January is Thyroid Awareness Month, which calls attention to the various health problems connected to the thyroid and aims to educate people on the need to take good care of this important tiny gland in the neck.
You must’ve definitely heard the word “thyroid”, but what exactly is it and why is it so important?
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck just below the Adam’s apple. It’s part of an intricate network of glands called the endocrine system. The endocrine system is responsible for coordinating many of your body’s activities. The thyroid gland manufactures hormones that regulate your body’s metabolism.
Without a functioning thyroid, the body would not be able to break down proteins and it would not be able to process carbohydrates and vitamins. For this reason, problems with this gland can lead to uncontrollable weight gain. For many people, these irregularities can be controlled through medications, as well as a modification of their diet.
However, there is one other controlling factor. The gland cannot produce hormones on its own. It needs the assistance of the pituitary gland, which creates thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). As a result, a nonfunctional pituitary gland will eventually lead to thyroid-gland-related issues. TSH will either trigger the production of thyroxine or triiodothyronine. If TSH is not present at the right levels, too much or too little of either hormone will be made.
Several different disorders can arise when your thyroid produces too much hormone (hyperthyroidism) or not enough (hypothyroidism). Four common disorders of the thyroid are Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, goiter, and thyroid nodules.
So, what exactly are these disorders and what are their symptoms?
Let’s find out!
In hyperthyroidism, the thyroid gland is overactive - it produces too much of its hormone.
A variety of conditions can cause hyperthyroidism but Graves’ disease is the most common cause of this disorder. Nodules on the thyroid — a condition called toxic nodular goiter or multinodular goiter — can also cause the gland to overproduce its hormones.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder which causes antibodies to stimulate the thyroid to secrete too much hormone. Graves’ disease occurs more often in women than in men. It tends to run in families, which suggests a genetic link. You should tell your doctor if your relatives have had the condition.
According to Healthline, excessive thyroid hormone production leads to symptoms such as:
- Racing heart
- Increased sweating
- Trouble sleeping
- Thin skin
- Brittle hair and nails
- Muscle weakness
- Weight loss
- Bulging eyes (in Graves’ disease)
Diet can affect both the production of thyroid hormones and how the thyroid functions. The following nutrients and chemicals are among those that can affect hyperthyroidism:
- Iodine, which the thyroid gland uses to produce thyroid hormone. Too much iodine in the diet can increase the production of thyroid hormone.
- Calcium and vitamin D are vital because hyperthyroidism can cause problems with bone mineral density.
- Foods and drinks containing caffeine can worsen the symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Foods that you should be eating are:
- Low in Iodine. These are egg whites, non-iodized salt, fresh vegetables, tea, black coffee, herbs and spices, vegetable oils, beer, wine, unsalted nuts, moderate portions of chicken veal, beef, lamb and turkey, fresh fruit, honey and lemonade.
- Cruciferous vegetables as they contain compounds that decrease thyroid hormone production and may reduce iodine uptake by the thyroid. Some of these are collard greens, brussels, kale, arugula, bok choy, broccoli, mustard greens and turnip roots.
- High in iron such as dried beans, green leafy vegetables, seeds, whole grains, chicken, turkey, lentils, red meat and nuts.
Hypothyroidism is the opposite of hyperthyroidism - this is when the thyroid gland is underactive and it can’t produce enough of its hormones. According to Healthline, Hypothyroidism is also called underactive thyroid and affects women more frequently than men. It commonly affects people over the age of 60 years old, but it can begin at any age. It may be discovered through a routine blood test or after symptoms begin.
This disorder is caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (which we’ll talk more about next), affects around 4.6 percent of people 12 years old and older.
Too little thyroid hormone production leads to symptoms such as:
- Dry skin
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Memory problems
- Weight gain
- Slow heart rate
The diagnosis of this disorder is done with a blood test to measure your TSH and thyroid hormone levels. A high TSH level and low thyroxine level could mean that your thyroid is underactive. These levels could also indicate that your pituitary gland is releasing more TSH to try to stimulate the thyroid gland to make its hormone.
