Here’s a section you can read to gather some information on your thyroid, a vital gland located in your neck that controls how fast or slow everything (but everything!) operates in your body. Compare it to the gas pedal of your car, with the gearshift in neutral. Too slow, and the motor dwindles and grinds to a halt. Too fast, and you’ll burn your engine out. Although most thyroid disorders are treated either by replacement hormones or prescription drugs, an inappropriately operating thyroid places all sorts of burdens on the smooth functioning of your body. Many of these can be helped with dietary changes and selected nutritional supplements.
What is Thyroid Disease?
The thyroid gland, made up of two large lobes at the base of the neck, produces hormones that regulate the rate of innumerable chemical reactions throughout our body, processes collectively called metabolism. Symptoms of thyroid disease basically reflect whether these processes are too slow or too fast. Usually the onset of any symptoms related to the thyroid is a slow process and most patients are unaware of the gradual change taking place within. An estimated one in every 20 Americans has thryroid disease, but millions don’t know it. Left untreated long enough, thryroid disease can be dangerous–but this is very rare. Thyroid disease is both easily diagnosed through a few blood tests and easily treated using replacement thryoid hormone, medications or (for hyperthyroidism) low doses of radiation therapy, all of which have surprisingly few side effects.
When the thyroid releases too little hormone (a condition called hypothyroidism), everything within the body slows down and the predominant symptom, not surprisingly, is a sense of sluggishness, both mental and physical. Hypothyroidism is about four times more common in women than in men and is a particular risk for women over age 50.
When the thyroid secretes too much hormone (hyperthyroidism), metabolism speeds up. Here the predominant symptoms are nervousness and jitteriness, although eventually a sense of fatigue prevails. (Envisioning the effect on a car engine with the idle set too high is a good comparison of what’s happening in the body.) Hyperthyroidism is about five times more common in women than in men and strikes most often between ages 30 and 40.
Nodules can also develop on the thyroid gland. These usually develop slowly over many years, and may occur alone or in clusters. Most of these are benign, but rarely a solitary nodule can become cancerous. Nodules need to be checked regularly by a physician, who may order tests with radioactive iodine to indicate whether nodules are “hot” or “cold.” Hot nodules can start producing excess thyroid hormone, necessitating treatment for hyperthyroidism. Cold nodules don’t produce enough hormone and should be monitored for the possibility of cancer.
• Fatigue, lethargy, slower movements
• Memory loss, depression
• Constipation, weight gain
• Intolerance to cold
• Dry skin and hair
• Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
• Puffy eyes
• Heavy menstrual periods
• Moodiness, anxiety
• Restlessness, insomnia * Greater appetite, unexplained weight loss, diarrhea
• Rapid heartbeat, intolerance to heat, increased sweating
• Goiter (enlarged thyroid)
• Bulging, irritated eyes
• Light or absent menstrual periods
What Causes Thyroid Disease?
The most common types of thyroid disease are caused by mild autoimmune disorders in which the thyroid is the sole victim of an attack by the body’s immune system. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an example of this phenomenon. Hypothyroidism frequently runs in families; however, it can appear without any family history and for no obvious reasons. Sometimes hypothyroidism will follow treatment for an overactive thyroid (including surgery in which too much of the gland has been removed and radiation treatment).
Almost all hyperthyroidism is due to Graves’ disease, a condition in which the immune system produces an abnormal antibody that then overstimulates the production of thyroid hormone. The other fairly common cause of hyperthyroidism is simply taking too much replacement thyroid hormone during the treatment for underactive thyroid.
Treatment and Prevention
If you have hypothyroidism, your doctor will most likely prescribe a synthetic thyroid hormone consisting of a single hormone called T4 that the body coverts to an active form called T3.
But some people, often those who are older, lack enough of a certain enzyme that is key in this conversion process. For them, an alternative may be natural thyroid hormone extracted from animals, which contains both T3 and T4. Within the last few years a new synthetic thyroid hormone, a drug called Thyrolar, has come on the market. It includes both T3 and T4, and presents a viable alternative to the natural thyroid hormone, which can be hard to measure.
Although supplements can’t take the place of a replacement hormone, some are powerful enough to affect the amount of standard medication you need and may help people with mild hypothyroidism. But be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements. (Supplements are not effective in the treatment of thyroid nodules.)
Treatment for hyperthyroidism involves reducing production of thyroid hormone by destroying part of the gland, usually with radiation or surgery. Drug therapy suppresses the thyroid hormone production without harming the gland itself. Often after such treatment, the thyroid produces too little hormone, leading to hypothyroidism.
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