The thyroid gland regulates some of the most important functions of the human body, and if it doesn’t work right, we can suffer a long list of problems. But what is it? And why does it matter so much to our health?
The first thing to know about this gland is how it fits into the human body. Generally speaking, there are eight main endocrine glands, of which the thyroid is one.
These glands, which produce hormones essential to the body, include the adrenal gland, which produces adrenaline and other stress hormones, the pituitary, which releases hormones regulating homeostasis, and the islets of Langerhans, cell clusters on the pancreas responsible for creating insulin. The thyroid gland, for its part, generates three main hormones: calcitonin, thyroxine and triiodothyronine.
Calcitonin is one of the hormones resposible for reducing calcium levels in the bloodstream. Thyroid hormones including thyroxine and triiodothyronine, regulate growth and functioning rates of bodily systems. Together, these hormones control the speed with which the body uses energy and produces proteins, as wells as the body’s sensitivity to other hormones.
Malfunction of the thyroid gland can lead to a number of disorders. The two most common problems are hyperthyroidism, or over-production of these hormones, and hypothyroidism, underproduction. Each of these can lead to numerous physical symptoms and problems with energy, weight fluctuations and cognitive function.
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition in which rogue antibodies force the thyroid to create too much of its hormones. Neck goitres, heart palpitations, excessive sweating, weight loss, bulging eyes, irritability, muscle weakness, diarrhoea, sleep problems, heat sensitivity and increased appetite are all symptoms.
A number of causes can lead to hypothyroidism, from autoimmune disorders and iodine deficiencies to congenital problems and removal of the thyroid during surgery. Stress is a common factor. Weight gain, baldness, memory problems, cold sensitivity, slowed heart rate and fatigue are common symptoms.
Both these conditions are commonly misdiagnosed as clinical depression. The weight fluctuations, fatigue, irritability, memory deficits and sleep disturbances common to thyroid disorders all mirror symptoms of major depressive disorder.
Cancer can also cause dysfunction of the thyroid. Though it usually presents without many symptoms, a nodule in the neck may appear, and vocal changes and neck pain may develop later in the cancer’s progression.
A simple check of the thyroid gland can help detect these problems if you think you’re showing symptoms. Tilt your head back, swallow some water and watch your throat in the mirror, particularly the area between your Adam’s apple and collarbone. If you notice any protrusions, bulges or other unusual signs, alert your doctor.
If you have questions or concerns about thyroid problems see your local doctor who will arrange for you to see a thyroid surgeon.