Written By Jamie Fields 4th year medical student edited by Dr Elise Schroeder
The thyroid gland is a small butterfly shaped organ sitting just below the Adam’s apple at the base of the neck. The thyroid gland is responsible for producing, storing, and releasing two main hormones – T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). These two hormones circulate through the blood stream to the rest of the body. They regulate the rate of many body processes, including heart rate, body temperature, and how quickly you burn calories.
20 Million Americans are diagnosed with thyroid disease and it is estimated that 59 million people have undiagnosed thyroid problems; a large majority of them don’t even know it. Thyroid problems can affect every aspect of your health, including mood, weight, energy levels, and metabolism rates. “The thyroid is the spark plug for energy production – it controls the rate of energy production, maintains body temperature, helps regulate children’s growth, and profoundly affects brain chemistry, influencing moods and emotions” Kharrazian.
When the thyroid gland is functioning properly, the metabolic rate is maintained at a consistent level – not too fast and not too slow. When the thyroid gland does not produce enough of the thyroid hormones, it is called hypothyroid and the metabolic rate is generally slowed down. When the thyroid gland produces too many hormones, this is called hyperthyroid and the metabolic rate is generally too active.
The thyroid is regulated by a hormonally controlled feedback loop
Hormones produced by the brain regulate the thyroid gland. The hypothalamus in the brain sends Thyroid Releasing Hormone (TRH) to the pituitary gland, another location in the brain. The pituitary gland is like an air traffic controller for the body; it ensures everything in the body runs according to plan and as smoothly as possible. The pituitary gland releases Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), which travels directly to the thyroid gland. This hormone stimulates the thyroid gland to produce the two main hormones, T3 and T4.
T3 is the more active and usable form of thyroid hormone, but only 7% of the thyroid hormones produced are in the T3 form. 93% of thyroid hormone produced is T4. T4 must be converted into T3 to become useful for the body. Most of this conversion occurs in the liver, but twenty percent occurs with the help of healthy bacteria in the intestines, and the rest is converted elsewhere in the body or remains unusable.
Hypo or Hyper Thyroid? What the difference?
The two categories of thyroid disease are hypothyroid and hyperthyroid. Hypothyroidism can further be broken down into two categories – hypothyroid and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Regular hypothyroidism is the inability of the thyroid gland to produce enough T3 and T4 hormones. Potential causes for this include poor blood sugar metabolism, gut infections, adrenal problems, or hormonal imbalances. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks the thyroid gland and slowly destroys it. Over time, the thyroid cannot produce enough thyroid hormone because the gland is damaged.
Hyperthyroidism may be caused by nodular growths on the thyroid gland that produce too many hormones, various medications, cancer, or more commonly Graves Disease. Graves Disease is an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid gland continues to produce thyroid hormones even though the brain is signaling to stop production. The immune system activates the TSH receptors on the thyroid gland; this makes the thyroid believe the brain is sending TSH to produce more thyroid hormone even though the brain is not sending this signal.
How do you know if you have a thyroid problem?
Besides completing a thyroid lab test, the most important indicator is your symptoms. Symptoms of hypothyroid tend to develop slowly, often over several years. Initially, you may feel tired and sluggish, lacking energy and to accomplish daily tasks. As the disorder progresses, other signs of slowed metabolism may include weight gain regardless of food intake, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, muscle weakness, joint or muscle pain, depression, fatigue, dry skin, puffy face, hoarse voice, excessive menstrual bleeding, mental fog, poor concentration, hair loss, miscarriage when trying to conceive, loss of sex drive, brittle nails, or moodiness. You may also experience an increase in cholesterol levels, specifically LDL, which is the unhealthy type of cholesterol.
Hyperthyroidism is less common than hypothyroidism, however it is still prevalent in our society. Symptoms tend to occur slowly and are rather inconspicuous. Over time, they speed up the metabolism and produce noticeable symptoms such as weight loss regardless of food intake, eating more than normal, rapid or irregular heart beat or pounding of your heart, anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, trembling hands, increased sweating, increased sensitivity to heat, muscle weakness, frequent bowel movements or diarrhea, less frequent menstrual periods with lighter than normal menstrual flow, bulging of the eyes, warm moist palms, nervousness, or infertility. Hyperthyroidism can also cause weak brittle bones or osteoporosis.
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, please visit your health care professional to discuss your health and investigate whether the thyroid may be involved. Even if your thyroid lab results are normal, you may still have a sub-optimal functioning thyroid. Many diet and lifestyle modifications can improve and support the thyroid gland. Consult with your naturopathic physician to learn how to support your thyroid and improve your overall health and wellbeing. Or find a provider here on NUNM’s Provider Tool.
Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms by Datis Kharrazian