By Kaitlin Dorsey
The thyroid gland “is in charge of running every part of your body,” Joan Gomez, M.D., writes in her book “Thyroid Problems in Women and Children: Self-Help and Treatment.” Physical and mental health, appearance and emotions are all affected by the functioning of the thyroid. Dysfunction of the thyroid creates problems in a person’s daily life, from how she tolerates temperatures to concentration and fertility.
According to Gomez, between 13 and 14 million Americans are affected by a thyroid disorder although “as many as one-half to two-thirds of those affected don’t even know they have a problem.” Thankfully, 90 percent of thyroid disorders are curable. Some clear up on their own; others require medication or surgery. Whatever the situation, it is important to get the thyroid back in proper working order.
The function of the thyroid is to produce hormones that work with the rest of the body. Sitting at the base of the throat, the thyroid produces two main hormones: T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (triiodothyronine). These two hormones work together to keep the body healthy. Problems arise when they are overproduced or underproduced (hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidisrn, respectively).
Hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, occurs when too much thyroid hormone is being produced. People with hyperthyroidism find themselves feeling increasingly anxious and irritable. They experience heart palpitations, a loss of weight, and more frequent bowel movements. Heat is difficult to tolerate and perspiration increases. Hair becomes extra fine and soft while nails partially loosen and muscles weaken. Frequently caused by an autoimmune disease known as Graves’ disease, hyperthyroidism is detected by a physical exam and laboratory blood tests. There is more than one treatment option for hyperthyroidism, but every treatment will not work for all patients. Some patients will be able to simply take an antithyroid drug while others will have to use radioactive iodine, beta-blockers or have surgery in order to get their thyroid to function properly.
More common than hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism occurs when not enough thyroid hormone is being produced. Also referred to as underactive thyroid, hypothyroidism is connected to intolerance to cold and a constant feeling of fatigue. A slowing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and weight gain are also symptoms that occur in many people. Sufferers find themselves with slow-growing nails that develop ridges and hair that has lost its sheen. Concentration is weak and a feeling of apathy occurs along with a poor memory. There are a number of different causes of hypothyroidism: giving birth, improper diet and drug use, to name a few.
The most common cause is an autoimmune disorder known as Hashimoto’s disease. Discovered by Dr. Hakaru Hashimoto in the early 20th century, this is a disease where the body’s immune system attempts to attack and destroy the healthy tissues of the thyroid. As a result, the thyroid enlarges and thyroid hormone production is prevented.
As with hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism is determined by a physical exam and a laboratory blood test. There is a theory that taking the body’s temperature can also determine the presence of the disorder but the American Thyroid Association says there isn’t any evidence to support that.
Treatment for hypothyroidism is very simple. A daily pill of the missing hormone is usually all that is needed. Most patients will need to take the pill for the rest of their lives, and it is best to start with a low dose in order to build up and determine the proper dosage.
There is also a second type of hypothyroidism known as subclinical hypothyroidism. Monica Zatarski, of MD Custom Rx in Glendale, explains that this condition occurs when someone has “all (the) symptoms (of hypothyroidism) but tests come back fine.” While the thyroid may be producing enough hormones, they aren’t getting to the cells, causing the symptoms. This can be from stress or being treated for too much hormone. Subclinical hypothyroidism is treated with medication.
Nodules and goiters
Nodules and goiters are growths that can develop in the thyroid gland. Most do not cause problems and do not need treatment. A doctor, however, will still want to monitor the nodule or goiter to be sure it does not develop into anything more serious. A biopsy can determine whether or not the growth is cancerous. According to information at www.webmd.com only about five percent of nodules are cancerous. Ninety percent of these cases are curable, according to Gomez. If problems of a noncancerous nature do arise -throat pain, difficulty swallowing, or even hyperthyroidism- medication can be taken.
Women, the more vulnerable sex
The National Women’s Health Resource Center concludes that women are five times more likely to have a thyroid problem than men. Zatarski explains that, for women, thyroid problems are “more common because of hormonal changes.” Pregnancy, post childbirth and menopause are three common times when thyroid disorders appear. These are not the only times, however. A thyroid disorder can appear at any time and often affects a woman’s menstrual cycle. With hyperthyroidism, menstrual cycles become irregular and short. For some women, they cease altogether. Hypothyroidism creates heavy periods that may appear more frequently. In both cases, ovulation fails causing likely infertility. In the case that a woman does become pregnant while afflicted with one of these disorders, problems can arise. Miscarriage and preeclampsia are more prevalent with women who have certain thyroid problems. Also, a newborn is at an increased risk of having impaired mental and physical development.
Supporting thyroid function
Despite thyroid problems running in families, there is no clear way to determine who will and will not develop a disorder. There are, however, supplements that can be purchased that support the thyroid. Zatarski advises consulting a naturopathic physician before taking any supplement.
Getting enough of certain vitamins is essential maintaining a healthy thyroid and/or helping recover from a thyroid disorder. Vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E are important vitamins in supporting the thyroid. Most of these can be found in a strong multi-vitamin from health food stores. The commercialized multi-vitamins often are not potent enough to help the thyroid. Other important elements are iodine, zinc, essential fats and amino acids. Iodine is found in both T4 and T3. Without enough iodine the body can develop goiters and hypothyroidism. Too much can be toxic, creating additional problems. Only take iodine if advised to do so by a doctor.
Keeping the thyroid healthy and treating any problems is of great importance. Left untreated, thyroid disorders can create more serious problems. It puts a person at an increased risk for life threatening health situations such as hardened arteries, heart disease and high blood pressure. A person also puts herself at a higher risk of osteoporosis and problems with the nervous system. Getting tested by a doctor every few years can help keep the thyroid healthy.
The thyroid gland is a necessary part of the body, yet it is often overlooked. When symptoms arise, they are frequently cast aside as temporary and something that will pass. Sometimes they do pass, while at other times they do not. It is best to be aware of the symptoms and take action when they appear. By maintaining a healthy thyroid, we will be able to live healthier lives.
OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:
A good diet and exercise are essential. Both overeating and starving the body will upset the thyroid. Eat a balanced diet and be careful of harmful ingredients such as hydrogenated oils. Drinking water and avoiding stress also helps keep the thyroid on the right track.