January is Thyroid Awareness Month. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland found in the front of the neck. When functioning properly the thyroid often gets little attention. However, a malfunction can have a profound impact on health and wellness. The thyroid gland regulates the human body and its metabolic processes much like a thermostat regulates a furnace or a gas pedal regulates an automobile engine. In other words, the thyroid gland, by producing thyroid hormones, affects how our cells use energy. Like the gas pedal, thyroid hormones increase the body’s metabolic rate. In fact, most of your cells have receptors for the thyroid hormones which means that the thyroid has an enormous effect on our body. The thyroid regulates body temperature, it influences brain health, heart function, muscle strength, bone density, and much, much more.
The thyroid hormones have powerful effects and so the thyroid must be carefully controlled by the body. Too little thyroid hormone and key processes around the body slow to a crawl. Too much thyroid hormone and the same processes rev dangerously high. Dr. Liz Zurich, D.O. from Sheboygan Internal Medicine Associates explains, “While the thyroid gland controls many processes in the body, it is itself controlled by other glands.” That control comes down from the pituitary gland in the brain in the form of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) As the name implies, TSH signals the thyroid gland to release two hormones. One is triiodothyronine, also known as T3, and the other is thyroxine, also known as T4. Just as the thermostat in a house signals the furnace to shut off when the house is getting too warm, the release of T3 and T4 into the bloodstream signals the pituitary gland to stop producing TSH. This type of control forms an elegant loop known as a feedback loop.
Imagine a malfunctioning thermostat leading to either an overworked furnace or a furnace that will not kick on when needed. Dr. Zurich says, “The thyroid gland can malfunction in a similar way, becoming either underactive or overactive. We call these disease states hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.” When normal thyroid function is disrupted many essential metabolic processes can also become either underactive or overactive and lead to profound negative health effects.
Dr. Zurich says, “There are several causes of hyperthyroidism, such as inflammation, viral infection, or cancer, but most cases are caused by Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder in which immune antibodies overstimulate the cells of the thyroid.” This results in an enlarged and hyperactive thyroid that is producing too much T3 and T4. This condition is most common between the ages of 30 and 50 and afflicts women more than men. Because the thyroid influences so much that goes on in the body it is no surprise that almost every organ can be affected by hyperthyroidism. It is also no surprise that the list of hyperthyroid symptoms are diverse:
The numerous and diverse symptoms associated with thyroid dysfunction means that, sometimes, other health issues can resemble thyroid dysfunction. The thyroid may unfairly take the blame. Your physician is best equipped to help you determine if you have a health issue related to the thyroid gland. Dr. Zurich says, “When we want to test for thyroid dysfunction we can check the levels of TSH, T3, and T4. These levels can tell us if the thyroid is overactive or underactive. We may also test for the relevant antibodies in cases where Graves’ disease is suspected.”
The best course of treatment for hyperthyroidism is determined by the patient and his/her physician. In some cases, it is necessary for the patient to have their thyroid gland ablated, or removed. Thyroid hormone replacements are then taken to maintain normal levels. “Treatment for Grave’s disease, or other cases of hyperthyroidism, include anti-thyroid medications, surgery, or radioactive iodine,” said Dr. Zurich.
Observe thyroid awareness month with an appreciation of the important role the thyroid gland plays in our health and wellness.