What are the signs and symptoms of Thyroid problems?
For as long as I can remember, my mother has been struggling with her thyroid health. She suffered from all of the normal symptoms - weight gain, hair loss, dry skin, fatigue, etc. These frustrating traits were starting to impact both her physical and mental health the longer they continued and the worse they got but were always attributed to other health concerns. A few years ago, however, my mother was fed up with these symptoms, so she decided to do her own research. Knowing our family history of thyroid problems, my mother looked online and found that almost all of her symptoms sounded like something called hypothyroidism or an underactive thyroid gland. Armed with new info to bring to her doctor, they ran some tests and determined that she was in fact, suffering from hypothyroidism. Nowadays, my mom is taking thyroid medications to help alleviate some of her symptoms, but I always wondered what her life would be like if she had never done the research into her thyroid health.
The first step she took, should be the first step everyone takes - start with recognizing the signs and symptoms of thyroid conditions.
How the Thyroid Works
A member of the endocrine system, the thyroid gland, which is shaped like a butterfly and located at the front of the neck just below the Adam's apple, plays a role in controlling heart rate, metabolism, muscle, and digestive function, brain development, and bone health. It does this by releasing a steady amount of thyroid hormones(Triiodothyronine or T3, and Tetraiodothyronine, also called thyroxine or T4) into the bloodstream as the body needs it. These hormones are created from iodine extracted from our diets. We use these thyroid hormones for energy and for basic human functions such as regulating body temperature, breath and heart rate, cholesterol, and the nervous system. Certain instances require more of these hormones to be released such as pregnancy or being exposed to extreme cold.
When healthy and working properly, the typical thyroid function essentially works like this:
It all starts with thepituitary gland - The pituitary gland sometimes referred to as the "master gland", is located at the bottom of our brains and produces its own hormones in addition to telling all of our other glands what hormones to produce. One of the hormones that the pituitary gland secretes is called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which is released into the blood and tells the thyroid gland how much triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine(T4) to produce. The pituitary gland produces more or less TSH by detecting T3 and T4 levels in our blood, and by responding to signals from the hypothalamus, which sits above the pituitary gland in the brain. The hypothalamus produces thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH), which then tells the pituitary gland to produce TSH, which then tells the thyroid to create thyroid hormones.
TSH reaches the thyroid gland - After the pituitary gland tells our thyroid gland how much triiodothyronine and thyroxine to produce, enzymes in our liver, brain, and kidney tissue start to transform the inactive thyroxine into the active triiodothyronine through a process called deiodination (enzymatic conversion). According to an educational source from the Society for Endocrinology, "The thyroid gland produces just 20% of the high active T3, but it produces 80% of the prohormone T4." Our bodies require both triiodothyronine and thyroxine to regulate our metabolism which entails how fast we process food, how fast our heartbeats, our body temperature, and much more.
Functioning on a feedback loop - The way in which the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus, and the thyroid gland interact with each other is sometimes referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis (HPT) and it functions on a reactive loop. The Society for Endocrinology explains that this loop works to keep thyroid hormone levels stable in our bodies "This hormone production system is regulated by a feedback loop so that when the levels of the thyroid hormones (thyroxine and triiodothyronine) increase, they prevent the release of both thyrotropin-releasing hormone and thyroid-stimulating hormone."
This process occurs in a healthy, balanced body, with a properly functioning thyroid gland. When thyroid hormone levels are out of wack, or a miscommunication between the HPT axis occurs, some serious health problems could start to arise.
Common Thyroid Problems & Symptoms
When triiodothyronine and thyroxine levels become too high or low, the pituitary gland, hypothalamus, or the thyroid gland itself become damaged, the following thyroid disorders can occur:
Hyperthyroidism- Hyperthyroidism occurs because your body is producing too much thyroxine. According to the Mayo Clinic, common symptoms of hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid include:
Unintentional weight loss, even when your appetite and food intake stay the same or increase
Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) — commonly more than 100 beats a minute
Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
Pounding of your heart (palpitations)
Nervousness, anxiety, and irritability
Tremor — usually a fine trembling in your hands and fingers
Changes in menstrual patterns
Increased sensitivity to heat
Changes in bowel patterns, especially more frequent bowel movements
An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), which may appear as a swelling at the base of your neck
Fatigue, muscle weakness
Fine, brittle hair
There could be several reasons that your body could produce too much T4, including:
Graves' disease - Graves' disease is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system produces antibodies that stimulate the thyroid into producing too much thyroxine or T4.
Overactive thyroid nodules - Sometimes, our thyroid glands can have lumps on them called adenomas that can also produce thyroid hormones. In some cases of hyperthyroidism, adenomas are the cause of the overproduction of T4.
Thyroiditis - Thyroiditis is the inflammation of the thyroid gland, which can occur after pregnancy or due to autoimmune disorders. When the thyroid gland is inflamed, excess thyroxine could be released into the bloodstream.
