This post about thyroid health is born out of a little conversation I had with one of my friends a few weeks ago. Whereas a lot of people have heard of the word “thyroid” before, what it does in the body, why it is so important, and that it influences almost all parts of our health is not. And we were both a bit surprised that there is not more information out there on this topic. So, I decided to change that.
What is the Thyroid?
Let’s start with the basics. What is the thyroid? It is a gland, which means that it is an organ that produces substances that perform a specific function in the body. It is located at the front of your neck and wraps around your windpipes. You can think of it shaped like a butterfly, smaller in the middle and then extending larger to the sides, wrapping around your throat. Your thyroid creates hormones, which impact the entire health of your body. If your thyroid produces too many hormones, you get a condition called hyperthyroidism. If your thyroid produces too little hormones, it is called hypothyroidism. Both conditions need to be seen by a doctor.
What Does the Thyroid Do?
Ultimately, your thyroid controls your metabolism. The food that you take into your body is transformed into energy. Energy is used throughout the entirety of the body in order to keep all of your bodily functions operating optimally. This process is needed for the entirety of our body. These hormones help to control our body temperature, they affect our heart rate, and they control how much protein our body produces.
Your thyroid produces two main hormones: (1) Thyroxine, also called T4 and (2) Triiodothyronine, also called T3. When your body is functioning optimally, it will maintain the right amount of hormones in order to manage your metabolism. Your thyroid is being “run” out of the pituitary gland. Located in your skull, the pituitary gland monitors and controls the amount of thyroid hormone in your blood stream. When there is too little or too much of the hormone, this tiny control hormone sends something called the “TSH” thyroid stimulating hormone, which then readjusts the thyroid levels in the thyroid.
As indicated above, when the thyroid produces too little or too much of the thyroid hormones, it is considered as not working optimally.
Hyperthyroidism is the condition called when you are producing too many thyroid hormones and your body is using energy too quickly. The symptoms for this condition do not always point to an overactive thyroid but you should watch out for the following (please note this list is not exhaustive):
- Lose weight quickly and without trying
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Increased hunger
- Sleep problems
- Feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and/or irritability
- Sensitivity to heat
- Changes in bowel movements
- Changes in your menstrual cycle
Hypothyroidism is the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to your thyroid and means that you body is producing too little of the hormone and your metabolism slows down. Usually, a lowered thyroid functions comes with the following conditions (please note that this list is not exhaustive):
- More sensitive to cold
- Dry skin
- Muscle aches and weakness
- Slowed heart rate
- Memory problems
- Depression (many people do not realize that their depression may be caused by an underactive thyroid)
This may or may not be something that you have heard of before. Hashimoto’s disease is in effect an autoimmune disease of the thyroid. Autoimmune diseases mean that your body’s natural antibodies believe that the thyroid is “dangerous” and start to attack it. Through this attacking process, the thyroid then produces too little hormone.
Who is Affected and What to Do?
A thyroid disease can affect anyone. However, it appears that women are more often diagnosed than men. The likelihood of you having a thyroid disease are also higher if this already runs in your family. If you do feel that you may suffer from a thyroid condition, the first step is to make an appointment with a physician that you trust and feel comfortable with. Through a blood test your levels of:
- Free T3 (measuring T3 that eliminates the effect of proteins that naturally bind T3)
- Free T4 (measuring T4 that eliminates the effect of proteins that naturally bind T4)
Your physician will likely also make an ultrasound of your thyroid in order to check for any irregularities. The levels at which people determine whether someone has a lowered or increased thyroid function also highly vary from country to country and even from doctor to doctor here in Germany. So, I will spare you the details, because they likely will not apply to where you are. However, treatment means in most cases a taking thyroid hormones in order to getting the thyroid functioning optimally again.
I hope this post may have helped you in understanding your thyroid and what it does a bit better. As said, I do find this is a bit of an underrated organ, which hardly gets talked about, yet has a huge influence on our health. Beautiful cover photo from Taylor Deas-Melesh on Unsplash.