An estimated 27 million Americans have thyroid disease, and more than half are undiagnosed. Frequently misunderstood, and too often overlooked and misdiagnosed, thyroid disease affects almost every aspect of health, so understanding more about the thyroid, and the symptoms that occur when something goes wrong with this small gland, can help you protect or regain good health.
Women are at the greatest risk, developing thyroid problems seven times more often than men. A woman faces as high as a one in five chance of developing thyroid problems during her lifetime, a risk that increases with age and for those with a family history of thyroid problems.
Where is the Thyroid and What Does it Do?
Your thyroid is a small bowtie or butterfly-shaped gland, located in your neck, wrapped around the windpipe, behind and below the Adam's Apple area. The thyroid produces several hormones, of which two are key: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones help oxygen get into cells, and make your thyroid the master gland of metabolism.
The thyroid has the only cells in the body capable of absorbing iodine. The thyroid takes in iodine, obtained through food, iodized salt, or supplements, and combines it with the amino acid tyrosine. The thyroid then converts the iodine/tyrosine into the hormones T3 and T4. The "3" and the "4" refer to the number of iodine molecules in each thyroid hormone molecule.
When it's in good condition, of all the hormone produced by your thyroid, 80% will be T4 and 20% T3. T3 is considered the biologically more active hormone -- the one that actually functions at the cellular level -- and is also considered several times stronger than T4.
Once released by the thyroid, the T3 and T4 travel through the bloodstream. The purpose is to help cells convert oxygen and calories into energy.
As mentioned, the thyroid produces some T3. But the rest of the T3 needed by the body is actually formed from the mostly inactive T4 by a process sometimes referred to as "T4 to T3 conversion." This conversion of T4 to T3 can take place in some organs other than the thyroid, including the hypothalamus, a part of your brain.
The thyroid is part of a huge feedback process. The hypothalamus in the brain releases Thyrotropin-releasing Hormone (TRH). The release of TRH tells the pituitary gland to release Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). This TSH, circulating in your bloodstream, is what tells the thyroid to make thyroid hormones and release them into your bloodstream.
Causes of Thyroid Disease
What causes thyroid problems? There are a variety of factors that can contribute to the development of thyroid problems:
- Exposure to radiation, such as occurred after the Chernobyl nuclear accident
- Overconsumption of isoflavone-intensive soy products, such as soy protein, capsules, and powders
- Some drugs, such as lithium and the heart drug cordarone, can cause hypothyroidism.
- An overconsumption or shortage of iodine in the diet can also trigger some thyroid problems. (This also applies to iodine-containing supplements, such as kelp and bladderwrack.)
- Radiation treatment to my head, neck or chest. Radiation treatment for tonsils, adenoids, lymph nodes, thymus gland problems, or acne
- "Nasal Radium Therapy," which took place during the 1940s through 1960s, as a treatment for tonsillitis, colds and other ailments, or as a military submariner and/or pilot who had trouble with drastic changes in pressure
- Overconsumption of uncooked "goitrogenic" foods, such as brussels sprouts, broccoli, rutabaga, turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, cauliflower, African cassava, millet, babassu, cabbage and kale
- Surgical treatments for thyroid cancer, goiter, or nodules, in which all or part of the thyroid is removed, leave you hypothyroid
- Radioactive iodine treatment (RAI) for Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism typically leave patients hypothyroid
You have a family member with a thyroid problem
You have another pituitary or endocrine disease
You or a family member have another autoimmune disease
You've been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
You've been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia
You're over 60
You've just had a baby
You're near menopause or menopausal
You're a smoker
You've been exposed to radiation
You've been treated with lithium
You've been exposed to certain chemicals (i.e., perchlorate, fluoride)
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