Understanding the Thyroid Gland
What is your thyroid capable of?
Although small, the thyroid is mighty, and it can cause a variety of health issues.
Many symptoms connected to thyroid conditions go ignored or undiagnosed, but they’re probably more common than you think. According to the American Thyroid Association, over 200 million people in the U.S. struggle with a thyroid disorder.
In honor of January being Thyroid Awareness Month, we are providing a quick run-through of the thyroid’s function and the common health conditions it can cause.
How the Thyroid Works
Your thyroid gland is a small gland located in the front of your neck. The thyroid lies along the trachea and is made up of two lobes and a center band of tissue called the isthmus.
The function of the thyroid gland is to take the iodine found in food and combine it with the amino acid tyrosine to create the thyroid hormones thyroxine, also known as T4, and triiodothyronine, known as T3. T4 and T3 are transported through the bloodstream where they help control the conversion of oxygen and calories to energy.
The thyroid gland is controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain, which produces Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). The pituitary gland is regulated by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus produces TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH) which signals the pituitary gland to release TSH, which then stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more hormones.
In short, the thyroid controls hormones crucial to your metabolism.
Thyroid Conditions and Symptoms
Hyper = overactive
Hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid disease, is caused by excess levels of the hormone thyroxine. Hyperthyroidism can speed up your body’s metabolism, causing you to lose weight without trying.
Other signs of hyperthyroidism include:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Increased appetite
- Nervousness, irritability, anxiety
- Increased sensitivity to heat
- Changes in bowels
- Trouble sleeping
- Fine, brittle hair
- Enlarged thyroid gland/swelling at the base of your neck
Graves’ disease, named after Robert Graves, who made the discovery in 1835, is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism. Graves’ is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing it to overproduce thyroxine. This condition affects about 1 in 200 people and causes many of the symptoms mentioned above, such as anxiety, irritability, excessive sweating, and more. One tell-tale sign of Graves’ disease is bulging eyes and vision problems.
Graves’ is hereditary and can develop in anyone at any age, although it’s more common in women ages 20-30. Risk factors of Graves’ disease include stress, smoking, and pregnancy.
Hypo = under-active
On the opposite end of the spectrum, hypothyroidism is caused by an underactive thyroid gland that doesn’t produce enough TSH. This thyroid hormone deficiency can disturb your resting heart rate and metabolism. With hypothyroidism, your metabolism slows down, and many people gain weight as a result.
Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Dry skin
- Thinning hair
- Increased sensitivity to the cold
- Swollen face
- Muscle weakness
- Impaired memory
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the U.S. Affecting about 14 million Americans, Hashimoto’s disease is most commonly diagnosed in middle-aged women. Like Graves’ disease, it occurs when the body accidentally attacks the thyroid gland. However, in this case, it slowly destroys the gland’s ability to make hormones.
Mild cases of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis may remain stable for years, or barely show any symptoms at all. Symptoms such as fatigue, depression, weight gain, and constipation can often be overlooked or mistaken for other conditions.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you’ve been experiencing any of the unpleasant symptoms mentioned in this article, we advise you to consult your health care provider.
Your doctor can run blood tests to measure your thyroxine and TSH levels to determine what, if anything, is going on with your thyroid.
There is no current treatment that can stop the immune system from attacking the thyroid, but there are treatments to help control the symptoms of thyroid conditions.
Treatment options for hyperthyroidism include:
- Antithyroid drugs that prevent the production of hormones
- Radioactive iodine in large doses
- Beta-blockers to control anxiety, sweating, and rapid heart rate
Treatment options for hypothyroidism include:
- Synthetic thyroid hormone pills
If you don’t tolerate these treatments well, your doctor may suggest getting your thyroid surgically removed to help alleviate your symptoms. Whatever the solution may be, a physician will be able to work with you to discover your best course of action.
Did you learn something new? Be sure to share this article with your loved ones to raise awareness for Thyroid Awareness Month!