Few portions of the body have a greater impact on one’s health, in relation to its size, than the thyroid. This small butterfly shaped gland located just under the larynx is critical for proper bodily function. Unfortunately, many are still not familiar with the influence that this gland has on their body. An estimated 27 million adults in the U.S. have a thyroid related condition and up to 60 million worldwide. Statistically, women experience thyroid dysfunction more often than men. Due to of the prevalence of thyroid conditions, it is important to have at least basic understanding of the thyroid, its related conditions, and common treatments.
Meet the Thyroid
Proper thyroid function is necessary for good health. This gland is responsible for producing metabolic hormones that interact with every cell in the body. Notable thyroid hormones include Thyroxine (T4), Triiodothyronine (T3) and Diiodothyronine (T2). Specific roles of these hormones include regulating body weight, temperature control, oxygen and energy utilization, and growth. Without a functional thyroid, one’s metabolism does not work effectively.
When the system is working correctly, reduced levels of T3 (active thyroid hormone) and T4 (inactive/storage thyroid hormone) in the bloodstream triggers a response from the hypothalamus. This signal prompts the hypothalamus to secrete thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) causing the pituitary to release thyrotropin/thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). This chemical informs the thyroid that additional T3 and T4 should be produced. This is one basic process of maintaining hormone balance.
There are numerous elements that impact the interaction described above. Insulin, cortisol, sex hormones and other hormones can drastically influence thyroid function. Imbalances in one area can lead to severe thyroid related conditions.
A Collection of Conditions
Because the thyroid is tightly connected with many internal systems, conditions that impact the thyroid can ripple throughout one’s body. There are many thyroid related conditions such as hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, thyroiditis, Hashimoto’s, and Graves’ disease that all have a significant effect on one’s overall quality of life. Being able to recognize a thyroid condition is the first step in treating it.
An underactive thyroid, also known as hypothyroidism, makes it difficult to maintain and produce adequate thyroid hormone. Improper conversion of T4 to T3 or inhibited thyroid levels causes one’s metabolism to slow. Additionally, reduced thyroid function can lead to a variety of other serious health conditions such as diabetes, insulin resistance, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic stress, and others.
As with most thyroid conditions, there are several ways hypothyroidism may be triggered. Iodine deficiency, pituitary issues, chronic disease, congenital defects, as well as some medications like antidepressants can cause hypothyroidism. Autoimmune conditions can also cause sub-optimal thyroid function. An autoimmune condition known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is caused by antibodies attacking the thyroid and irreparably damaging its ability to secrete hormones.
Common symptoms associated with hypothyroidism include:
- Weight Gain and Difficulty Losing Weight
- Extreme Fatigue
- Cold Sensitivity
- Difficulty Maintaining Body Heat
- Hair Loss
- Dry Skin
- Brittle Nails
- Muscle and Joint Pain/Weakness
- Poor Cognitive Function
- Irregular Menstruation
- Low Libido
Treating hypothyroidism usually includes thyroid hormone replacement drugs. The intent is to supplement the hormones that the thyroid cannot adequately produce.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is hyperthyroidism. It is estimated that anywhere between 3 to 10 million have an overactive thyroid. This condition is typified by an overactive thyroid, leading to excess amounts of either T4 or T3. Increased metabolic function caused by an influx of thyroid hormones causes one’s body to improperly utilize nutrients and burn through them. Aggressive usage of nutrients in this way leads to malnutrition and fatigue.
There are several reasons one may develop hyperthyroidism. Some common causes include inflammation of the thyroid (thyroiditis), heavy metal toxicity, liver dysfunction, considerably high iodine levels, and nutrient deficiencies. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition that increases thyroid hormone production.
Symptoms associated with hyperthyroidism include:
- Sudden and Unexplained Weight Loss
- Hair Loss
- Heat Sensitivity
- Increased Sweating
- Change in Appetite
- Shortness of Breath
- Panic Attacks or Anxiety
- Protruding Eyes
- Irregular Menstruation
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Imbalances in Blood Sugar Levels
Hyperthyroid treatments often include anti-thyroid drugs that inhibit thyroid production to balance hormone levels. Alternatively, one may undergo radioactive iodine treatment (RAI). This process involves irradiating iodine that enters the thyroid and damages or kills thyroid cells to decrease production. If one is unable to tolerate anti-thyroid medication or RAI, thyroid surgery or thyroidectomy may be recommended, but should be seen as a last resort.
Inflammation of the thyroid gland (thyroiditis) can be a contributing factor in both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. It is usually caused by exterior threats such as viruses and bacteria. Thyroiditis can also develop when one’s own antibodies attack the thyroid gland. This is usually due to an autoimmune reaction.
There are several different types of thyroiditis including:
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Acute infectious Thyroiditis
- Painless Thyroiditis also known as Silent Thyroiditis
- Riedel’s Thyroiditis
- Postpartum Thyroiditis
Approaches to treating thyroiditis is dependent on the specific condition. Treatment may include non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medication and antibiotics, thyroid replacement treatment, RAI, or anti-thyroid medications.
Better Understanding for Better Testing
One of the greatest difficulties of having a thyroid condition is recognizing that one is present. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for doctors to misdiagnose or completely overlook signs of a thyroid condition. This is likely due to an inappropriate medical trend of relying solely on TSH levels for diagnosis. One’s TSH may fall within what is considered appropriate ranges even if a thyroid issue is present. Many physicians are still woefully uninformed regarding the numerous factors required to accurately diagnose and treat thyroid conditions.
To properly understand one’s thyroid condition, a comprehensive examination is required. At minimum one should have their TSH, Free T3, Free T4, and Reverse T3 levels tested. Optimally, in addition to the previous items, diagnosis should include the following:
- Free T3/Reverse T3 ratio
- Thyroid Antibodies
- SHBG (Sex Hormone Binding Globulin)
- Basal Body Temperature
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
- Reflex Relaxation Phase
- Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Conditions
Graduating to a Healthier Class
Even though thyroid conditions are running rampant there is still a great deal of ignorance in the field. Understanding basic thyroid function and various common conditions that affect it can help promote better health and treatment. Even if one thinks they are free of thyroid issues, that may not be the case. Having a better comprehension of the thyroid and its impact on the body may reveal an otherwise unnoticed condition. Only by increasing awareness and pursuing proper diagnosis and treatment can people be helped and alleviated of these life-altering conditions.