Get to know your thyroid

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The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck just under your voice box. It produces the hormones that control many key functions.

Your thyroid produces two main (and important) hormones:

  • Triiodothyronine (T3).
  • Thyroxine (T4).

These hormones can interact with other hormones, organs and metabolic processes, which explains why thyroid function is linked to a diverse range of symptoms. Things can start to go wrong when your thyroid is under- or overactive:

Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) is when your thyroid produces too little thyroid hormone, a condition that’s often linked to iodine deficiency globally, but the more likely cause in South Africa is auto-immune disease. Many of the body's functions slow down when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones. Common symptoms include:

  • Thickened facial features.
  • Thick, dry skin.
  • Inability to tolerate cold temperatures.
  • Dry, coarse hair, loss of hair from outer third of eyebrows.
  • Facial puffiness (especially around the eyes).
  • Numb and tingling hands.
  • Memory problems. 
  • Increased cholesterol level.
  • Constipation.
  • Heavy or irregular menstrual periods.

The long-term risks of untreated hypothyroidism include reduced quality of life, memory loss, high cholesterol and consequent heart attacks and strokes, heart rhythm disturbances, pericardial effusion (water around the heart), blood glucose abnormalities, and coma.

Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) occurs when the thyroid secretes too much thyroid hormone, causing some of your body functions to accelerate. Common symptoms include:

  • Restlessness, nervousness and anxiety.
  • Tremors.
  • Rapid heart rate or heart palpitations.
  • Staring, bulging eyes and a tendency for eyelids to lag.
  • Weight loss despite an increased appetite.
  • Sweating and an intolerance to heat.
  • Frequent bowel movements.
  • Insomnia.
  • Irregular and decreased menstrual flow.

The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease, which occurs when the immune system begins producing
an antibody that behaves like TSH, stimulating  the thyroid gland into producing too much thyroid hormone. 

It's the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, and affects about one in every 200 people, according to the US National
Institutes of Health (NIH).

Untreated hyperthyroidism can lead to heart rhythm disturbances and consequent stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis and a
thyroid crisis that can be life-threatening.

Treating hyperthyroidism is therefore vital for the optimal functioning of all your essential physical functions.

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