If you think of your body as an engine, with food as its fuel, then your thyroid is the part that controls how rapidly the fuel turns into energy.
In reality, it's a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in your throat, helps to regulate how quickly or slowly the cells in your body convert food into energy, otherwise known as your metabolism.
Thyroid problems are more prevalent in women than men. In fact, the National Women's Health Information Center estimates that one U.S. woman in eight has a thyroid condition at some point in her lifetime. Many are unaware of the problem, causing the condition to go untreated.
Two of the most common thyroid problems are hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid).
When too little thyroid hormone is produced, your body converts food into energy too slowly. It's a condition called hypothyroidism, the most common kind of thyroid disorder.
The leading cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the thyroid gland, interfering with hormone production. Other causes include birth defects, damage from radiation treatments, complications from treatment for overactive thyroid, drug complications, virus of the thyroid and damage to the pituitary gland.
- • Sluggishness or fatigue
- • Sensitivity to cold
- • Constipation
- • Depression
- • Heavy menstrual periods
- • Forgetfulness
- • Dry skin and brittle hair/fingernails
- • Unexplained weight gain
Because these symptoms are common and have many possible causes, hypothyroidism often goes undetected. That's why it's important to check with your doctor if you have more than one symptom for no known reason.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The good news about hypothyroidism is that it's easy to diagnose and very treatable. Blood tests usually provide all the information your doctor needs to determine a course of treatment.
Hypothyroidism is treated with oral medication to compensate for the hormone the thyroid fails to produce. Many doctors start with a very minimal dose, adjusting it slowly to raise your hormone level into a normal range with the lowest possible dosage.
For most hypothyroidism patients, medication becomes a routine part of everyday life. There are, however, precautions to keep in mind:
- Don’t skip your medication or stop because you’re feeling better.
- • If you change brands of thyroid medication, check with your doctor.
- • Check with your doctor before starting a diet high in fiber or soy, which may affect how your body absorbs thyroid medication.
- • Thyroid medication should be taken on an empty stomach, one hour before other medications.
- • Ask your doctor for a list of dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications that should NOT be taken with thyroid medication.
While hypothyroidism is a deficiency of thyroid hormone, hyperthyroidism is its flipside. It's the condition that results when the thyroid gland is overactive, making too much of the hormone that accelerates cells' energy use. Hyperthyroidism is not as common as hypothyroidism but shares the tendency to affect women, especially over age 50.
Autoimmune disease can lead to hyperthyroidism by causing the thyroid to overproduce. Other causes include excessive doses of thyroid hormone replacement medication, non-cancerous growths on the thyroid or pituitary gland, viral infections and ovarian or testicular tumors.
Overproduction of thyroid hormone causes cells to burn fuel too quickly. Many, but not all, of the warning signs cluster around the "racing-engine" affect. Symptoms include:
- • Nervousness, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, fatigue
- • Difficulty sleeping and/or concentrating
- • Weight loss and/or increased appetite
- • Sweatiness, shaking, pounding or irregular heartbeat
- • Sensitivity to heat
- • Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
- • High blood pressure
- • Lack of menstrual periods
- • Hair loss
- • Bulging eyes
- • Bulging in the throat area (goiter)
Because hyperthyroidism can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening complications, it's important to check with your doctor if you experience several of the symptoms.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Blood tests are used to detect abnormally high levels of thyroid hormone. Your doctor may want to use diagnostic imaging such as X-rays, a CT scan or MRI to study the condition of your thyroid.
With prompt diagnosis, treatment and regular monitoring, hyperthyroidism can usually be controlled. Treatment approaches include:
- • Anti-thyroid medications to decrease thyroid hormone levels
- • Beta blocker medications to control symptoms such as rapid heart rate and anxiety
- • Surgical removal of the overactive thyroid gland
- • Radioactive iodine to hinder thyroid function
If the thyroid is removed or incapacitated with radioactive iodine treatment, thyroid hormone replacement medications are essential to help cells convert food to energy, so the body's "engine" keeps running smoothly.
This information should not be used during a medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies.
Source: Vani Kotha, MD, endocrinologist on the medical staff Texas Health HEB and A.D.A.M. which is reviewed by the American Accreditation Healthcare Commission.