Meet your thyroid
Everybody has a thyroid, yet few of us know what it does or how important it is to our overall body function. Here’s what you need to know.
The thyroid gland is often thought of as the conductor of the orchestra of the human body, as it secretes hormones that are pivotal to growth and metabolism.
“It’s involved in assisting with the regulation of body temperature and weight, growth and development, the function of the muscles, the brain and the nervous system as well as assisting in fertility and pregnancy, among many other functions,” says Dr Joel Dave, an endocrinologist based in Cape Town, South Africa.
In order to regulate these body functions, the thyroid takes iodine (which is found in many foods and helps convert food into energy) and changes it into thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). T3 and T4 are then released into the blood stream and are transported throughout the body where they control metabolism (conversion of oxygen and calories to energy).
Yet, for all its important work, most of us don’t pay much attention to this soft, butterfly-shaped gland that lies wrapped around the windpipe below the Adam’s apple. However, if something goes wrong with your thyroid, practically every system and function in your body could shift out of kilter.
The most common problems of the thyroid can be divided into two groups: an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) and an under-active thyroid (hypothyroidism), according to general practitioner Dr Heidi van Deventer.
Simply put, when you have an underactive or overactive thyroid, your metabolism either revs too high or slows way down. This, Australia’s Thyroid Clinics says, can cause some of the following problems:
o Feeling hot
o Weight loss
o Rapid heart rate and palpitations
o Irritability, anxiety or nervousness
o Menstrual problems
"Graves’ disease (an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid), benign thyroid adenomas (nodules in the thyroid that overproduce T4) and thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid) are just some of the most common causes of hyperthyroidism,” Dr Van Deventer points out.
o Dry skin or hair
o Weight gain
o Menstrual problems
o Swelling in the front of the neck (also known as a goiter)
"The most common causes of hypothyroidism include autoimmune diseases (such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), side effects of medication (especially lithium) and treatment for hyperthyroidism (radioactive iodine and surgery),” says Dr Van Deventer.
Who is affected?
A staggering 200 million people around the world have some form of thyroid disease, according to The Thyroid Foundation of Canada. Australians are affected too: in fact, 1 in 7 Australians will be affected by some form of thyroid disorder during their lifetime, with women making up the majority of diagnosed cases, according to the Australian Thyroid Foundation.
The upside is that thyroid disorders are most often easily preventable. Dr Van Deventer recommends boosting your immune system with a balanced diet and exercise, while keeping your stress levels low.
"It’s important to have enough iodine in your diet," she says, adding that using iodated table salt is one way to help boost your iodine levels. “There are also natural thyroid supplements one can use if you think your thyroid might be under pressure.”
If you're not sure about whether there may be a problem with your thyroid, it’s always best to consult you GP. But, although thyroid disease is often diagnosed by a GP, it’s usually treated, at least at the outset, by an endocrinologist like Dr Dave, who specialises in the function of glands and hormones. Once specialist treatment has started, the GP could participate in the ongoing management.
The American Thyroid Association recommends that all adults be tested beginning at age 35 and continue testing every five years.
So, why not make an appointment for your first test? It’s been proven that early screening and testing can result in a more favourable treatment outcome.
- Dr Dr Heidi van Deventer, general practitioner
- Dr Joel Dave, registered endocrinologist: http://www.thyroidclinic.co.za/
- How does your thyroid work
- Thyroid Clinic Australia
- The Thyroid Foundation of Canada, Thyroid Disease: Know the Facts
- Australian Thyroid Foundation
- The American Thyroid Association, Screening for Thyroid Cancer
- ABC Health & Wellbeing: thyroid treatment