Get to know your thyroid


Everybody has a thyroid, yet few of us know what it does or how important it is to our overall body function. Here’s what you need to know.

Think of your thyroid gland as the conductor of the orchestra of the human body, as it secretes hormones that are pivotal to growth and metabolism.

“It’s involved in assisting with the regulation of body temperature and weight, growth and development, the function of the muscles, the brain and the nervous system as well as assisting in fertility and pregnancy, among many other functions,” says Dr Joel Dave, an endocrinologist based in Cape Town.

In order to regulate these body functions, the thyroid takes iodine (which is found in many foods and helps convert food into energy) and changes it into thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). 

T3 and T4 are then released into the bloodstream and are transported throughout the body where they control metabolism (conversion of oxygen and calories to energy). Your thyroid glands are necessary for almost everything you do! They help to regulate your breathing, heart rate, body weight, muscle strength, menstrual cycles, body temperature, cholesterol and much more.

A balancing act 
It’s important that both the T3 and T4 hormone are neither too low nor too high. If there’s too little or too much of either in your body, it could cause thyroid dysfunctions like hyperthyroidism (too much T3 and T4 in your body), and hypothyroidism (too little T3 and T4 in your body). If the thyroid gland is unable to produce the thyroid hormones, the pituitary gland releases TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone). 

Symptoms of hypothyroid include:

  • Weakness.
  • Feelings of depression.
  • Fatigue.
  • Joint and muscle pain.
  • Dry and pale skin.
  • Sensitivity to cold.
  • Constipation.
  • Unintended weight gain
  • Heavy menstrual periods.
  • Thin, brittle hair and nails.

Symptoms of hyperthyroid include:

  • Anxiety, nervousness and restlessness. 
  • Rapid heart rate or heart palpitations.
  • Being emotional and irritable.
  • Tremors.
  • Sweating and intolerance to heat.
  • Insomnia.
  •  Frequent bowel movements.
  •  Weight loss irrespective of increased appetite.
  •  Menstrual changes and fertility problems.
  •  Bulging or staring eyes (linked to a thyroid eye disease that’s connected to Graves’ disease).

Good to know
Hyperthyroidism treatment may include medication, surgery and iodine radiation (this involves shrinking the thyroid to get rid of it). It’s given in a liquid form or a pill that’s absorbed and concentrated by the thyroid gland. This is done to lessen hyperthyroidism symptoms.

Hypothyroid treatment would be treated with anti-thyroid medications which will gradually decrease the symptoms by preventing your thyroid gland from producing excess hormones. In severe cases, surgery, called a thyroidectomy, may be necessary. Eating food that naturally contains iodine will help prevent hypothyroidism. Food like spinach, yoghurt, Brazil nuts, milk, chicken, beef and fish will help keep your iodine levels up. 

If you experience any symptoms of either hormone deficiency or are considering taking an iodine supplement, you should talk to your doctor immediately.

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