The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland located just below the Adam’s apple in the front side of the neck. It is one of the largest endocrine glands in the human body. This gland regulates the metabolism of the body by producing the thyroid hormones, of which the principal hormones are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxin (T4).
These hormones play an important role in growth and energy utilization. The thyroid gland is controlled by the pituitary gland, which in turn is controlled by the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus secrets a hormone called thyrotropin, releasing a hormone (TRH) which stimulates the pituitary gland to release the thyroid stimulating hormones (TSH). This hormone stimulates the thyroid gland to secrete the thyroid hormones T3 and T4.
Any abnormality in the functioning of this system can result in a thyroid disorder and can be harmful if left untreated for long.
There are various types of thyroid disorders; it can be a case of an enlarged gland called a goiter, which is relatively harmless and needs no treatment, to life-threatening, but rare, thyroid cancer. However, the most common types of thyroid problems that are prevalent today are hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is a thyroid disorder characterized by overproduction of the thyroid hormones, and in hypothyroidism, there is insufficient production of the thyroid hormones.
Over production of thyroid hormones can be the result of several conditions, some of which are listed below:
Graves’ disease: This is an autoimmune condition where the antibodies target the thyroid gland and cause it to produce an excess amount of the thyroid hormones.
Toxic adenomas: This condition is characterized by development of nodules in the thyroid glands. These nodules secrete thyroid hormones and hence upset the chemical balance of the body.
Subacute Thyroiditis: In this condition, there is a leakage in the thyroid gland, which results in excess hormone secretion. It is generally temporary but may last for months if not treated.
Other causes may include excessive intake of thyroid hormones, abnormal secretion of TSH and excessive iodine intake.
The body requires a certain amount of thyroid hormones for energy production. So a person who has hypothyroidism suffers from low energy levels due to lower thyroid hormone production. The main causes of hypothyroidism are as follows:
Hashimoto's thyroiditis: This is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks thyroid tissue, causing it to die. Therefore it stops producing thyroid hormones.
Due to removal of the thyroid gland: Under certain circumstances, the thyroid gland might need to be surgically removed or chemically destroyed. It can result in hypothyroidism.
Exposure to excessive amounts of iodine: Too much exposure to large amounts of iodine can result in iodine-induced hypothyroidism.
Lithium: Research shows that high lithium intake can induce hypothyroidism.
Apart from these two more prevalent thyroid disorders, there are a few more. They are:
Thyroiditis: This is characterized by inflammation of the thyroid. Of all the types of thyroiditis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the most common. Others include post-partum thyroiditis, granulomatous thyroiditis and viral thyroiditis. In severe cases of thyroiditis, steroid drugs might be necessary to reduce the inflammation along with thyroid hormone replacement drugs.
Goiter: A goiter generally refers to an enlarged thyroid gland. It can develop in both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. In such cases, swallowing may be painful, and there is a feeling of fullness and pain around the neck.
Symptoms in Thyroid Disorders
The symptoms of thyroid disorders can vary depending on the type of thyroid disorder. The common symptoms of this disease are listed as follows:
Nervousness: A person suffering from hyperthyroidism often experiences nervousness and tremor.
Mental fogginess and poor concentration: These symptoms are experienced by people suffering from both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. There is a general feeling of depression, sluggishness, lethargy and lack of concentration.
Menstrual changes: Women may experience abnormality in their menstrual cycles. Hypothyroidism is associated with excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding, while in hyperthyroidism there can be scanty or reduced menstrual flow.
Feeling bloated: An underactive thyroid results in fluid retention.
Racing heartbeat: A person suffering from hyperthyroidism may experience an increased heart rate (tachycardia) and palpitations.
Aches and pains: Most thyroid conditions are characterized by body and muscle aches.
Weight gain: An underactive thyroid can lead to a sudden gain in bodyweight.
Dry and scaly skin: People with a thyroid disorder often experience dry and coarse skin. In some cases it can also be thick and scaly.
Apart from these effects, people suffering from thyroid problems also experience hair thinning or excessive hair fallout, high cholesterol levels, sensitivity to heat and cold, lower libido, etc.
Treatments for Thyroid Disorders
Depending on the types of thyroid disorder a person is suffering from, various treatment options are available.
- In the case of thyroid cancer and in some cases of goiter or nodules, surgery is performed.
- Intake of thyroid drugs also forms an important part of the treatment process in the case of an underactive thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism is treated with thyroid hormone replacement drugs.
- In the case if hyperthyroidism, anti-thyroid drugs and radioactive iodine ablation, also known as radioactive iodine treatment, can be considered. In some cases, surgical removal of all or some part of the thyroid gland may be necessary. This process is called thyroidectomy.
Who is at risk?
Anyone, irrespective of age, sex and ethnicity can develop a thyroid disorder at some point in their life. However, women are 6-8 times more likely to suffer from thyroid disorders. Also, radiation exposure and a family history of thyroid disorders increases the risk of occurrence.
Lifestyle changes to cope with thyroid disorders
Lifestyle and diet changes are very important in order to cope with an overactive or underactive thyroid. You must exercise and keep yourself active. A sedentary lifestyle can complicate thyroid issues.
Certain nutrients are necessary for the health of your thyroid gland, and it is important that they are present in your diet in a balanced form. They are:
Iodine: The cells in your thyroid gland absorb iodine which in turns helps it produce T3 and T4 hormones. While iodine deficiency is not prevalent in the United States, statistics show that 36% of women of childbearing age do not get sufficient iodine from their diet. Some natural sources of iodine are sea vegetables like wakame, dulsi, nori, etc. One should also note that excessive iodine can also complicate a thyroid problem. Therefore, a healthy balance is absolutely necessary.
Minerals: Minerals likeselenium are very important for the proper thyroid gland function . It can be found in foods like shrimp, snapper, tuna, cod, button and shitake mushrooms and Brazil nuts. Other than these, zinc, iron and copper are also needed in trace amounts for a healthy thyroid. These minerals can be found in spinach, mushrooms, turnip greens and Swiss chard.
Omega-3 Fats: Found in fish and fish oil, they have an important role to play in thyroid function.
Antioxidants and B Vitamins: Foods rich in antioxidant vitamin A, C and E also help in the proper functioning of this gland.
Foods to avoid
Certain foods should be avoided to protect your thyroid function. They are listed as follows:
Artificial Sweetener Aspartame: Intake of this sweetener may trigger Graves’ disease and other autoimmune disorders in some people.
Non-fermented Soy: This type of soy is goitrogenic. Goitrogenic foods are those foods that interfere with the thyroid functioning. Intake of soybean oil, soymilk, tofu, etc. may lead to decreased thyroid function. Fermented soy products are okay to consume as fermentation decreases its goitrogenic properties.
Gluten: Gluten found in wheat, rye and barley could also trigger autoimmune responses.
Goitrogenic Foods: Goitrogenic food such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts should be avoided as it interferes with normal thyroid activity. However, steaming these vegetables will minimize the goitrogenic effect.
If you experience any symptoms of thyroid problems, consult your doctor immediately. With proper medication and lifestyle changes you can lead a normal life.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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