The human body is an amazing organic machine. From the brain to the heart to the skin that covers us, these complex systems work in concert to keep us healthy and alive.
But how our bodies function isn’t just the work of well-known organs you learned about in a high school health class. Much of our anatomy’s complexity stems from smaller, seemingly less essential pieces playing a significant role in ensuring our bodies function correctly.
An example of the small, but exceedingly powerful elements of our anatomy is the thyroid gland. Though diminutive in size, the thyroid gland is a critical component in our body’s physiology.
Let’s examine this essential piece to our daily well-being and the diseases that can threaten its role in maintaining our health.
What is the Thyroid Gland?
Located in your throat, just below the voice box, the thyroid gland, or simply thyroid, is part of the endocrine system. It measures approximately two inches across and can weigh between .5 to 2 ounces.
The thyroid actually takes on the shape of a butterfly – two lobes, one left, one right, connected by an isthmus (a narrow piece of tissue). The gland is slightly larger in females and will increase in size during pregnancy owing to one of its functions as a hormone regulator.
When the thyroid is at its standard size, you can’t even feel it. Yet, its function impacts practically every cell in your body. The gland secretes three hormones:
- Calcitonin: A 32 amino acid hormone that controls calcium and phosphate levels in your blood
- Triiodothyronine (also called T3): T3 hormone is the active form thyroxine (see below) and is involved with regulating or helping to control a number of systems including the muscles, brain, heart and digestive function (and brain development), managing the body’s metabolism, and maintaining the health of bones
- Tetraiodothyronine (also called thyroxine or T4): The T4 hormone regulates the metabolism by managing the oxidation in cells.
Collectively, the hormones produced by the thyroid touch every part of the body. Its primary function is releasing these hormones into the bloodstream carrying them to cells and tissues. From there, these hormones balance how organs and cells use the nutrients we put into our bodies – transforming them into energy when necessary.
According to Dr. Jerome M. Hershman, author of the Merck Manual’s thyroid entry and a professor of medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine:
“Thyroid hormones impact a host of vital body functions, including heart rate, skin maintenance, growth, temperature regulation, fertility, and digestion.”
More specifically, the thyroid plays a role in controlling, managing, or regulating all or portions of the following:
- Assists in brain and nerve development and function
- Contributes to general growth and development in children (including during pregnancy)
- Controls weight and aides in the regulation of digestive health
- Manages heart rate and blood pressure
- Regulates body temperature
- Aides in the function of other systems including eyes, hair, and skin
Dickinson College chemistry professor Cindy Samet calls it:
“the body’s master metabolic control center.”
She adds that all of these systems:
“are at the mercy of thyroid function.”
To be sure, it’s little wonder that when something goes wrong with an individual’s thyroid gland, it can wreak a considerable amount of havoc throughout their body.
Thyroid Diseases and Conditions
Even if you were previously unsure of what precisely the thyroid did to manage your overall health and well-being, there’s little doubt you’ve heard of at least one disease or condition that can affect it.
In fact, the list of things that can go wrong with your thyroid is equally as long as what it works to support. According to the American Thyroid Association, roughly 12% of Americans will suffer from some form of thyroid condition in their lifetime.
Approximately 20% already have thyroid disease, and 60% of those individuals are unaware they have a condition. But what exactly are those conditions, and how are they treated? The following is a list of the most common thyroid concerns.
Too much production of thyroid hormone results in hyperthyroidism. Considering the bodily systems which it controls, too many hormones may result in a quickening of your body’s internal systems. This can result in anxiety or extreme nervousness, dry skin or profuse sweating, problems sleeping, rapid or irregular heartbeat, tremors in your hands, or weight loss.
Treatments vary based on severity and the age and condition of the individual – for instance, a woman who is pregnant may require specialized treatment. Most commonly, hyperthyroidism treatment includes antithyroid medications or the use of beta blockers to limit the impact of the thyroid hormone on your body.
