Why is it important?
You might have heard the word thyroid before, especially in relation to having hypothyroidism. There are commercials on television advertising medication to help combat this. So, what is your thyroid and why is it important? What happens when it isn’t functioning correctly?
The thyroid is a small, two-inch long butterfly-shaped gland that weighs less than an ounce and is located in the lower front of your neck. It has two lobes and converts the iodine in the food we eat into thyroid hormones (thyroxine – T4 and triiodothyronine – T3). It has the only cells in the body that are capable of doing this. T4 makes up 80% and T3 makes up 20% of the hormones produced (T3 is four times stronger than T4). Both help to control your metabolism by regulating the conversion of oxygen and calories to energy. The hormones also help regulate body temperature, breathing, heart rate, body weight, muscle strength, menstrual cycles, cholesterol levels, central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. Your thyroid gland is influenced by your pituitary gland, which in turn is controlled by the hypothalamus (both of these sit at the base of your brain). Both of these monitor the levels of thyroid hormones in your body and when they sense that the levels are low, the hypothalamus releasing the TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH), which triggers the pituitary to release the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). This instructs the thyroid to produce and release more T4 and T3.
So, what happens when your thyroid malfunctions? If your hormone levels are too high, you have hyperthyroidism. This usually causes a rapid heart rate, diarrhea and weight loss. Also, you might feel anxious, irritability, moody, nervous, be hyperactive, have sweating/sensitivity to high temperatures, have hand shaking, have hair loss or missed/light menstrual periods. Grave’s disease is an autoimmune disorder (when immune cells attack healthy tissue instead of protecting it) that causes hyperthyroidism due to the body producing a protein called thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin that mistakenly attacks the thyroid causing it to overproduce thyroid hormones and swell in size. If you have low hormone levels, you have hypothyroidism. This causes a slower heart rate, constipation and weight gain. You will likely have trouble sleeping, tiredness/fatigue, difficulty concentrating, dry skin/hair, depression, sensitivity to cold temperatures, muscle/joint pain and frequent/heavy menstrual periods. Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disorder that cause hypothyroidism due antibodies damaging the thyroid cells leaving fewer cells to produce thyroid hormones. The pituitary stimulates the thyroid to produce more causing the thyroid to swell as it tries to compensate. This is the most common thyroid disorder. Another possible thyroid condition is goiter, which is when the thyroid gland is abnormally large or has multiple growths on it. There can be no symptoms or symptoms of either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Thyroid nodules are overgrowths of tissue that sometimes cause overproduction of hormones which may or may not cause symptoms (these are rarely cancerous). Thyroid cancer is caused by cancer cells that grow in shapes that resemble nodules on the thyroid. Thyroiditis is an inflammation of cells that may cause an overproduction or underproduction of the thyroid hormones. A rare condition in the United States is iodine deficiency because our salt is fortified with iodine. When someone has this, it caused symptoms similar to hypothyroidism.
In order to treat any of the disorders, you have to know what is wrong, so your doctor will get blood work to check your thyroid hormone levels. If determined that you have hyperthyroidism, then your doctor will prescribe an anti-thyroid medication (carbimazole, methimazole, and/or propylthiouracil/PTU). If these do not work, the next option is Radioactive Iodine (RAI) treatment. Last resort option is to surgical remove your thyroid. If you have this done, you will have to take thyroid medication for the rest of your life to replace what your body is unable to produce. The treatment for hypothyroidism is to take these thyroid medications (levothyroxine, Synthroid, Levoxyl, Armour Thyroid) to replace the missing hormones (the same as having your thyroid removed).
Unfortunately, hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism cannot be prevented since they are caused by autoimmune disorders. While there isn’t anything that you can do for hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism can help be managed by eating a diet rich in iodine. Even though salt is fortified with iodine, this doesn’t mean go add salt to all of your food. Instead, try some other, healthier, options. These can include kelp, cranberries, organic yogurt, navy beans, strawberries, raw/organic cheese, organic potatoes, eggs, cod fish, tuna and turkey breast.
Your thyroid plays a vital role in your body’s ability to function. So, when it doesn’t function the way it is supposed to, it can impact your life significantly. Having a thyroid disorder might initially seem like the end of the world, but once you have the appropriate treatment, your quality of life will improve dramatically. If you have any questions or concerns about your thyroid function, please consult with your doctor. If you would like more information about your thyroid and how it functions, please visit the American Thyroid Association at https://www.thyroid.org/