Understanding your thyroid gland, aka ‘the shield’

thyroid

The thyroid gland got its name from the Greek word for “shield,” inspired by its physical appearance in the neck. In many ways, it acts like a shield by protecting our bodies from losing functional balance. The gland produces and releases thyroid hormone, which is crucial in regulating metabolism — digestion, weight, temperature regulation and reproduction all are affected.

The thyroid works like a thermostat via its connection with the brain. If there is not enough thyroid hormone in the bloodstream, the brain will stimulate the thyroid gland to produce and release more. Blood tests are an easy way to detect both the level of thyroid hormone circulating in the blood — generally free thyroxine (T4) — and the stimulating signal from the brain (TSH, or thyroid stimulating hormone). The most common thyroid problems involve abnormal production.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is the term used to describe an underactive thyroid.

Symptoms include:
• Fatigue
• Feeling colder than usual
• Changes in skin and hair
• Weight gain

Causes
A common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder in which cells in the body prevent the thyroid from producing and releasing enough thyroid hormone. Other causes include surgical removal of the thyroid gland for thyroid cancer; treatment of hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland) with radioactive iodine; or being born with an underactive thyroid gland.

Treatment
The treatment for hypothyroidism is to replace thyroid hormone in the form of a pill taken once a day, preferably by itself and on an empty stomach so that it is fully absorbed. The dose is easily adjusted based on blood tests.

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism describes an overactive thyroid gland.

Symptoms include:
• Increased sweating
• Heart palpitations
• Increased anxiety
• Diarrhea
• Weight loss

Causes
A number of conditions can cause hyperthyroidism. Opposite to hypothyroidism, cells in the bloodstream called antibodies make the thyroid gland secrete an excessive amount of thyroid hormone.

Treatments
The two most common treatments for hyperthyroidism are radioactive iodine and medication. Radioactive iodine works by destroying part of the thyroid gland to restore a normal level of thyroid hormone in the body; however, it is possible that hypothyroidism may then develop. Radioactive iodine has the benefit of generally being a more permanent treatment, although medications used to treat hyperthyroidism can be very effective in certain people, too. Just as in hypothyroidism, blood tests should be done routinely to monitor treatment.

Thyroid cancer

Thyroid cancer can develop and, in the majority of cases, is curable by surgical removal of the thyroid gland by an experienced surgeon. Radioactive iodine may be used after surgery to destroy any small remaining cancer cells. An endocrinologist should be directly involved in monitoring care.

Extremes of thyroid function can certainly have an impact on your quality of life; the beauty is that with the correct diagnosis and management, these conditions can be greatly improved!

Information provided by Dr. Gregory B. Dodell, who works in endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt hospitals. Click here to view all of his posts. This article first appeared on www.healthbytesnyc.com.


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