By Niranjana S. Rajalakshmi, MVSc (Vet. Microbiology)
Science Writer (Freelance)
Thyroid problems are common worldwide, and women are 5 to 8 eight times more prone to
thyroid-related concerns than men. It is surprising as to how problems associated with the tiny butterfly-shaped gland, weighing less than an ounce has a significant impact on the body as a whole. This is mainly because the hormones produced by the gland performs a wide array of functions.
The thyroid gland synthesizes two main hormones –triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). Both T3 and T4 play key roles in regulating the metabolism of the body. This includes proper maintenance of functions of the heart, digestive system, brain development, and many more.
How does the thyroid gland function?
The thyroid gland does not work independently. It is under the control of the
hypothalamus (which is a portion of the brain) and pituitary gland, which is yet another peanut sized gland located at the base of the skull. The hypothalamus secretes a hormone, thyrotropin releasing hormone which in turn triggers the pituitary gland to produce the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). The TSH is the one that stimulates the thyroid gland to secrete T3 and T4. Thus, without TSH, the system would fail.
If T3 and T4 levels in the body drop, the pituitary gland will release more TSH. On the other hand, if their level rises, the pituitary gland will secrete less TSH. This balance has to be proper for maintaining the optimal levels of thyroid hormones in the body. Any alteration in the hormone secretion results in either an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
Hyperthyroidism is the overproduction of thyroid hormones by the thyroid gland. The
common causes of this condition include:
It is the leading cause of hyperthyroidism. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that
triggers the immune system to synthesize antibodies against healthy thyroid cells. This
further results in more production of thyroid hormones than that is normally required.
Graves’ disease tends to run in families and commonly affects young women. However, little
is known about why this disease affects specific individuals.
One or more lumps develop in the thyroid gland which eventually grows and become active,
secreting more thyroid hormones. It is unclear why these lumps develop. They are
noncancerous in most cases. In nodular goiter, the thyroid gland becomes enlarged which
can be felt with the fingertips.
Excessive iodine intake
The thyroid gland makes use of iodine to secrete T3 and T4. Hence, excessive iodine from
food including seafood, salt, and bread could stimulate the gland to oversecrete the
Follicular thyroid cancer
In extremely rare cases, an overactive thyroid gland could be caused by thyroid cancer. The
malignant cells begin to produce more T3 and T4.
• Mood swings
• Delayed or decreased menstruation
• Excessive sweating
• Weight fluctuations
• Nausea and vomiting
• Swollen base of the neck causing difficulty in swallowing
• Increased blood sugar levels – hyperthyroidism increases the rate at which insulin is
metabolized and increases the production and absorption of glucose
Prevention and Treatment
o Hyperthyroidism cannot be prevented as such. However, eating food with less
amounts of iodine could prevent the already existing condition from worsening further.
o Medications - (i) antithyroid medicine which reduces the amount of thyroid hormone made. This medication is to be taken 1-2 years or even lifelong. (ii) beta-blockers helps minimize the effects of the heavy influx of thyroid hormones which causes heart rate and tremors
o Radioactive iodine therapy – In this method, the cells that produce the thyroid
hormones are damaged
o Surgery – In some rare cases, a part of or the entire thyroid gland is removed
Hyperthyroidism and pregnancy
Women susceptible to hyperthyroidism could have a slightly overactive thyroid during pregnancy. This could lead to abortion, maternal high blood pressure, and low birth weight of the fetus. If the mother has a thyroid issue, it is essential to have a check over the newborn’s thyroid function since thyroid-related problems are directly linked to brain development. However, most pregnancies progress normally with prompt medical intervention.
For information about hypothyroidism, check this blog.
Note: Please consult a medical professional regarding specifics of your health and symptoms.
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