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 our food into thyroid hormones (thyroxine – T4 and triiodothyronine – T3). It has the only cells in the body 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 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 the pituitary gland, which is controlled by the hypothalamus (both sit at the base of the brain). Both monitor the levels of thyroid hormones in your body. When they sense that the levels are low, the hypothalamus releases the TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH), triggering the pituitary to release the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), instructing 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. Symptoms usually include a rapid heart rate, diarrhea, and weight loss. Also, you might feel anxious, irritable, moody, nervous, hyperactive, sweating/sensitivity to high temperatures, shaking hands, hair loss, or missed/light menstrual periods. Grave’s disease is an autoimmune disorder where immune cells attack healthy tissue instead of protecting it. In this case, it results in hyperthyroidism due to the body producing a protein, 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. Symptoms are 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 triggers hypothyroidism due to antibodies damaging the thyroid cells leaving fewer cells to produce thyroid hormones. The pituitary stimulates the thyroid to create more, triggering it 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 can initiate 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 prompts symptoms similar to hypothyroidism.
To treat any of the disorders, you must know what is wrong, so your doctor will get blood work to check your thyroid hormone levels. If you’ve hyperthyroidism, your doctor will prescribe an anti-thyroid medication (carbimazole, methimazole, or propylthiouracil/PTU). If these do not work, the next option is Radioactive Iodine (RAI) treatment. The last resort option is to remove your thyroid surgically. If you have this done, you have to take thyroid medication for the rest of your life to replace what your body can’t produce.
The treatment for hypothyroidism is to take thyroid medications, such as levothyroxine, Synthroid, Levoxyl, or Armour Thyroid, to replace the missing hormones. It’s the same as if you had your thyroid removed.
Unfortunately, hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism cannot be prevented since autoimmune disorders cause them. While there isn’t anything you can do to manage hyperthyroidism at home, hypothyroidism can help be handled by eating a diet rich in iodine. Even though salt is fortified with it, this doesn’t mean adding salt to all of your food. Instead, try some other, healthier options. You can eat kelp, cranberries, organic yogurt, navy beans, strawberries, raw/organic cheese, organic potatoes, eggs, cod, tuna, and turkey breast.
Your thyroid plays a vital role in your body’s ability to function. So, when it doesn’t work how it is supposed to, it can significantly impact your life. 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/