The thyroid: it’s that butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your throat regulating the rate at which you live. Or in more technical terms, your metabolic rate – the conversion of oxygen and carbohydrates to energy. Think of it this way: if your brain is what manages the on/off of your organism, the thyroid is what dictates the rate of operation. If the brain is the sheet music guiding the orchestra of your body, the thyroid is the conductor – instructing each instrumental section.
The conductor does what it does through the production of two hormones: Triiodothyronine (T3), tetraiodothyronine (T4). T3 and T4 increase the basal metabolic rate, instructing your cells to work harder, thus requiring more energy. Physiologically, this translates to a rise in body temperature, a faster pulse and stronger heartbeat, and, in children, brain maturation and physical growth.
Follicular epithelial cells in the thyroid gland uptake dietary iodine and the amino acid tyrosine from circulating blood to produce T3 and T4. As the body does not produce its own iodine, dietary intake is essential, since deficiency can lead to a goiter: the enlargement of all or part of the thyroid gland due to inflammatory swelling or nodule growth.
As the conductor follows the instructions of sheet music, the thyroid responds to the pituitary gland: a small, peanut-shaped gland at the base of the brain. When levels of T3 and/or T4 drop too low, the pituitary gland produces Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) to, as the name suggests, stimulate the production of hormones in the thyroid. Conversely, when levels of T3 and T4 heighten in the blood, the pituitary gland decreases TSH production.
And in turn, the pituitary gland is regulated by the production of TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH) in the hypothalamus, located in the brain – but I digress.
Nestled within the thyroid gland is the parathyroid. It produces calcitonin: the hormone regulating calcium levels and bone metabolism. While I find it worth mentioning, I won’t discuss the parathyroid further as it’s technically a separate gland from the thyroid.
When things go wrong
Nutritional imbalances, environmental toxins, allergens, infections, and stress can all negatively affect the thyroid, messing with hormone production – like a cell phone going off in the middle of a concert.
Thyroid dysfunction manifests as hyper- and hypothyroidism (over and under activity, respectively).
Fatigue, hand tremors, mood swings, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, palpitations or irregular heartbeat, dry skin, trouble sleeping, weight loss, and increased bowel movement frequency are all symptoms of an overactive thyroid. Given the thyroid’s duty of regulating metabolic rate, it makes sense that these symptoms are also signs of a fast metabolism.
Common causes of hyperthyroidism include:
- Graves’ Disease
- Functioning adenoma and toxic multinodular goiter (TMNG)
- Excessive intake of thyroid hormones
- Abnormal secretion of TSH
- Thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland)
- Excess dietary iodine intake
An overactive thyroid is most often caused by the autoimmune disorder, Grave’s disease: the production of the Thyroid Stimulating Immunoglobulin (TSI) antibody.
An underactive thyroid is symptomatized by an inability to tolerate cold, fatigue, constipation, depression, weight gain, irritability, memory loss, decreased libido, muscle aches, coarse hair, and rough skin. In the same vein as symptoms of hyperthyroidism, common-sensically, these are also signs of a slow metabolism.
The two most common causes of hypothyroidism are:
1) inflammation of the thyroid gland, leaving many cells damaged or dead and capable of hormone production.
2) medical treatments requiring surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid.
The second case gets interesting because the surgical removal of part of the thyroid gland is a means of treating hyperthyroidism or the excision of a cancerous growth. Oh, the irony – remedying one problem leads to the arousal of another.
Sometimes, however, hypothyroidism is not caused by an issue with the thyroid, but upstream at the pituitary gland – a topic for another article.
Common causes of hypothyroidism include:
- Autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Treatment for hyperthyroidism
- Thyroid surgery
- Radiation therapy
Ensuring a healthy thyroid
Except for issues in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, the health of your thyroid can be managed by:
- Managing iodine levels: chemical agents in commercial foods cause a dip in iodine levels. Sea vegetables are fantastic sources for replenishing iodine. You can add pieces of seaweed or kombu to pots of soup during cooking. Or sprinkle ground kelp over salads and hot dishes as you would salt.
- Manage stress: yoga stimulates the endocrine system, stretches and strengthens the muscles, and calms the mind. Stress is a deterrent to good health, and yoga burns it away.
- Cook cruciferous vegetables: kale, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower contain goitrogens – a substance that suppresses the thyroid gland by disrupting hormone production. To compensate, the thyroid enlarges, leading to goiter.
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