Thyroid - All You Need To Know
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland situated in the neck directly in front of your windpipe.
It produces two metabolism-regulating hormones. They are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).
When thyroid hormone levels become skewed the body will respond with varying symptoms. A thyroid can become over or under active but both have serious effects on your body.
How Do You Know When You Have A Problem?
Here are some of the more common symptoms of thyroid imbalance.
Unexplained weight gain and weight loss are two signs that your thyroid is out of kilter.
If you're overweight but just can't shift the excess pounds your thyroid may not be producing enough hormone to ensure sufficient energy is burned. This is called hypothyroidism. If you're underweight and can't gain it then your thyroid may be burning too much energy. This is called hyperthyroidism. Your appetite may shift too. An overactive thyroid may increase your appetite and vice versa for an underactive thyroid.
We all get tired, but an underactive thyroid ensures you're beyond sleepy. You'll feel sluggish no matter what diet changes or exercise improvements you make. A good night's sleep won't help either. People with underactive thyroids report they feel like they're sleepwalking or wading through mud, even when they've slept well. Conversely, an overactive thyroid prevents sleep and keeps your body in a state of high alert. A racing heart is common along with anxiety and the 'jitters'.
Skin is the largest organ in the body, so it's no wonder thyroid problems affect it. When thyroid levels are low your skin dries out creating dry, flaky, itchy skin including the scalp. This can lead to hair loss. Brittle hair that snaps easily and won't grow is another indication of hypothyroidism.
An over active thyroid will result in hair loss too, but your skin is likely to be too oily.
Irregular periods can happen for a number of reasons and a thyroid issue is one of them.
Overactive thyroids produce lighter periods that are more frequent but an underactive one means less frequent but heavier periods. Either way it'll often happen gradually and many women may fail to notice.
For those trying to conceive period troubles can create obstacles. It's worth having your thyroid hormone levels checked if your periods are irregular and you're struggling to conceive.
Whatever direction your thyroid level leans your bowels are likely to be affected. Overactive thyroids lead to diarrhoea because the digestive system is overstimulated. Hypothyroidism leads to little stimulation and results in constipation.
Those with overactive thyroids may sweat or feel hot and itchy as their metabolism works extra hard. Hyperthyroidism often leads to a dislike of sun, crowded places and thick clothing. The opposite occurs with an underactive thyroid - the sufferer will find it hard to warm up even when sunbathing.
Hormones drastically affect our moods and thyroid issues are no exception. Researchers think thyroid problems disrupt serotonin levels. Serotonin affects our level of happiness - it's the 'feel good' hormone. Hyperthyroidism creates anxiety and nervousness whereas hypothyroidism creates depression.
Underactive Versus Overactive
Here's a list of the most common symptoms of over an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
- Swelling in the neck - potentially an enlarged thyroid
- Palpitations and shaking
- Mood Swings
- Muscle Weakness
- Passing urine or faeces more often. Faeces may be greasy
- Feeling tired but unable to sleep
- Heat sensitivity, hives and sweating
- Weight loss that's unexplained
- Infrequent periods
- Decreased libido
An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) creates:
- Weight gain
- Feeling low and depressed
- Sensitivity to the cold
- Slow thoughts and movement
- Muscle cramps
- Brittle hair and nails
- Loss of sex drive
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Irregular or heavy periods
- Scaly dry skin
- Muscle cramps
Who Is Affected?
In the UK thyroid problems are fairly common. It affects 15 out of 100 women but only 1 out of 1000 men. Children can be affected too although the odds are lower at 1 in 3500-4000. In the UK babies are routinely screened for congenital hypothyroidism.
What Causes The Problem?
You can't prevent thyroid issues but you should be vigilant and spot them as soon as possible.
Immune System Attacks
Hashimoto's disease is an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid and causing it to under produce hormones.
Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid causing it to overproduce hormones.
Tumours growing in the thyroid or in the thyroid follicles can cause an imbalance of hormone production.
Too Much or Too Little Iodine
This is a rare deficiency in the UK, but more common worldwide. Thyroids need iodine to make thyroxine so when it runs short hyperthyroidism may ensue.
Taking iodine supplements can disrupt the thyroid causing it to over produce thyroid hormones. This is called the Jod-Basedow phenomenon.
Toxic Thyroid nodules
Bumps known as nodules can grow in the thyroid. When these nodules contain abnormal thyroid tissue they affect production of T3 and T4 hormones. It's thought 1 in 20 cases of hyperthyroidism are due to toxic nodules.
Medications that control an irregular heartbeat such as amiodarone can cause hyperthyroidism because they contain iodine. This is called amiodarone-induced hyperthyroidism and can be trickier to treat than other causes.
What Are The Treatments?
Hormone replacement tablets are the standard treatment for an underactive thyroid. A tablet is usually taken daily as a life-long treatment, but they work well and people start to feel better quickly.
There are more treatments for an overactive thyroid.
- Thioamides stop the thyroid producing T3 and T4 hormones.
- Beta-blockers relieve the symptoms of a racing heart, anxiety and tremors. Beta blockers are not usually a long term treatment and are not suitable for asthmatics. Radioiodine treatment can be used to shrink the thyroid glands so that less hormones are produced.
- A partial or whole surgical thyroidectomy when other methods have failed. It's permanent, and may result in the need for hormone replacement tablets.
What If I Don't Get Treatment?
If left untreated an underactive thyroid can lead to heart disease, goitre, myxoedema coma and pregnancy problems. An overactive thyroid can lead to abnormal heart beat, cardiac arrest, hypertension and osteoporosis.
Thyroid problems can develop very slowly and may not be noticeable for years. It's important to report any suspicions to your doctor so you can receive the correct treatment as soon as possible.