The butterfly shaped gland in the neck under the Adam’s apple that regulates metabolism is the thyroid. Metabolic rate is governed by the thyroid hormone secreted by this gland and sent to the organs. The follicular cells in the thyroid are responsible for extracting iodine from the blood and producing the hormone.
Broadly speaking, two major thyroid malfunctions can occur: An underactive thyroid is when the gland produces to little of the regulatory hormone, causing major weight gain and fatigue as the main symptoms. You could also have an overactive thyroid in which too much of the hormone is produced. Hyperthyroidism causes significant weight loss, heart palpitations and an irregular heartbeat and irritability.
It is estimated that 20 million Americans suffer from a thyroid disorder, with up to 60% of people unaware that their gland is malfunctioning (1).
Take Home Note:
There are two major types of a malfunctioning thyroid. A thyroid that produces too much of the thyroid hormone and a thyroid that produces too little of the thyroid hormone. These result in various symptoms.
Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism: Symptoms
In hypothyroidism, the gland is underactive and doesn’t produce enough hormones, leading to the following:
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Irregular bowel evacuation or constipation
- Papery, dry skin
- muscle spasm or pain
- Loss of hair and hair thinning
- A slow down in metabolism, resulting in weight gain (2).
In hyperthyroidism, the gland malfunctions in such a way that an excess of hormones are produced. As many of the symptoms could also be down to other causes, and because other medications such as beta blockers often disguise the presence of hyperthyroidism, this is often more difficult to diagnose.
Some symptoms include the following:
- Increased appetite or stable appetite, accompanied by drastic, unexplained weight loss.
- An increased heart rate in the form of palpitations, an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or a very fast heartbeat of more than 100 beats per minute (3).
- Fine digital tremors – the hands and fingers are affected most.
- A visibly enlarged gland, called a goiter.
- Menstrual changes, sweating and heat sensitivity.
- Muscle weakness.
- Limp, fine and thinning hair.
- A general inability to withstand heat and tiring easily during ordinary activities.
Take Home Note:
You will most likely experience different symptoms affecting your weight, hair, skin, mood, and overall feeling of wellness. The symptoms you experience will depend on if you have hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
Sometimes a goiter, lump or enlarged nodule in the thyroid could also be due to thyroid cancer. Younger people are more likely to get this cancer than older individuals, with 75% of cases being diagnosed in women. Cancer incidence rates are generally lower than for other cancers, with 2060 deaths being reported per year (4).
Take Home Note:
If you feel a lump or enlarged nodules in your neck, it is important to go see your doctor to rule out anything more serious.
Thyroid Disorders: The Causes and Related Malfunctions
Hyperthyroidism – due to too much hormone being produced – manifests as the following conditions:
- Grave’s Disease. This is also known as Grave’s Ophthalmology. The eyeballs appear to bulge as the muscles and tissues behind the eyeballs swell, pushing them forward. It can cause blurred vision, double vision, discomfort and tearing and red eyeballs.
- Subacute thyroiditis. The gland ‘leak’ an excess of hormone for a short while, causing temporary hyperthyroidism.
- Toxic adenomas. Nodules which begin to produce hormones appear, causing the imperfect functioning of the gland.
- Pituitary gland disorders or cancerous growths in the gland. Hyperthyroidism can also result from this, although the occurrence is rare (5).
Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, can be caused by:
- Chemical castration or removal of the gland.
- Excessive iodide exposure – some cold, sinus and heart medications or dye given prior to X-rays could be the cause.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the tissue, causing it to deaden and stop producing hormone (6).
- Lithium. This is often found in antidepressants, and has been linked to hyperthyroidism.
Take Home Note:
Suffering from an overactive or underactive thyroid may be due to various reasons and illnesses such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Grave’s disease, and subacute thyroiditis.
Treating Thyroid Disorders
Once a thyroid malfunction is found to be present thanks to an iodine uptake test, physical exam, blood tests, thyroid scan or any combination of these, several treatments are available. Factors influencing the course of treatment include age, severity of the disease, preference and physical health.
Certain medications such as Propylthiouracil and Tapazole are used to reduce the thyroid’s hormone production. Some people see an improvement within 12 weeks, while others need to take this for several months. The relief may be permanent or temporary but there is also the risk of death, liver failure and allergies causing skin rashes, joint pain, hives or fever.
These are usually prescribed as a high blood pressure medication. They help to normalize the heart rate and ease palpitations.
This is much like a glucose test, except that you orally ingest iodine. After set periods based on hours, your doctor will assess how much iodine your thyroid is storing. This helps pinpoint the exact ambit of the malfunction and the course of further treatments.
This is usually a last-case scenario in which candidates are pregnant or otherwise can’t opt for any other treatment, or where other treatments have failed. Most of the thyroid gland is surgically removed. Damage to the vocal cords and other surrounding glands are a risk, and you’ll possibly be on lifelong iodine and/or calcium medication post surgery (7).
Take Home Note:
There are various treatments to help restore thyroid health, some more invasive than others.
Looking After Your Thyroid – Good Health Habits To Cultivate
- Get enough iodine, especially if you’re pregnant, but don’t ingest too much iodine. Iodine from seaweed in sushi is a good source, but overconsumption is detrimental (8). Fish is also an excellent source of iodine.
- Stick to your medication dosage and routine – don’t vary it as you see fit. Several tests need to be run after a while to scientifically alter the dosage, so don’t self-diagnose and cause unwitting complications.
- Eat cruciferous green superfoods, such as cabbage, broccoli or kale. People mistakenly avoid these in the fear of developing a goiter, but you’d have to consume an enormous amount for this to happen (9).
- Brazil nuts are packed with selenium, which also helps regulate thyroid hormones. The maximum intake allowed is 400 mg a day, so again, consume in moderation.
- Chicken and beef contain zinc, another nutrient necessary for good thyroid function. Too much or too little are equally bad, so follow a balanced diet overall.
- One of the best foods to eat is eggs. Eggs are super beneficial to thyroid functioning as a single large egg contains 16% of the iodine and 20% of the selenium required for optimum functioning of this important gland (10).