The thyroid is a critical part of one’s overall health. Unfortunately, many still are inadequately informed or are completely unaware of this butterfly-shaped gland located just under the larynx. January is Thyroid Awareness Month, which provides an excellent opportunity to read up on this small gland that is so important to our health.
The thyroid plays a critical role in regulating the metabolism, and by extension interacts with and manages almost every part of the body. This level of bodily integration coupled with lack of awareness can leave people suffering from a common disorder they don’t even know exists! Nearly 27 million adults in the United States have a thyroid-related condition, meaning it is critical to have a better understanding of the thyroid and common conditions associated with it.
Basic Thyroid Function
There is an unending hormonal orchestra going on in the human body and the thyroid is the conductor. The thyroid interacts and regulates nearly all hormones in the body but there are a few that are of particular importance:
- Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), communicates that additional thyroid hormone needs to be produced.
- Thyroxine (T4), the storage or inactive from of thyroid hormone.
- Triiodothyronine (T3), the active form of thyroid hormone, which increases metabolic activity.
- Reverse T3, inhibits T3 function to keep one’s metabolism from becoming overactive and maintain balance.
Keeping these hormones properly regulated and working together is critical for both thyroid health and total body wellness. Unfortunately, almost 40% of the U.S. population suffers some degree of thyroid dysfunction, which can lead to a variety of conditions.
Reduced thyroid hormone levels, caused by an underactive thyroid, is known as hypothyroidism. Many live with this condition without even being aware of it. This is not necessarily due to neglecting treatment, but more likely ignorance of the condition itself. Hypothyroidism manifests itself in several ways. Commonly, people experience fatigue, sensitivity to cold and an inability to focus. Reduced metabolic function is usually a major factor in the most prominent symptoms. Other symptoms include:
- Weight gain
- Muscle and joint pain
- Poor sleep
- Chronic yeast infections
- Brittleness in hair and nails
- Reduced libido
- And others
Unfortunately, due to outdated testing procedures or incorrect understanding of how this condition works, many go undiagnosed. Furthermore, even if a severe thyroid deficit is appropriately diagnosed, it is regrettably common for physicians to mistreat or under prescribe. Uninformed physicians often recommend T4-only medication, or synthetic options, which aren’t optimal for many individuals.
On the other side of the thyroid health spectrum is hyperthyroidism. Elevated thyroid hormone levels causes the body to enter a rushed or overclocked state. This can cause increased heart rate, hyperventilation, rushed digestion, and excess burning of calories. Excessive amounts of T4 and T3 triggers hyperthyroidism and keeps the body in an exhaustively active condition. Although less common than hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism is quite prevalent, affecting 1% of the U.S. population (about 300,000 people) per year. Those who have hyperthyroidism often exhibit symptoms similar to those with chronic anxiety or depression. Other symptoms include:
- Heart palpitations
- Excessive perspiration
- Sensitivity to heat
- Weight loss
- Panic attacks and anxiety
- Increased appetite
- Irregular, or loss of, menstrual period
- Muscle fatigue and weakness
- And others
Hyperthyroidism is often diagnosed in a similar fashion to hypothyroidism, meaning that it frequently goes misdiagnosed or undiagnosed altogether.
The Immune System and the Thyroid
The body’s immune system is tasked with keeping it safe by rejecting and combatting foreign, harmful agents such as viruses and bacteria. This is done by releasing antibodies that seek out and destroy problem elements in the body. Unfortunately, even the immune system can malfunction, causing it to turn on one’s own body. If this occurs, serious conditions involving the thyroid, such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Graves’ Disease, may develop.
In the case of Hashimoto’s, one’s antibodies have actively turned against the body and view proteins in the thyroid gland as threats. Ultimately, this causes destruction of the thyroid gland, leading to a severe thyroid hormone deficit and hypothyroidism. However, during this destructive process, temporary bursts of thyroid hormone is released as the cells are destroyed. This leads to a momentary thyroid spike where one may experience symptoms more in line with hyperthyroidism. Even though one may experience a brief thyroid high they will likely be left with a permanent thyroid deficiency because hormone production is severely inhibited.
Those with Hashimoto’s may experience goiters, tenderness in the neck and a variety of other symptoms:
- Fluctuations in weight
- Heat and/or cold intolerance
- Anxiety and depression
- Tightness in the throat and difficulty speaking
- Muscle weakness
- And others
Because of the non-specificity of these symptoms, Hashimoto’s is often misdiagnosed as one of the following conditions: PMS, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder or fibromyalgia.
Although it is also an autoimmune dysfunction, Graves’ Disease affects the thyroid in a way that differs from Hashimoto’s. Rather than attacking the thyroid directly, Graves’ Disease is typified by an overproduction of antibodies that are capable of mimicking TSH. With an influx of TSH, the thyroid believes it needs to produce great amounts of both T3 and T4 resulting in hyperthyroidism and hyperactivity throughout the body. All this excess bodily activity causes unnecessary burning of fuel, increased heart rate and fatigue. Additionally, this overproduction brings undue stress on the thyroid, which can cause permanent damage.
Physically, the most prominent and recognizable symptom of Graves’ Disease is bulging or protruding eyes instigated by inflammation of the socket. Other symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Menstrual cycle irregularities
- Increased appetite
- Erectile dysfunction and/or reduced libido
- Heat intolerance
- And others
The autoimmune impact of this condition promotes the body to attack itself. Graves’ Disease puts one’s eyes at risk. Antibodies produced by the immune system can damage not only TSH receptors, but also the eye muscles, tissues, and the eye itself. Muscle weakness, impaired or blurred vision, and even color blindness can result from an untreated case of Graves’ Disease.
Awareness Leading to Better Treatment
Increasing awareness of the thyroid as well as the common conditions that impact it is the first step in achieving better health for all. By spreading what you’ve learned and continuing to research and read, you can help the huge number of those suffering from a thyroid condition who may not even know it. Help be a part of Thyroid Awareness Month by informing others of the incredible little gland keeping your body in balance and working at its best.