Know your Thyroid Gland and How to take care of it
The month of January is regarded as National ‘Thyroid Awareness Month’ that aims to bring to public attention the need to take good care of the important tiny gland in the neck known as Thyroid. The entire month is used to make people aware of the diseases associated with this gland as it is very important for the timely diagnosis of different health ailments.
The World Health Organization estimates about 750 million people around the world suffer from a thyroid malfunction. Women are up to eight times more likely to experience disorders than men.
Relevance of Awareness
According to the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism an estimated 42 million people in India are suffering from thyroid diseases. Out of this, over 20 per cent women in India live with an undiagnosed thyroid problem and do not even realize that it is the cause of various health issues including infertility, health experts have noted. Moreover, the global prevalence of thyroid disorders are also on the rise day by day. Hence it becomes essential to become aware of one’s thyroid and its relationship to health — and how best to take care of it.
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the base of the neck just below the Adam's apple. Although relatively small, the thyroid gland influences the function of many of the body’s most important organs, including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and skin. Ensuring that the thyroid gland is healthy and functioning properly is important to the body's overall well-being.
Role of the Thyroid
Thyroid gland is the most crucial determiner of a person’s metabolic rate and energy. The thyroid as part of the endocrine system, keeps the metabolism under control through the action of thyroid hormones - which it makes by extracting iodine from the blood and incorporating it into its hormones. Thyroid cells are unique in that they are highly specialized to absorb and use iodine. Every other cell depends on the thyroid to manage its metabolism.
“The main role of the thyroid is to produce and release the hormones that your body uses to determine how much energy to use,” says Dr Hussein Saadi, chief of the Medical Subspecialties Institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. The hypothalamus of the brain produces the thyroid-releasing hormone (TRH), which stimulates the pituitary gland to produce thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). That prompts the thyroid to produce and secrete thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) hormones into the bloodstream.
Thyroid Hormones and Functions
The two main hormones the thyroid produces and releases are T3 (tri-iodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine). A thyroid that is functioning normally produces approximately 80% T4 and about 20% T3, though T3 is the stronger of the pair. To a lesser extent, the thyroid also produces calcitonin, which helps control blood calcium levels
These hormones are crucial for the optimal functioning of the brain, kidneys as well as liver alongside playing a vital role in the growth and development of the body. They also help in breathing, regulating the cholesterol level, body weight, improving muscle strength and maintaining heart rate.
There are many diseases and disorders associated with the thyroid. Overactivity or underactivity of the gland may lead to a hormonal imbalance in the body that would be evident through various symptoms. They can develop at any age and can result from a variety of causes—injury, disease, or dietary deficiency, for instance. But in most cases, it can be briefly summarised as:
- Too much (hyperthyroidism)or too little - ( hypothyroidism) of thyroid hormones
- Abnormal thyroid growth
- Nodules or lumps within the thyroid
- Thyroid cancer
Common Thyroid Disorders
Hyperthyroidism: Hyperthyroidism is caused by too much thyroid hormone due to an over active thyroid. People with hyperthyroidism are often sensitive to heat, hyperactive, and eat excessively. The symptoms include anxiety, shaking, weight loss, irritability, restlessness, nervousness, trouble in sleeping etc. Goiter is sometimes a side effect of hyperthyroidism; due to an over-stimulated thyroid and inflamed tissues. Hyperthyroidism is often diagnosed by checking the levels of TSH and T4 - an increased level of T4 and a low level of TSH can usually confirm the condition.
Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is a common condition characterized by too little thyroid hormone due to the inactivity of the gland. This may lead to symptoms like depression, memory problems, dry skin, constipation, dry skin, weight gain, slow heart rate etc. In infants, the condition is known as cretinism which has very serious side effects, including abnormal bone formation and mental retardation. If hypothyroidism is detected as an adult, one may experience sensitivity to cold, little appetite, and overall sluggishness. Low levels of thyroid hormone can interfere with ovulation, which impairs fertility, experts point out. Hypothyroidism often goes unnoticed, sometimes for years, before being diagnosed. A high TSH level and low T4 mostly confirms the condition.
Goiter: A goiter is a bulge in the neck- a toxic goiter is associated with hyperthyroidism, and a non-toxic goiter, also known as a simple or endemic goiter, is caused by iodine deficiency.
Solitary thyroid nodules: Solitary nodules, or lumps, in the thyroid are actually quite common—in fact, it’s estimated that more than half the population will have a nodule in their thyroid. The great majority of nodules are benign. Usually, a fine needle aspiration biopsy (FNA) will determine if the nodule is cancerous.
Thyroid cancer: Thyroid cancer is fairly common, though long-term survival rates are excellent. Occasionally, symptoms such as hoarseness, neck pain, and enlarged lymph nodes occur in people with thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer can affect anyone at any age, though women and people over thirty are most likely to develop the condition.
Thyroiditis: This is an inflammation of the thyroid that may be associated with abnormal thyroid function, particularly hyperthyroidism. Inflammation can cause the thyroid’s cells to die, making the thyroid unable to produce enough hormones to maintain the body's normal metabolism. There are several types of thyroiditis, and the treatment is specific to each.
Hashimoto’s disease: This condition of thyroiditis occurs when the body’s own immune cells attack the thyroid gland by mistake rendering it unable to produce hormones anymore. Also known as Chronic Lymphocytic Thyroiditis, it can affect anyone regardless of age though it’s is most common in middle aged women. The condition is characterised by fatigue. dry skin, thinning of hair, constipation among others.
Measures for a healthy thyroid
- Follow a healthy diet with fresh, organic food
- Steer clear of processed foods, added sugars, dyes, chemicals, preservatives
- Get diagnosed and take supplements if required according to medical advice
- Stay away from environmental toxins
- Proper exercise can help keeping the body fit.
(The author is Director- TGL, Chairperson CSA, Sr Dir, FWO, Editor - The International Journal)