Though it might not always get the same amount of attention as the heart, lungs, or kidneys, the thyroid is one of the most essential components of the human body that regulates important life functions such as breathing patterns and heart rate.
When it’s not functioning properly, it can make an individual rather sick and produce a domino effect by impacting many other internal systems. There are a number of different types of thyroid disease, all of which have varying causes and effects, but first it’s important to understand more about the thyroid itself.
A closer look at the thyroid
The thyroid is a prominent part of the body’s endocrine system, which has the main function of producing and releasing hormones that get carried to the individual cells through the bloodstream.
The butterfly-shaped gland is located at the base of the neck, in front of the throat, and measures about two inches long (if you swallow while grabbing your neck you can feel it move). It’s made up of two lobes on either side of the windpipe that are sometimes conjoined by a thin piece of tissue, referred to as the isthmus—though not everyone has this component.
Its job is to make two hormones, triiodothyronine and thyroxine, which are commonly referred to as T3 and T4, respectively. It also releases thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). All three balance each other out, so it’s important that none are elevated or significantly depleted within the bloodstream. Their role is multilateral as part of the thyroid’s overall function, which affects a number of important body functions:
The thyroid is hugely responsible for monitoring metabolism and keeping hunger in check. It controls gut motility, appetite, absorption of nutrients and substances, and breakdown of fat and glucose. This is directly related to unexplained weight gain and loss, too.
The hormones released by the thyroid play a role in the growth of healthy cells as well as supporting muscle strength. This is incredibly important in children since it will utlimately impact their ability to thrive.
Thyroid hormones also have an impact on sexual function, libido, and menstrual cycles.
One of the thyroid’s most important functions is regulating the rate and overall strength of your heartbeat as well as your body’s breathing rate, oxygen intake, blood flow, and even body temperature. It also plays a role in keeping cholesterol levels in check.
Because so many parts of the body are impacted by the thyroid, when a problem develops, symptoms can be varied in both presentation and severity.
The basics of thyroid disease
The term “thyroid disease” doesn’t point to a single issue with the gland. Instead, it’s more of a blanket term that can refer to a number of diagnoses, starting with the two most common: hyperthyroidism (the body’s overproduction of T3 and T4) or hypothyroidism (underproduction of T3 and T4).
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle weakness
- Eye or vision changes
- Weight loss, despite increased appetite
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Heat intolerance and constant sweating
- Difficulty sleeping
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Slow or weak heartbeat
- Constant fatigue
- Sensitivity to the cold
- Dry or puffy skin
- Poor memory
- Slowed mental faculties
More specific types of thyroid disease
In addition to the more general diagnoses of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, there is also a class of more specific conditions, some of which can be autoimmune in nature. All are quite common—in fact, roughly 200 million people across the world (including 20 million Americans) have some kind of thyroid disease, and the issue is four to seven times more common in women than in men.
This refers to any kind of inflammation of the thyroid that can trigger overactive hormonal production since the swollen gland essentially “leaks” excess hormones into the bloodstream. While it can be chronic in nature, subacute thyroiditis is another condition that is more temporary, characterized by short bouts of hyperthyroidism that can last from a few weeks to several months in duration, and are usually triggered by an upper respiratory infection.
Some of the symptoms can include:
- Pain the neck or when you swallow
- Low grade fever
- Fatigue and weakness
- Hoarseness when speaking
Hashimoto’s is the most common type of hypothyroidism. Also known as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, it’s a result of the immune system mistaking the thyroid gland for a pathogen, and attacking it, which prevents its ability to create the hormones the body needs to function. Though it’s most common in middle-aged women, Hashimoto’s can affect anyone of any age and gender.
Some of the symptoms can include:
- Unexplained weight gain
- Dry skin
- Pale and puffy face
- Heavy or irregular menstruation
On the other end of the spectrum, there is Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder causing hyperthyroidism, or an overabundance of hormones created by the thyroid gland. This occurs when the immune system produces antibodies that encourage the thyroid to grow and make more T3 and T4 than the body needs. Grave’s disease is common in families so it’s believed to be genetic in nature, though it can also be caused by environmental factors.
Some of the symptoms can include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Weakness of the muscles
- Anxiety and restlessness
- Fast heartbeat or palpitations
- Bulging eyes and vision problems
A goiter is essentially any abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland, which is very visible and appears as a swollen neck. Though it can be an indication of a malfunctioning thyroid (that produces too much hormone), it can also be a benign symptom of a fully healthy gland, too.
In fact, roughly 90 percent of goiters are caused by a deficiency of iodine, a food source the thyroid needs to do its job, which is becoming more scarce in the standard American diet.
Generally, surgery is the primary method used to remove the goiter and possibly the full thyroid gland, which is still a very livable prognosis thanks to the availability of synthroid. This synthetic form of thyroid hormones helps keeps the body in check even with the gland’s removal.
Managing thyroid problems naturally
While medications like synthroid (or tapazole for hyperthyroidism) are regularly prescribed, there are also some more natural options you can incorporate to help ensure your thyroid is operating at its prime levels. Always be sure to consult with your doctor before beginning any new regimen.
Get enough iodine
Iodine deficiency is a leading cause of thyroid disease. This essential mineral is not produced by the body so it must be acquired through foods; without it, the body won’t be able to produce enough T3 and T4. Using iodized table salt is one of the easiest (and most common ways) to supplement your diet; but other sources include cod fish, navy beans, tuna, seaweed, and eggs.
Another nutrient deficiency that is often overlooked in cases of thyroid disease is selenium. The enzymes in this mineral help to protect the thyroid during periods of stress, and also help regulate the synthesization of hormones. While selenium supplements are convenient, you can also get a natural supply from foods like Brazil nuts, seafood, mushrooms, and wheat germ and wheat grass.
Supplement with trace metals
Iron, copper, and zinc are all important for thyroid function. Lower levels of these trace metals can result in reduced production of T3, T4, and TSH.
Try the Mediterranean diet
This diet has been touted for years by nutritionists and those in the medical field because it’s abundant in healthy fats from extra virgin olive oil and avocados, and includes a lot of produce and healthy fish, which offer omega-3 fatty acids. Eating this way—and avoiding sugar and preservative-filled foods—can be significant in reducing overall inflammation and supporting healthy digestion, which makes the thyroid more efficient and less susceptible to autoimmune triggers.
A final word on thyroid disease
Thyroid diseases are very serious, and can play a major role in your overall health. Preventing them from occurring and treating them as soon as possible is incredibly important. Always be sure to consult with your doctor if you suspect that a thyroid condition is present or if you have reason to believe that you’re at risk for them, such as a family history. As well, following a healthy lifestyle and adopting a good nutrition plan can have a big impact on prevention as well, and are worth paying attention to for long-term well-being.
Illustration by Karley Koenig