Treatment of hypothyroidism usually includes thyroid hormone pills and it’s very important to get the dose right as taking too much of the thyroid hormone can result in hyperthyroidism.
Lastly, while diet cannot cure hypothyroidism, it plays three main roles in managing the condition:
- Foods that contain certain nutrients can help maintain proper thyroid function, such as iodine, selenium, and zinc.
- Other foods interfere with normal thyroid function, such as those containing goitrogens and soy, so limiting these can improve symptoms.
- Some foods and supplements can interfere with how well the body absorbs thyroid replacement medicine, so limiting these foods can also help. Dive into some research to know what these certain foods and supplements may be.
Foods that you should be eating are:
- Foods that contain selenium. These include ham, shrimp, brazil nuts, rice, cottage cheese, oatmeal, tuna, halibut, spinach and baked beans.
- High in zinc, which has beneficial effects on a person’s thyroid hormones. Foods rich in zinc are oysters, beef, chicken, crab, legumes, pumpkin skin and yogurt.
- High in Iodine - this includes cheese, milk, saltwater fish, iodized table salt, seaweed and whole eggs.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, also known as Hashimoto’s disease, damages your thyroid function. It’s also called chronic autoimmune lymphocytic thyroiditis. In the United States, Hashimoto’s is the most common cause of hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid).
It can occur at any age, but it’s most common in middle-aged women. The disease occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and slowly destroys the thyroid gland and its ability to produce hormones. Some people with mild cases of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis may have no obvious symptoms. The disease can remain stable for years, and symptoms are often subtle. They’re also not specific, which means they mimic symptoms of many other conditions.
This autoimmune disorder causes white blood cells and antibodies to mistakenly attack the cells of the thyroid. Doctors do not know why this happens, but some scientists believe genetic factors may be involved.
Some of the symptoms of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are:
- Dry, pale skin
- Hoarse voice
- High cholesterol
- Lower body muscle weakness
- Feeling sluggish
- Cold intolerance
- Thinning hair
- Irregular or heavy periods
- Problems with fertility
This disorder is diagnosed with a blood test and according to Healthline, there’s no known cure for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Hormone-replacing medication is often used to raise thyroid hormone levels or lower TSH levels. It can also help relieve the symptoms of the disease. Surgery might be necessary to remove part or all of the thyroid gland in rare advanced cases of Hashimoto’s. The disease is usually detected at an early stage and remains stable for years because it progresses slowly.
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder. It causes your thyroid gland to create too much thyroid hormone in the body. This condition is known as hyperthyroidism. As mentioned earlier, Graves’ disease is one of the most common forms of hyperthyroidism.
In Graves’ disease, your immune system creates antibodies known as thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulins. These antibodies then attach to healthy thyroid cells. They can cause your thyroid to create too much thyroid hormone.
The disease is hereditary and may develop at any age in men or women, but it’s much more common in women ages 20 to 30, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Other risk factors include stress, pregnancy, and smoking. When there’s a high level of thyroid hormone in your bloodstream, your body’s systems speed up and cause symptoms that are common to hyperthyroidism. Some of these are:
- Hand tremors
- Increased or irregular heartbeat
- Excessive sweating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Diarrhea or frequent bowel movements
- Altered menstrual cycle
- Bulging eyes and vision problems
Autoimmune disorders like Graves’ disease are caused when the immune system begins to fight against healthy tissues and cells in your body. Your immune system usually produces proteins known as antibodies in order to fight against foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. These antibodies are produced specially to target the specific invader. In Graves’ disease, your immune system mistakenly produces antibodies called thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulins that target your own healthy thyroid cells.
