As the regulator of numerous bodily functions ranging from metabolism to brain activity the thyroid is incredibly important for overall health.
Because of its impressive impact, it is easy to assume that the body would not be able to function without the thyroid. However, there are many individuals who lack a thyroid yet continue to live healthy lives. With appropriate thyroid knowledge and medical support, life without a thyroid is possible.
Where Has the Thyroid Gone?
It is relatively uncommon for people to lack a thyroid but there are various factors that can cause one to be without this important gland. Usually the individual has little to no choice. However, in some situations a patient may elect to have part, or all of their thyroid removed. The following sections explain in greater detail why one may not have a thyroid.
It is estimated that one in 2,000 to 4,000 newborns have malformed, non-functional, or completely absent thyroid glands. Individuals in this category are considered to have congenital hypothyroidism, which is caused by a genetic malfunction. The risk of this occurring in females is twice as high as it is in men.
Because of the potential for congenital hypothyroidism, it is common practice for doctors in the United States to test the thyroid function of newborns. If the thyroid gland is not present or is not functioning properly, the newborn is quickly started on hormone therapy. Thyroid deficiency at formative stages can disrupt important factors including growth, energy level, and mental and physical development.
A thyroidectomy, or surgical removal of the thyroid, is a relatively common practice in the United States. Depending on the condition, a patient may receive a partial or complete thyroidectomy. In both cases, the recipient is likely to experience significant changes in thyroid hormone levels resulting in permanent hypothyroidism.
The most common reason for thyroid removal is thyroid cancer. Thyroid nodules may also prompt a doctor to recommend a partial or complete thyroidectomy to eliminate the risk of cancer development. If a nodule is of indeterminate nature it is often safer to simply remove it rather than risk untreated malignancy.
Multiple Nodule Goiter
An enlarged thyroid, also known as a goiter, may require surgical intervention. Goiter’s often cause physical discomfort, difficulty breathing or swallowing, and are often unsightly. Increased thyroid size frequently correlates to hyperthyroidism, or increased thyroid activity, which may be resolved through a partial thyroidectomy.
Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s
Autoimmune disorders such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis may reach a severe point where a doctor may recommend removal of the thyroid. The erratic hormonal fluctuations caused by these conditions can be more challenging to treat than if a patient simply did not have a thyroid. That said, surgical removal is only recommended when other treatment options have been exhausted.
How Does the Body Work Without a Thyroid?
Hypothyroidism is caused by a slowing of thyroid function. When the thyroid is not present, due to genetic factors or surgical influence, there is no thyroid activity. Therefore, those without a thyroid fall into the hypothyroid category. If not properly treated, those without a thyroid will experience perhaps the most severe form hypothyroidism.
Because of its broad influence, symptoms of hypothyroidism occur in a large spectrum. The following symptoms are the most common experienced by those with hypothyroidism:
- Cognitive difficulties or brain fog
- Increasingly brittle hair and nails
- Loss of sex drive
- Muscle and joint pain or weakness
- Sensitivity to cold
- Sleep disruptions and insomnia
- Weight gain
Treating Hypothyroidism Without a Thyroid
If the entire thyroid is removed, a person becomes hypothyroid and incapable of producing essential thyroid hormones. Therefore, treatment with thyroid hormone replacement therapy becomes necessary.
Most thyroidectomy patients are started on thyroid replacement therapy almost immediately after their procedure is completed. However, in some cases, circulating levels of thyroid hormone may remain elevated for weeks after surgery. In such a situation, testing is conducted frequently until results dictate that medical intervention is needed.
Treatment for those without a thyroid gland typically involves T4 medications such as levothyroxine, Synthroid, and Levoxyl. Individuals without a thyroid are unable to effectively convert inactive thyroid hormone (T4) into the active form (T3). Because of this, a patient may also be prescribed T3 medications such as liothyronine to ensure there is enough active thyroid hormone in their system. The most common T3 medication in the United States is Cytomel.
Some may be treated with combination T4 and T3 medications. Perhaps the best option for this is natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) drugs like Nature-throid or Armour. NDTs have the benefit of providing natural forms of both T4 and T3 that are more easily utilized by the body because they are genetically similar to those naturally produced by the body.
Different treatments and medications have seemingly small difference that may have significant impact on patient wellness. Factors such as allergens, binders, absorption rate, and release method, can all influence individual patient experience and response. If a patient is not feeling well on a specific thyroid treatment but continue to return nominal test results, they may benefit greatly from switching to a different form of thyroid hormone replacement. Each case is unique, requiring a certain level of patience and tuning to attain optimal dosage.
Living Life Without a Thyroid
Even though the thyroid is a major component of regulating numerous bodily functions it is still possible to continue on without one. Regardless if a person is without a thyroid from birth or needed to have it surgically removed, there are treatments available that allow for functional living and wellness.
Hypothyroidism, regardless of thyroidal presence, requires individualized treatment with thyroid hormone replacement therapy. Unique patient factors will dictate what treatment works best whether that be synthetic, natural, or a combination of thyroid medications. Fortunately, with proper individualized treatment, even those without a thyroid can lead fulfilling and healthy lives.
1. Life Without a Thyroid. The National Academy of Hypothyroidism. https://www.nahypothyroidism.org/life-without-a-thyroid/
2. After Surgery: Life with No Thyroid. Health Central. https://www.healthcentral.com/article/after-surgery-life-with-no-thyroid
3. What Happens When You Have No Thyroid Gland? VeryWell. https://www.verywellhealth.com/when-you-dont-have-a-thyroid-gland-3231525a>