Thyroid Health: How Your Thyroid Gland Affects You (And How to Keep It Healthy)
Your thyroid gland may be small — a healthy thyroid measures only 4 by 1 centimeters in size — but its effects on your health and wellness are anything but tiny. Even more alarming is that while an estimated 20 million Americans have thyroid disease of some sort, most of them are completely unaware of their thyroid health issues. Let's break down what your thyroid gland does, why this minuscule organ is so important, and what you can do to boost your thyroid health today.
What Is Your Thyroid Gland?
The thyroid gland weighs just an ounce, and you can find the butterfly-shaped organ wrapped around your windpipe in your neck. And while the thyroid doesn't get the same public attention that your liver, heart, and other organs receive, Harvard is quick to point out that your thyroid affects the function of every single aspect of your body — all the way down to individual tissues and cells.
What Does the Thyroid Gland Do?
The thyroid gland's main responsibility is to regulate the levels of various thyroid hormones:
- Thyroxine (T4): This hormone is produced directly by your thyroid.
- Triiodothyronine (T3): Your body converts some of its T4 levels to T3, which is a more active hormone.
These thyroid hormones are responsible for how your body's individual cells turn nutrients into the energy that the cells need to function properly. Thus, poor thyroid health or a malfunctioning thyroid can affect every major system and function in your body.
Thyroid Health: Key Areas Impacted by Your Thyroid Gland
More than 1 in 10 adults will develop thyroid health problems at some point in their lifetime. Although your thyroid plays a role in your health on the most basic cellular level, there are specific key areas that many people struggle with when their thyroid gland isn't working as it should.
What that looks like, and how potential symptoms manifest, all come down to whether you have an underactive thyroid (i.e., hypothyroidism, where your thyroid doesn't produce enough of its thyroid hormones) or an overactive thyroid (i.e., hyperthyroidism, where your thyroid produces excessive amounts of thyroid hormones).
Hypothyroidism: Signs You May Have an Underactive Thyroid Gland
An underactive thyroid can be caused by numerous factors, including autoimmune disorders, inflammation, medication, and even aging. For instance, hypothyroidism is more common in those over the age of 60.
Since thyroid hormones are important for digestion, brain health, bone health, muscle control, and so much more, the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism can be very varied:
- Digestive function: You may experience constipation, diarrhea, or loss of appetite
- Metabolic rate: Examples include weight gain, high cholesterol, chronic fatigue, or feeling cold all the time
- Brain and mental health: Poor thyroid health may affect mental health, including your risks of depression, and it may also contribute to risks of dementia in aging adults
Hyperthyroidism: Signs You May Have an Overactive Thyroid Gland
An overactive thyroid may be caused by many of the same factors that influence an underactive thyroid gland, such as autoimmune disorders and inflammation.
It can also be the result of taking too many thyroid medications for an underactive thyroid, forcing the proverbial pendulum to swing too far the other way. Hyperthyroidism can also be triggered by your diet, especially the intake of too much iodine.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include:
- Digestive function: You may experience constipation, diarrhea, or feeling constantly hungry and/or thirsty
- Metabolic rate: Many people with hyperthyroidism experience sudden or chronic weight loss
- Brain and mental health: Examples include anxiety, depression, and insomnia
- Sexual function: High thyroid hormone levels may contribute to changes in fertility in men and women, and lighter periods for women
- Heart function: Examples include irregular heartbeats, heart failure, and a fast pulse
- Muscle control: Symptoms may include muscle fatigue or weakness, and muscle tremors
Thyroid Health and Thyroid Disease: When Should You See a Doctor?
As you can see in the list of symptoms above, the varying range of symptoms can make it hard to diagnose an overactive thyroid or an underactive thyroid. After all, perhaps you have metabolism and digestive issues due to thyroid disease — or maybe you actually have a food sensitivity instead.
In fact, endocrinologist Dr. Jeffrey Garber tells Harvard that he estimates that half of everyone who has a healthy thyroid might still have a few symptoms associated with thyroid disease.
Talk to your doctor if you're worried about thyroid disease or have a history of thyroid disease in your family. Your physician can order a very quick, very accurate blood test that measures your thyroid hormone levels.
How to Keep Your Thyroid Gland Healthy
There are some causes of thyroid disease, such as autoimmune disorders, that you can't prevent. Beyond that, a few specific lifestyle and dietary changes can ensure you're giving your thyroid gland everything it needs for optimal functioning and improved hormone balance:
- Avoid taking iodine supplements unless advised to do so by your doctor, warn researchers. Instead, get your iodine from whole foods, such as seaweed, dairy, eggs, and fish.
- Eat foods high in B vitamins (e.g., whole grains, nuts, etc.), since B vitamins like B6 and riboflavin are all key to thyroid function
- Eat foods rich in selenium (e.g., tuna, shellfish, eggs, etc.), a nutrient necessary for thyroid metabolism
- Ensure you're getting adequate zinc since this mineral helps synthesize thyroid hormones
- Manage and reduce chronic inflammation in your body through supplements, exercise, and a healthy diet
- Reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors, which interfere with your body's hormones. Common examples include BPA (found in hard plastics) and phthalates (found in some products that contain fragrances)
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