Most people go through life relatively unaware of the thyroid gland as long as it functions properly. There are two main things that can generally go wrong with this important gland and both relate to the hormones it produces. When it is overactive, too many hormones are released. An under-active thyroid, on the other hand, produces too few. In either scenario, symptoms result and treatment is required to balance hormone production.
The thyroid plays such an important role in infant and childhood development that those born without a thyroid or those born with a malfunctioning thyroid receive immediate treatment. This butterfly shaped gland is located at the base of the throat, just below the Adam’s Apple, and it is part of the endocrine system. Under normal circumstances, its presence is invisible, but the gland plays an important role in growth and development, and in regulating one’s metabolism.
Problems with the thyroid in infancy can result in serious health complications: a form of severe mental retardation called cretinism, or extremely stunted growth resulting in dwarfism. Infants are tested for healthy thyroid functioning shortly after being born to address any complications quickly. Babies with an under-active thyroid tend to be extremely quiet, inactive, and lacking an appetite. They sleep much more than healthy babies do. Throughout infancy and childhood, the hormones released by the thyroid directly affect healthy growth and proper development.
After the body is fully developed, the thyroid continues to be crucial to well-being. In adults, the most common conditions that arise are hyperthyroidism, which means the thyroid is producing more hormones than the body needs, and hypothyroidism, which means it is not producing enough hormones. While there are several different hormones produced by the gland, the main ones it makes are called T3 and T4. Different parts of the brain regulate the thyroid’s activity: the pituitary gland, located deep within the brain, and the hypothalamus. These two parts of the brain interact with one another to regulate levels of the two hormones tr-iodothyronine, T3, and thyroxine, T4. When these are out of balance, symptoms occur that make treatment necessary.
Other things can go wrong with the thyroid gland besides over- and under-activity, include goiters, solitary thyroid nodules, a condition called thyroiditis and thyroid cancer. Goiters present as a visible bulge in the neck, and the condition can either be toxic or non-toxic. A toxic goiter is most often associated with hyperthyroidism, while a non-toxic goiter is usually caused by iodine deficiency. Solitary thyroid nodules, a condition experienced by about half of all people at some point in their lives, are lumps on the neck. Most are harmless, but a biopsy is sometimes needed to ensure the nodule is not made up of cancer cells. Thyroiditis, or inflammation of the thyroid, is most often associated with hyperthyroidism. There are several different types of thyroiditis, and treatment for the condition varies by type. Thyroid cancer generally presents as hoarseness, pain, and swollen lymph nodes, but generally has high long-term survival rates.
In the absence of physical signs, such as a swollen thyroid, symptoms of an overactive thyroid can include sensitivity to heat, hyperactivity, and excessive hunger. The body’s metabolism speeds up and so do other processes. For that reason, a person with an overactive thyroid may experience anxiety, nervousness, mood swings, tremors, sweating, irregular heart patterns, and sleep problems. They are also likely to lose weight. A simple blood test is necessary to test hormone levels, and if the thyroid is overactive, treatments include medications that slow down hormone production. Because so many of the symptoms of an overactive thyroid can mimic symptoms of psychological disorders, it is important to test the thyroid levels to rule out hyperthyroidism before just addressing the anxiety and mood swings.
Signs of an under-active thyroid, on the other hand, include symptoms like being sensitive to cold, having little or no energy, and having a poor appetite. Because the signs of hypothyroidism mimic some signs of depression, such as tiredness and a lack of appetite, when a person receives treatment for an under-active thyroid, their moods often improve and their energy returns. As with hyperthyroidism, tests are important to ensure a thyroid problem isn’t being mistaken for a psychological disorder. A general practitioner can administer the required tests to check thyroid levels.
The thyroid, through generally unnoticed, plays a huge role in general well-being throughout life. The hormones it produces affect so many different body systems that a problem with the thyroid, if left untreated, can negatively affect the quality of a person’s life. Routine blood tests do not always check thyroid nor do they always catch problems associated with the thyroid. If a person has several symptoms of hyper- or hypothyroidism, an endocrinologist consult can help determine whether the thyroid is functioning properly or not.
Dr. Maggie Garvin, ND conducts this 1-hour mini course on understanding your Thyroid for $9.99. It can be found here: http://a-well-run-life.thinkific.com/courses/AHappyHouronHormones