What is the Thyroid Gland?
The thyroid is a small endocrine gland located just below your adam’s apple and is often described visually as a butterfly having two halves or lobes.
The thyroid release hormones that influence many bodily functions, such as physical growth and development, metabolism, puberty, organ function, fertility and body temperature. These functions depend on two hormones released from the thyroid gland: tri-iodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).
The thyroid gland can produce too much of these hormones (hyperthyroidism) or not enough (hypothyroidism). These thyroid hormones play a vital role in the body, thereby influencing all organs. They also determine how fast or how slow the organs should work and when the body systems use energy.
How Does the Thyroid Work?
In order to understand better what are causes of thyroid disorder we must know the thyroid's function within the body. The thyroid makes tri-iodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) using iodine, which can be found in foods such as seafood and salt. T3 and T4 are responsible for controlling metabolism and regulating the rate at which the body carries out its functions. These hormones are extremely important as every cell in the body depends upon thyroid hormones for regular metabolism.
The thyroid works in conjunction with the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. When the level of thyroid hormones drops too low, the pituitary gland produces Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) which tells the thyroid gland to produce more hormones. Once aware of the TSH, the thyroid secretes more T3 and T4 thereby raising blood levels. The pituitary gland then slows down its TSH production.
To help understand the process, imagine that the thyroid gland is an oven and the pituitary gland is the thermostat. Thyroid hormones are like heat. When the temperature in the oven is just right, the thermostat turns off and the oven stops getting hotter. As the oven cools (the thyroid hormone levels drop), the thermostat turns back on (TSH increases) and the oven produces more heat (thyroid hormones).
The pituitary gland itself is regulated by another gland in the brain, known as the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus produces TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH) which tells the pituitary gland to stimulate the thyroid gland (by releasing TSH). So in the above oven scenario, the hypothalamus is the person who regulates the oven thermostat since it tells the pituitary gland at what level the thyroid should be set!
Who Suffers with a Thyroid Disorder? Is it Serious Health Risk?
What are causes of thyroid disorders affecting women more then men? The thyroid is an equally important organ for both men and women, but research shows that women are more likely to suffer with thyroid problems than men.
Even subtle deviations in thyroid hormone levels can put your health at risk. If left untreated, thyroid disorders may have serious consequences – particularly for your heart.
Diagnosing a Thyroid Disorder
A blood sample is the best screening method for any thyroid disorder. A blood analysis will help determine the levels of T4 and T3 that exist in the blood and can provide a picture of how the thyroid is functioning.
If your doctor feels further tests are necessary, they may administer a radioactive iodine uptake test. The type of radioactive iodine used for the test will not harm the thyroid or pose any risk to you. After 24 hours, special equipment is then used to measure the amount of radioactivity over the thyroid gland.
Thyroid tests can often come back normal or sub clinical although the thyroid is not functioning as it should be and all the symptoms of hypothyroidism are experienced. This is because a normal result on tests only indicates that the thyroid functioning falls within the average or slightly below average range.
Because thyroid functioning can vary from person to person, what may be normal for one person is not necessarily so for the next person. That is why the results of thyroid tests must always be seen in the context of symptoms experienced by the patient.
Patients who have a good working knowledge of their bodies can provide valuable information which assists the diagnostic process.
Symptoms of a Thyroid Disorder
The most common symptoms of thyroid disorders are:
- An Underactive Thyroid – Hypothyroidism
The thyroid does not produce enough hormones and many symptoms of thyroid disorder in this case are related to a slow metabolism.
- An Overactive Thyroid – Hyperthyroidism
The thyroid becomes enlarged, produces too much hormone, and the body uses energy faster than it should.
Symptoms of the above disorders include:
- dry, coarse skin and hair
- hair loss
- hoarse voice
- mood swings
- trouble swallowing
- weight gain or weight loss
- intolerance to temperature
- sleep problems
- muscle weakness/tremors
- irregular menstrual periods
- vision problems or eye irritation
Help for a Thyroid Disorder
Once we know what causes thyroid disorders and are diagnosed, we must seek proper treatment. The treatment will depends on the type of thyroid disorder. There are three main categories of conventional medical treatments - prescription medication, radioactive iodine and surgery.
Although thyroid disorders can be life-long conditions, most are easy to manage but complications can occur if they are left untreated or if the incorrect treatment is used.
There are many alternative treatment options available for sufferers in addition to the conventional methods listed above. Because conventional treatments often provide only partial relief to patients, alternative and natural treatments are being embraced more enthusiastically.
Holistic and natural treatment programs can help overcome a variety of thyroid conditions and symptoms. The combination of homeopathic and herbal remedies often has no side effects, is effective and safe to use.
A healthy diet, exercise, meditation and other mind-body therapies have given many patients relief and comfort. Many natural and alternative remedies can also be investigated as a broader treatment plan that addresses the cause of the disorder, and not just the symptoms.
Remember, however, that any thyroid disorder should be evaluated by a health professional whether choosing conventional treatments or an alternative option as your treatment plan.