If you’ve never suffered from thyroid issues, chances are you know very little about this butterfly shaped gland located in the front of the neck. But even though it may be tiny, the thyroid influences almost every cell in the body that depend upon thyroid hormones for regulation of their metabolism. In fact, every cell has receptors for thyroid hormones that impact heart and digestive function, body’s temperature regulation, brain development and function, bone and red blood cell production and maintenance, liver function, muscle control, steroid hormone production as well as glucose, lipids and proteins metabolism.
WHAT DOES IT DO?
The main function of the thyroid gland is to produce the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). T3 and T4 are then released into the blood stream and are transported around the body where they control metabolism (which is essentially the conversion of oxygen and calories to energy). Thyroid cells produce these hormones by combining iodine with and the amino acid tyrosine. About 80% of the production is thyroxine (T4) but being not as strong or active as triiodothyronine (T3), it gets converted from this inactive form to the active one by organs such as the liver and kidneys after being released into the bloodstream.
HOW DOES IT FUNCTION?
The levels of thyroid hormones circulating in the body are regulated by a specific mechanism. The thyroid gland is part of the “hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis” that controls thyroid hormone secretion by a negative feedback loop. This means that the hypothalamus, pituitary and thyroid glands are all connected and work together to maintain balance. It starts with the secretion of the thyroid-releasing hormone (TRH) from the hypothalamus that stimulates the release of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) from the pituitary, which consequently triggers thyroid hormones release. As blood concentrations of thyroid hormones increase, they inhibit both TSH and TRH, so that thyroid cells stop their hormone production. And when blood levels of thyroid hormone fall too low, the negative feedback signal stops, and the system activates again.
Now if everything is working properly, you will have the necessary amounts of T3 and T4. But if there are imbalances or issues within the system, you will soon start to feel the consequences. If T3 is inadequate, either by low production or improper conversion from T4, symptoms of thyroid sufferance may appear. T3 levels can be disrupted by numerous causes such as stress, infections, high toxins or heavy metals load, nutritional imbalances, allergens but also genetic predisposition or immune conditions can play a role.
The two main thyroid related diseases that people are mostly affected with are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism, a decrease or lack of thyroid hormones slows down the body’s metabolism and can cause sluggishness, fatigue, weight gain, depressive states and heart complications in extreme cases.
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis where the immune system produces antibodies that attack thyroid tissues. But it could also be a consequence of problems in the conversion from inactive T4 to active T3, problems in the mechanisms of TSH or TRH secretions by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus as well as certain medications or radiation therapy. Some of the common symptoms of hypothyroidism are fatigue, loss of energy, decreased appetite, cold intolerance, dry skin, hair loss, muscle and joint pain, weight gain, menstrual disturbances and impaired fertility.
Hyperthyroidism instead, occurs when the thyroid gland produces excessive amounts of thyroid hormone, resulting in acceleration of the body’s metabolic rate resulting in increased heart rate, anxious states and often weight loss. The main cause is an autoimmune condition called Grave’s disease where the immune system makes antibodies that act like TSH causing the thyroid to overproduce its hormones. Other causes can be abnormal secretion of TSH, thyroiditis (an inflammation of the thyroid), excessive iodine intake or excessive intake of thyroid hormones.
Some of the symptoms observed in hyperthyroidism include hyperactivity, palpitations, nervousness, anxiety, weight loss despite increased appetite, reduction in menstrual flow or absence of menstruation and heat intolerance.
WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?
A diet that focuses on nourishing your body with the nutrients it needs, exercise and staying active, taking care of your mind by finding time to relax and pause are all important factors in reducing the risk of thyroid imbalances. But if you’re diagnosed with a thyroid condition, it’s very important to consult a doctor to decide a treatment plan that can include medication. Thyroid disease can gradually interfere with your quality of life and if left untreated progress and become worse having detrimental consequences on your health and the performance of normal daily activities. So refer to a specialist and work on a medical and lifestyle plan that is unique to you and will improve and support your physical and mental wellbeing.