Hypothyroidism - Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, is the opposite of hyperthyroidism, wherein the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormones. The Mayo Clinic says that those with hypothyroidism may experience the following symptoms:
Increased sensitivity to cold
Elevated blood cholesterol level
Muscle aches, tenderness, and stiffness
Pain, stiffness, or swelling in your joints
Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
Slowed heart rate
Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)
These symptoms usually develop over a number of years and may be attributed to other health concerns or age, making hypothyroidism slightly more difficult to catch and treat. One may develop hypothyroidism for a number of reasons including:
Hashimoto's thyroiditis - Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system produces antibodies that attack the thyroid gland and cause swelling and inflammation. The thyroid gland then produces less T3 and T4, leading to hypothyroidism.
Thyroid surgery- Some individuals need to have part of or all of the thyroid gland removed, thus preventing the gland from producing the necessary thyroid hormones. These individuals often have to take supplemental hormones for the rest of their life.
Radiation treatments - According to the Mayo Clinic, "radiation used to treat cancers of the head and neck can affect your thyroid gland and may lead to hypothyroidism."
Over-response to hyperthyroidism treatment - Sometimes those with hyperthyroidism are given radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications to slow the overproduction of thyroid hormones. After the thyroid returns to normal, however, treatment can go too far and permanently cause hypothyroidism.
If you believe that you are experiencing signs or symptoms of a thyroid problem, talk to your doctor about getting tested and possible treatment options. They will likely order a blood test to test for thyroid hormones levels in the blood. This test is referred to as a thyroid function test, and tests for both thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine in the blood. According to the National Health Service, "A high level of TSH and a low level of T4 in the blood could mean you have an underactive thyroid. If your test results show raised TSH but normal T4, you may be at risk of developing an underactive thyroid in the future."
How to Support a Healthy Thyroid
If you're at risk of developing a thyroid disease or have already been diagnosed with one, there are changes you can make to your routine and treatment options available that can help support healthy thyroid function and a healthy lifestyle. Talk to your healthcare provider before adding any dietary supplement or medication to your routine to prevent unwanted interactions with preexisting conditions or medications.
Change up Your Diet - Eating a well-balanced, healthy meal is good for anyone, but especially if you want to support your thyroid health. The foods you should eat and avoid vary depending on if you have an overactive or underactive thyroid.
There are certain supplements and vitamins that you can add to your routine to help support both a healthy lifestyle and healthy thyroid function! If you're looking to add a thyroid support supplement to your routine, always talk to your doctor first, and look for the following ingredients:
Selenium - Selenium is naturally found in the thyroid at high levels, and a deficiency can lead to thyroid problems. This mineral helps protect the thyroid gland from oxidative stress.
Iodine - As mentioned before, the thyroid gland requires iodine to produce thyroid hormones, which is why it's vital to get enough through our diet and supplements. While iodine deficiency is rare in western countries, it has been linked to thyroid disease.
Zinc - Zinc is involved in thyroid health in a couple of ways. First, it is required to make TSH or thyroid-stimulating hormone, which is required to create the thyroid hormones triiodothyronine and thyroxine. Additionally, zinc is used in the deiodination process that converts thyroxine into triiodothyronine that our body uses for energy.
Iron - Iron, like zinc, is another mineral required by the body to convert T4 into T3. Iron deficiency has been linked to hypothyroidism and thyroid disease.
B vitamins - More specifically, vitamin B12, can be important for thyroid health as it "plays an important role in red cell metabolism". Plus, low levels of vitamin B12 have been linked to thyroid disorders, with one study showing that out of 116 participants with hypothyroidism, about 40% were deficient in vitamin B12 as well.
Bladderwrack - Bladderwrack is a type of brown seaweed that contains high levels of iodine, which is required to produce thyroid hormones.
Thyroid Treatment and Medications
Your doctor may recommend further medical treatments to support your thyroid and overall health. Those who have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid are usually prescribed a synthetic thyroid hormone medication. According to the Mayo Clinic, "This oral medication restores adequate hormone levels, reversing the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism." For those who have been diagnosed with an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism, there are several treatment options that you and your doctor may discuss:
Radioactive iodine - In this treatment, radioactive iodine is taken orally to shrink the size of the thyroid gland. Results are usually seen within several months.
Anti-thyroid medications - Medications like methimazole and propylthiouracil work by preventing the thyroid gland from producing excessive amounts of thyroid hormones.
Surgery (thyroidectomy) - Certain individuals that cannot handle anti-thyroid medications or radioactive iodine ingestion may be candidates to have part of their thyroid gland surgically removed. There are normal surgical risks involved with this procedure, but also the fact that after the removal, medication needs to be taken every day in order to maintain normal hormone levels.
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