The thyroid is part of the endocrine system and is frequently referred to as a butterfly shaped gland. Situated in the lower neck just below the Adam's apple and wrapped around the windpipe, it is composed of two lobes surrounding the isthmus (the bridge between both lobes). Each lobe preforms the same function, and like the kidneys can take over the work load should anything go wrong with the other lobe. Though small in size, weighing approximately 1oz, it plays a vital role in body function as it affects every cell in the body.
The single function of the thyroid is to produce hormones which are released into the blood stream. Thyroid hormones regulate energy levels and reproduction of all cells. For instance, it helps the body stay warm and keeps the heart, brain, muscles and all organs fully operational so that we can feel well and remain in good health.
THYROXINE (T4) and TRIIODOTHYRONINE (T3)
Your brain (more specifically, the hypothalamus) signals your pituitary gland (a pea size master endocrine gland below the base of the brain) to produce the hormone TSH. This in turn tells the thyroid gland to makes two hormones, thyroxine ( T4 ) and triiodothyronine (T3), which are collectively called ‘thyroid hormone’. T3 and T4 ultimately control metabolism and how much energy is required by different systems in the body. The pituitary gland reads the amount of thyroid hormones in the blood stream and increases or decreases production of T3 and T4, based on the levels detected.
As mentioned earlier the thyroid affects every cell in the body, it therefore follows that there are numerous symptoms that could indicate imbalance.
HYPOTHYROIDISM (under active thyroid)
Hypothyroidism, or an under active thyroid, is considered one of the most common health problems in the US. Simply put, it means that there is not enough thyroid hormone (T3 and/or T4) in the body. Hypothyroidism can present in varying stages from mild and moderate to severe.
The low levels of thyroid hormones reduce the activity and the ability of the body to regenerate cells. Iodine insufficiency in the developing world is a primary cause of hypothyroid. In the developed world, Hashimotos' disease is responsible for up to 80% of cases according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Women are five times more likely to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism and the odds increase with age.
Hashimoto's disease is caused by abnormal auto bodies, whereby white blood cells attack your thyroid cells. This is often a very slow progression, and frequently goes undetected for years. Many of the symptoms can be attributed to aging and as result the condition goes undetected. This is why information and self-advocacy can lead to the detection of these anomalies that can hinder optimal health, and in turn cause further health complications.
Listed below are some of the many symptoms of an under active thyroid.
- Cardiovascular changes
- Cold Sensitivity
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Weight gain in the absence of dietary or exercise changes
- Enlarged Thyroid Gland frequently referred to as ‘Goiter’
- General Fatigue even when you have slept
- Brittle nails, and ridging may present
- Hair Changes. The hair frequently becomes dry and brittle with obvious sings of thinning, these symptoms are what brings many women in particular to seek the help of a Trichologist. Detailed questioning can yield further information about changes in body hair growth, for example eyebrow, leg, arm and pubic hair.
- Elevated Cholesterol
- From the perspective of the Trichologist the concern is that while this is never ideal for normal body metabolism the possibility of anemia or low iron (due to heavy periods) could greatly contribute to hair loss and density changes.
- Muscle Cramping
- Memory changes and difficulty concentrating
- Dry, rough and itchy skin
HYPERTHYROIDISM (over active thyroid)
Hyperthyroidism, or over active thyroid, is as a result of the overproduction of the thyroid hormones T3 and T4.
A very large percentage of all hyperthyroidism is caused by Graves' disease - an autoimmune disease. This condition occurs when your immune system considers the thyroid as a danger and starts to attack it. Thyroid Stimulating Immunoglobulin antibodies are produced with no controlling factors and unlike TSH which responds to the levels of T3 and T4 in the blood, TSI causes and signals the thyroid to produce too much T3 and T4 hormone.
Listed below are some of the many symptoms that could signal an overactive thyroid.
- Weight loss in the absence of dietary restrictions and exercise
- Hand Tremors
- Difficulty focusing and concentrating
- Frequent bowel movements/ typically loose
- Thinning hair and excess loss/shedding
- Increase in sweating
- Heart palpitations
- Dry eyes
- Thyroid growths called Goiters
- Enlarged protruding eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Menstrual problems
General and conventional wisdom suggests that if you can say yes to three or more of the symptoms on either list it is time to speak with your doctor and discuss the need for a thorough evaluation.
Some general dietary advice that not only speaks to general health but is thyroid specific includes avoiding where possible artificial chemicals and toxins found in processed foods. It is not the single serving that is the issue but long term accumulation and ingestion that can impede thyroid function, a classic example of this is mercury. Because mercury is chemically similar to iodine the thyroid will store it and it can potentially trigger a thyroid autoimmune disease such as Graves' or Hashimoto's.
As is the case with all potential health challenges, getting a proper diagnosis, establishing a treatment protocol, and following up is particularly important with a thyroid condition.