Health Education

Your guide to thyroid health

Avatar By | January 16, 2018
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

When it’s working properly, your thyroid is probably the last thing you’re thinking about. When it malfunctions, it has a big effect on your health and vulnerability to disease. But, you might not realize it’s not working properly—60% of people affected by a thyroid disorder don’t even know something is wrong. Every January is Thyroid Awareness Month, a time dedicated to promoting awareness of common symptoms and continuing education about this important part of the body. 

Statistics show that more than 12% of Americans will develop a thyroid issue at some point in their lives. Although the causes of certain thyroid diseases and conditions are still unknown, the prevalence of problematic thyroids is steadily growing. Nearly one in eight women will end up with a thyroid condition during her lifetime, as women are anywhere from five to eight times more likely to develop thyroid issues than men. 

Anatomical and thyroid function basics

The thyroid tends to resemble a butterfly shape and sits in the lower portion of your neck. It slightly wraps around the windpipe, with the bulk of the gland sitting out in front. A healthy thyroid is undetectable if you try to feel it. Essential for proper hormone production, the location of the thyroid means the nerves and blood vessels it contains can affect the quality of your voice.

It’s a rather small area of the body, but the thyroid is instrumental in maintaining a wide range of bodily functions. It secretes two thyroid hormones, called triiodothyronine (T3) and majorly thyroxine (T4). While many other hormone levels in our body have a natural ebb and flow during your lifetime, it’s imperative that thyroid hormone levels remain constant.

A healthy thyroid uses its hormones to keep other bodily systems in check and has a direct link to our:

  • Muscle strength
  • Breathing and heart rates
  • Bodyweight
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Menstrual cycles
  • Nervous systems
  • Energy level

Essentially, any process in our body that relies on hormone interactions, like our metabolism or even body temperature, have direct links back to our thyroid health.

When your thyroid goes awry: Common thyroid problems

For such an intricate and delicate gland, the thyroid does an amazing job of working on its own to keep us healthy. However, sometimes it doesn’t always function exactly as it should. When it fails, it can have significant consequences for your daily routines.  76% of thyroid patients rate the impact of their thyroid disorder on their life as a seven or greater on a 10-scale, according to a 2019 study by Paloma Health

One of the more common symptoms of a thyroid problem is something called a goiter, which simply means the thyroid gland is in an enlarged state. It can signal hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.  

Some of the more well-known conditions associated with thyroid disease have to do with either overproduction or underproduction of the T3 and T4 hormones. Given that these substances are so crucial to our overall well-being, these conditions have been thoroughly researched and effective treatments are available.

Hyperthyroidism

An overactive thyroid is diagnosed as a condition called hyperthyroidism. It is most often caused by Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid. Overactive thyroid nodules may also cause hyperthyroidism, which is referred to as Toxic nodular disease. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism can include:

  • Heat intolerance or trouble sleeping
  • Weight loss and mood swings
  • Increased irritability or hand tremors
  • Goiter associated with fatigue
  • Palpitations and abnormal heartbeats

Not all of these symptoms will show up, and sometimes individuals have hyperthyroidism without even knowing it. Because the condition causes an overproduction of T3 and T4 hormones, many of your bodily functions are thrown off. If left untreated, hyperthyroidism can cause eye problems, pregnancy complications, atrial fibrillation, heart failure, and osteoporosis.  

Treatment for hyperthyroidism usually entails taking thyroid medication with or without steroids to slow down thyroid hormone production, although in some instances thyroid surgery is necessary to remove one of the lobes of the gland that wrap around the windpipe.

Hypothyroidism 

When your thyroid struggles to make enough thyroid hormones, it can leave other bodily functions sorely lacking in the substances they need to thrive. An underactive thyroid is referred to as hypothyroidism, and can often be linked to an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Dry skin and hair loss
  • Depression or weight gain
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • A swollen face or constipation
  • Cold intolerance 

Once diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a synthetic thyroid hormone is prescribed to keep T3 and T4 thyroid levels within a normal range. If left untreated, hypothyroidism can cause serious health problems like heart disease, heart failure, and myxedema coma. In pregnant females, it can lead to abortion or adversely affect fetal brain development. 

RELATED: Living with hypothyroidism

What’s the best way to detect thyroid problems?

In addition to awareness of thyroid conditions, taking action by testing your thyroid can help you understand how your thyroid is working and if there is a need for further evaluation. While many labs only test TSH, it’s essential to also test total T3, free T4, TRABs antibodies and TPO antibodies to get the full picture. This is done by a blood test.

RELATED: What is a TSH test and what do your results mean?

How to improve thyroid health

Treating your thyroid right with a healthy diet in conjunction with daily thyroid medication has the potential for bringing your body and life back into balance with relative ease. 

The thyroid diet

Since the cause for many thyroid disorders and autoimmune diseases are often unknown, it might seem difficult knowing how to keep your thyroid healthy and functioning normally. Studies have not been able to show any specific foods can help promote thyroid health. There are claims that certain food such as the following may help thyroid function. Items to focus on include:

  • Sea vegetables, like nori and edible seaweed
  • Maca supplements
  • Chlorophyll, found in plants like spinach and wheatgrass
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, kale, etc.)

Iodine deficiency is common in certain countries and results in thyroid problems. Thirty percent of the world’s population has an iodine deficiency, according to the American Thyroid Association. Since the body does not produce iodine, it’s important to incorporate iodine-rich foods into your diet. 

What should a thyroid patient not eat?

Going gluten-free and avoiding soy protein isolate are advised to promote optimal thyroid health. Avoid cottonseed meal and walnut. You should not take antacids, as well as iron and calcium supplements within four hours of thyroid medication intake.  Avoid dietary extremes as that can impact thyroid health. Ask your healthcare provider about your diet plan with regards to your particular thyroid condition. 

Thyroid medication

If you notice any unusual symptoms and think you might have a thyroid disorder, be sure to visit your primary care physician or endocrinologist. He or she may prescribe one of the following thyroid medications:

Side effects of thyroid medication

As with any drug, thyroid medication can cause some side effects. Here are some of the most common:

  • Appetite changes
  • Heat sensitivity or sweating
  • Headache
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Hyperactivity or sleeplessness
  • Nervousness
  • Leg cramps, joint or muscle pain
  • Diarrhea, vomiting, or stomach upset
  • Skin rash
  • Changes in menstrual cycle

Resources for thyroid health: