If you have been diagnosed with thyroid problems chances are you’re not entirely sure where your thyroid gland is, let alone what it does. The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located in the lower part of the neck, below Adam’s apple.
The size of this gland could easily fool you into underestimating the importance of the thyroid to you and your health. This wonder gland takes care of the function of each cell, tissue, organ from muscle, bones, skin to the digestive tract, brain, heart and more. The thyroid gland also controls how your body’s cells produce energy from food. This process is called metabolism. Your metabolism also has an effect on the body’s temperature, functioning of the brain, heartbeat and how well you burn calories.
The thyroid gland uses iodine to produce thyroid hormones T3 and T4. If you do not have enough thyroid hormones, your body processes slow down, making your metabolism sluggish. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the body lacks sufficient thyroid hormones to keep the body running normally. Since these hormones run the metabolism, people with this condition have symptoms associated with a slow metabolism.
The thyroid gland takes orders from the pituitary gland located in the brain. The pituitary gland is smaller than the thyroid gland and known as the master gland because it controls all the glands of the endocrine system. The pituitary gland signals thyroid gland telling it how much more or fewer thyroid hormones are to be made. These messages come in form of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH levels adjust themselves as per the needs of the body. This network of communication is highly efficient with the thyroid gland producing just the right amount of hormone to keep your system running smoothly.
Sometimes even the best network of communication can be a victim of interference such as disease or certain medicines which can break down this communication of the hormone network.
Here are some major causes from most to the least common due to which thyroid production is affected.
1. Autoimmune disease: Immunity in our body protects us from invading infections and viruses. In certain cases, immunity mistook its own body cells and attacks them thinking they are harmful. If the victim of this attack is thyroid gland cells and their enzymes, then the production of thyroid hormone is affected leading to hypothyroidism. This can begin suddenly or it can develop slowly over the years.
2. Thyroiditis: It means swelling or inflammation of the thyroid gland due to viral infection or an autoimmune attack. This inflammation does not allow the thyroid gland to function adequately and makes the thyroid dump its whole supply of stored hormones into the blood at once, causes brief periods of hyperthyroidism / overactive thyroid and then the thyroid becomes underactive i.e Hypothyroidism.
3. Surgical removal of a part or whole of the thyroid gland: Surgical removal of the thyroid gland due to thyroid cancer, graves’ disease, the accidental injury will definitely make one hypothyroid. If part of the gland is left it may be able to make thyroid hormone to keep blood levels of TSH normal.
4. Radiation treatment: People suffering from graves’ disease, nodular goitre, thyroid cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, lymphoma, cancer of the head or neck are treated with radiation with the purpose of destroying their thyroid gland. All these patients can lose a part or all of the thyroid hormones.
5. Congenital hypothyroid: Few infants have a congenital defect with the thyroid gland. Either it is absent or partly formed or they have part or all of their thyroid at the wrong place or thyroid cells and or their enzymes do not work right affecting metabolism.
6. Medicines: Certain medicines obstruct the thyroid gland to function normally affecting its hormone production. These drugs are likely to trigger hypothyroidism in patients who have a genetic tendency to autoimmune thyroid disease.
7. Too much or too little iodine. The thyroid gland makes thyroid hormones by picking up iodine from the blood. Iodine is obtaining from the food we eat. Keeping thyroid hormone production in balance requires the right amount of iodine. Taking in too much iodine can cause or worsen hypothyroidism.
8. Damage to the pituitary gland. When the pituitary is damaged by a tumour, radiation, or surgery, it may no longer be able to give the thyroid instructions and the thyroid may stop making enough hormone.
Hypothyroidism is more common nowadays and affecting at a young age than you would believe. Millions of people are currently hypothyroid and don’t know it.
It seldom causes symptoms in the early stages, but over time, untreated hypothyroidism can cause a number of health problems such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease, if untreated.
Although anyone can develop hypothyroidism, you’re at an increased risk if you:
• Are a woman older than age 60
• Have an autoimmune disease
• Have a family history of thyroid disease
• Have other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, a chronic inflammatory condition
• Have been treated with radioactive iodine or anti-thyroid medications
• Received radiation to your neck or upper chest
• Have had thyroid surgery (partial thyroidectomy)
• Have been pregnant or delivered a baby within the past six months
Untreated hypothyroidism can lead to a number of health problems:
• Goitre. The deficiency of iodine in the body can cause goitre. Constant stimulation of the thyroid gland to release more thyroid hormones may lead to enlargement of the gland leading to a condition known as goitre. Although generally not uncomfortable, a large goitre can affect your appearance and may interfere with swallowing or breathing.
• Heart problems. Hypothyroidism is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, primarily because of the elevation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in people with an underactive thyroid. Hypothyroidism can also lead to an enlarged heart and heart failure.
• Mental health issues. Depression may occur early in hypothyroidism and can also cause slowed mental functioning or lethargy.
• Peripheral neuropathy. Long-term uncontrolled hypothyroidism can cause damage to the nerves that carry information from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. Signs and symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may include pain, numbness and tingling in the area affected by the nerve damage. It may also cause muscle weakness or loss of muscle control.
• Infertility. Low levels of thyroid hormone can interfere with ovulation, which impairs fertility.
• Birth defects. Babies born to women with untreated thyroid disease may have a higher risk of birth defects than may babies born to healthy mothers. These children are also more prone to serious intellectual and developmental problems. Infants with untreated hypothyroidism present at birth are at risk of serious problems with both physical and mental development. But if this condition is diagnosed within the first few months of life, the chances of normal development are excellent.
You need to undergo a simple blood test that measures your TSH level and thyroid hormone thyroxine levels. A low level of thyroxine and a high level of TSH indicate an underactive thyroid.
Treatment is lifelong as it’s a deficiency disorder, if not supplemented then there can be permanent damage to the heart, kidney, brain.
No lifestyle transformation works as a treatment but weight control in addition to treatment is most essential.
Treatment includes supplementing the body with thyroid hormone depending on the level of hormone deficiency in the body. This oral medication restores adequate hormone levels, reversing the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Along with this supplementation adapting to healthy lifestyle pattern and maintaining ideal body weight.