As part of your body’s endocrine system, your thyroid is responsible for manufacturing hormones that regulate your metabolism. Although it is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck, do not be fooled by its size! Even though it is small, it can create a cascade effect on your health if it is not functioning as it should. These problems range from relatively harmless goiter to life-threatening cancer.
What Causes Thyroid Problems?
The thyroid produces two main hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), and these influence every single cell in your body. From how your body metabolizes fats and carbohydrates, to temperature regulation and heart rate, to the production of protein – thyroid hormones are center stage.
Two primary problems can occur with your thyroid – overproduction of thyroid hormones called hyperthyroidism, and underproduction of thyroid hormones called hypothyroidism. Each of these issues can be further broken down into more specific conditions based on the cause and overall effect. In most cases, however, thyroid problems can be well-managed when properly diagnosed and treated.
Hyperthyroidism, also referred to as overactive thyroid, results from the overproduction of the thyroid hormone thyroxine. This leads to rapid, unintentional weight loss and fast or irregular heartbeat. The most common therapies for hyperthyroidism are anti-thyroid medications and radioactive iodine, which slows down the production of thyroid hormones. In some cases, surgery is required to remove the thyroid altogether if more conservative treatments have been unsuccessful.
Generally, hyperthyroidism is classified into the following conditions:
- Graves’ disease – Overproduction of thyroid hormones
- Toxic adenomas – Nodules develop within the thyroid and begin to secrete additional thyroid hormones
- Subacute thyroiditis – Thyroid gland inflammation due to pregnancy, autoimmune conditions, or for unknown reasons that results in “leaking” of excess hormones; typically temporary, but can last weeks or months
- Pituitary gland malfunctions or cancerous thyroid growths – Rare, but may result in hyperthyroidism
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Rapid heart rate over 100 beats/minute (tachycardia)
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Heart palpitations
- Increased appetite
- Anxiety, irritability, and nervousness
- Tremors in the hands and fingers
- Menstrual pattern changes
- Increased heat sensitivity
- Bowel changes, such as increased frequency
- Enlarged thyroid (goiter) which may appear at the base of your neck as swelling
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Thinning skin
- Fine hair that breaks easily
While proper management of hyperthyroidism can usually mitigate any additional complications, sometimes they do occur. These complications may include heart problems, brittle bones, eye problems, dermopathy (red, swollen skin), and thyrotoxic crisis (fever, rapid pulse, and delirium).
On the other end of the spectrum is hypothyroidism, which is sometimes referred to as underactive thyroid. This condition occurs when your thyroid doesn’t manufacture enough of the thyroid hormones. In its early stages, symptoms may be hardly noticeable, but as the condition advances, symptoms become more apparent. The most common treatment for hypothyroidism is synthetic thyroid hormones to replace what your body is not producing naturally.
As with hyperthyroidism, there are multiple reasons that hypothyroidism may occur, including:
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis – An autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack the thyroid tissue, eventually leading to tissue death and the cessation of hormone production
- Excessive iodine exposure from cold and sinus medications, amiodarone (heart medication), or certain contrast dyes given before some x-rays; typically more problematic if you’ve had thyroid problems in the past
- Lithium use
- Thyroid gland removal
- Radiation therapy
Symptoms of hypothyroidism may include:
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Increased cold sensitivity
- Dry skin
- Unexplained weight gain
- Puffy facial appearance
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- Muscle aches, stiffness, and tenderness
- Joint pain or swelling
- Irregular menstrual periods that may be heavier than normal
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Impaired memory
- Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
Hypothyroidism generally responds very well to combination treatment, which may include diet changes, supplementation, botanical medicine, and conventional pharmaceuticals when necessary. However, complications of hypothyroidism can occur if left untreated. These complications can include goiter, heart problems due to high LDL cholesterol, depression, peripheral neuropathy leading to pain, numbness, and tingling in the arms and legs, myxedema, infertility, and birth defects.
Dr. Erika Bradshaw can help you achieve a healthy life through the individualized management of your thyroid condition. If you are experiencing the above symptoms and would like to schedule an appointment for a consultation, please give us a call today!