Although scientists know that people can inherit the ability to make antibodies against their own healthy cells, they have no way to determine what causes Graves’ disease or who will develop it. However, sometimes, the following may contribute to developing this disorder;
This disease is usually diagnosed upon conducting thyroid blood tests but sometimes, the following tests may be conducted by the doctor;
- Blood tests
- Thyroid scan
- Radioactive iodine uptake test
- Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test
- Thyroid stimulating immunoglobulin (TSI) test
Graves’ disease is typically treated with anti-thyroid drugs, radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy and if needed, thyroid surgery.
Goiter is a noncancerous enlargement of the thyroid gland. The most common cause of goiter worldwide is iodine deficiency in the diet. It can affect anyone at any age, especially in areas of the world where foods rich in iodine are in short supply. However, goiters are more common after the age of 40 and in women, who are more likely to have thyroid disorders. Other risk factors include family medical history, certain medication usage, pregnancy, and radiation exposure.
There might not be any symptoms if the goiter isn’t severe but may cause the following symptoms as it grows larger:
- Swelling or tightness in your neck
- Difficulties breathing or swallowing
- Coughing or wheezing
- Hoarseness of voice
Goiters are often associated with highly treatable thyroid disorders, such as Graves’ disease. Although goiters aren’t usually a cause for concern, they can cause serious complications if they’re left untreated. These complications can include difficulty breathing and swallowing.
Goiter diagnosis consists of blood tests that reveal thyroid hormone, TSH, and antibodies in your bloodstream. This will diagnose thyroid disorders that are often a cause of goiter. An ultrasound of the thyroid will also check for swelling or nodules. This disorder is usually treated only when it becomes severe enough to cause symptoms. You can take small doses of iodine if goiter is the result of iodine deficiency. Radioactive iodine can shrink the thyroid gland while surgery will remove all or part of the gland. The treatments usually overlap because goiter is often a symptom of hyperthyroidism.
If the goiter is the result of iodine deficiency, then you can try the following foods to make sure that you are getting enough iodine everyday;
- Iodized salt
- Seafood - shrimp and other shellfish are particularly high in iodine
- Dairy - milk, yogurt and cheese
Now that you have some good amount of information on what the thyroid is and what some of the thyroid disorders are, here’s why you should check your thyroid;
- It’s a small gland with a major impact
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck that produces thyroid hormones; these influence how all other cells, tissues, and organs function. When it's producing either too much or too little of these hormones, other body systems can get out of balance, leading to problems ranging from dry skin to decreased vision.
- It affects millions of people in the U.S.A., alone
It's estimated that over 30 million Americans have thyroid dysfunction, yet at least half of these cases are undiagnosed and, consequently, untreated.
- Prevention is better than cure
Diagnoses can be accomplished with simple blood tests. The most common symptoms are cold hands and feet, dry skin, and unexplained weight gain. All of these can indicate hypothyroidism (not enough hormone being produced). Conversely, diarrhea and unexplained weight loss can be a sign of hyperthyroidism (too much hormone). With a proper diagnosis, thyroid dysfunction can be successfully treated so you can enjoy a healthy lifestyle.
Here’s what you can do during the Thyroid Awareness Month;
- The thyroid neck check
Have a hand-held mirror and a glass of water handy. With the mirror in your hand, focus on the lower front area of your neck, above the collarbone, and below the voice box (larynx). This is where your thyroid gland is located. While focusing on this area, tip your head back, take a drink of water, and swallow. As you swallow, look at your neck. Check for any bulges or protrusions. (Don’t confuse the Adam’s apple with the thyroid gland.) If you do see any bulges, see your physician. You may have an enlarged thyroid gland or a thyroid nodule.*
*We highly recommend that you check with your doctor before coming to any conclusions and we strongly advise against self-diagnosis and self-medication.
- Encourage your loved ones to get tested
If a family member or a friend has mentioned feeling cold a lot of the time, having trouble sleeping, or difficulty swallowing, maybe it's time to suggest they ask their doctor about thyroid dysfunction.
- Make a donation if you can
Celebrate your good health by making a donation to one of the many research or treatment institutions; there are most likely some in your area that would be very appreciative of your support!