified in several studies.(3)(4) So contrary to what has been stated in the bodybuilding literature, there is no evidence that long term thyroid supplementation will somehow damage your thyroid gland. Nevertheless, most bodybuilders will choose to cycle their T3 (or T4 which in most cases works just as well) as part of a cutting strategy, since T3 is catabolic with respect to muscle just as it is with fat. As previously mentioned, long term T3 induced hyperthyroidism is also catabolic to bone as well as muscle.
The proviso about T4 vs T3 for weight loss alluded to above needs some elaboration. There have been a number of studies that have shown that during starvation, or when carbohydrate intake is reduced to approximately 25 to 50 grams per day, levels of deiodinase decline, hindering the conversion of T4 to the physiologically active T3.(5) From an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense: during periods of starvation the body, teleologically speaking, would like to reduce its basal metabolic rate to preserve fat and especially muscle stores. However, a recent study demonstrating the effectiveness and safety of the ketogenic diet for weight loss recorded no change in circulating T3 levels.(6) So this issue not completely settled. Nevertheless, persons contemplating thyroid supplementation during ketogenic dieting might prefer T3 over T4 since the bulk of the research does suggest a decline in the peripheral conversion of T4 to T3 during low carb dieting.
Now that we have reviewed a little about thyroid function, let's consider just how it is that thyroid hormone exerts its fat burning effects.