Conversely, hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too little hormone. Lower thyroid hormone means the body’s metabolism slows down – a common medical condition in the US.
Hypothyroidism is commonly an inflammation of the gland itself, which can damage the gland leaving it unable to produce sufficient amounts of hormone. Included as a subset of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, the most common thyroid disorder in the US, affecting upwards of 14 million people.
While symptoms vary from person to person, they can appear as skin related issues (dry, pale, or puffy) or through stiffness and swelling, weight gain, and tiredness. Most individuals who suffer from Hashimoto’s only require monitoring from a doctor. Advanced hypothyroidism may require daily medication or hormone replacement therapy.
A goiter is the inflammation or enlargement of your thyroid. Goiters may develop due to the entire gland swelling or the appearance of multiple nodules (thyroid nodules, which themselves may be benign or potentially cancerous). In either case, someone who develops goiters may experience symptoms in line with hyper- or hypothyroidism, or none at all.
Goiters can appear due to a deficiency in iodine – rare in the US – or from the conditions associated with the other ailments on our list. Treatment is determined by the severity, and as with symptoms, no treatment may be necessary aside from simple monitoring by a doctor.
Graves disease – its name derived from the doctor, Robert Graves, who first identified it – is an autoimmune condition where the thyroid produces too much hormone or hyperthyroidism. Graves disease leads to your immune system creating too many antibodies (which fight infection or foreign substances in the body).
Symptoms may be hard to identify as they are often confused for other ailments. Anxiety, chest pains, difficulty breathing, eye and vision problems, goiters, irregular menstrual cycles, muscle weakness, or weight loss without reduction of appetite are all signs of Grave’s disease. Treatment targets controlling the overproduction of thyroid hormones.
Although not as common as other forms of cancer – roughly 52,000 new cases of thyroid cancer have been reported this year – its rate of diagnoses is rising, with women more likely to be diagnosed than men.
Thyroid cancer often appears with few to any symptoms, the most notable being an abnormal lump in the neck. In some instances, changes in voice or hoarseness accompanies the lump. Pain is rare, and the majority of nodules discovered in the thyroid are benign – less than 1% turn out to be cancerous.
There are four types of thyroid cancer. The most common is papillary, with 80% of cases taking this form. The other three, less common forms include follicular or Hurthle, Medullary, and Anaplastic.
Highly curable, thyroid cancer has several treatments, which, like other cancers, depends on the stage and severity of the cancer. Options include removal of the thyroid, either through a single lobe (lobectomy) or the entire thyroid gland (thyroidectomy). Surgery may also include removal of adjacent lymph nodes.
Additional treatments may include radioactive iodine therapy, hormone therapy (after removal of the gland), and external beam radiation (to treat medullary or anaplastic). Chemotherapy is less effective against thyroid cancer versus other forms.
How to Maintain Your Thyroid’s Health
Although thyroid disease is a sobering reminder of just how fragile our health can be, there are steps you can take to ensure your thyroid remains healthy and functioning correctly.
A healthy thyroid requires a delicate balance of iodine to ensure proper production of hormones. As Cindy Samet points out, it doesn’t require much:
“It turns out that one teaspoonful of iodine is enough for a lifetime of thyroid hormone production. But the thyroid gland needs a constant supply of iodine, so we must intake iodine in some form on a daily basis and not all at once,” she said.
To her last point, as we previously pointed out, too much iodine may result in limited hormone production by the thyroid gland, which can lead to hypothyroidism.
Keeping thyroid hormone production within normal ranges, however, falls in line with a lot of other healthy habits – eat a balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet and stay away from processed foods or foods with high sugars, preservatives, or trans fats. If you use salt, make sure it’s iodized.
Additionally, work to manage and reduce your stress levels and find time to fit in regular aerobic exercise to promote hormone circulation.
As with every other system in your body, a better understanding of the small, but powerful thyroid will help you better manage it. By doing so, you’ll also ensure a much healthier and happier you.