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The Importance of the Thyroid in the Body

Monday 27 April 2020
Thyroid Disorders

Table of Contents


I. What is the thyroid?

II. The role of thyroid hormones

III. The most common thyroid problems

a. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism 

b. Symptoms of hypothyroidism 

IV. Possible risk factors

V. Diagnosing techniques

VI. Treatment for thyroid disorders


What is the thyroid?

The thyroid is a small gland in the body, but is responsible for several vital functions. The thyroid gland is located below the Adam’s apple and wraps around the windpipe (trachea). The two lobes of the thyroid gland are joined by a piece of tissue known as the isthmus. The thyroid gland uses iodine from a person’s diet to produce hormones needed to regulate metabolic processes. Thyroxine, also known as T4, is the hormone that the thyroid produces.

The hypothalamus and the thyroid work together to regulate hormones in the body. When the thyroid hormone levels are low, the hypothalamus activates and produces the thyrotropin releasing hormone (TRH), which then causes the pituitary gland to release another hormone that stimulates production of thyroxine. Many processes in the body rely on this seamless communication between the brain and the thyroid. Disorders of the hypothalamus or thyroid can affect thyroid function. Read on to learn more about the thyroid and how to identify symptoms of a thyroid problem. [1]

a black and white photo of a woman’s neck

The role of thyroid hormones

The main role of thyroid hormones is to regulate the body’s metabolism. The metabolism involves all the chemical processes that break down what you eat. Once the food is broken down, your body uses that food for energy.

The metabolism affects the following processes in the body:

  • How fast or slow your heart beats
  • The ability of your body to gain or lose weight
  • How deep you are able to breathe
  • Your body’s cholesterol levels
  • Women’s menstrual cycles
  • The body’s temperature

As displayed in the above list, this small, butterfly-shaped gland is vital for the body to maintain proper function. When the thyroid develops a problem, many things go wrong, especially if the thyroid becomes enlarged or grows lumps of extra tissue. Around 12 percent of people will experience a thyroid problem at some point in their lifetime. Women experience these problems more often than men.[2] 

The most common thyroid problems

There are several disorders that can occur when the thyroid malfunctions. The two most common forms of thyroid disorders include hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Less common thyroid conditions include Hashimoto’s disease, goiters, nodules, and Graves’ disease. 

a woman with an enlarged thyroid (goiter))

Hyperthyroidism: Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much of thyroxine. When too much of this hormone is produced, the body’s metabolism is overstimulated and can lead to unintentional weight loss and rapid heartbeat. There are several treatments for this disorder, but you may need surgery to remove your thyroid if your case is severe.

a. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Weight loss
  • Tremors of the hands and fingers
  • Sweating
  • Change in menstruation
  • Increased sensitivity to heat
  • Fine or brittle hair
  • Changes in bowel patterns
  • Fatigue and muscle weakness [3]

Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is the opposite of hyperthyroidism and involves an underactive thyroid. When the thyroid gland does not produce enough of the crucial thyroid hormone, then symptoms can begin to occur. Symptoms of this condition are typically hard to notice at first, but as your metabolism continues to slow, you may develop more obvious problems.

b. Symptoms of hypothyroidism

  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Puffy face
  • Elevated cholesterol level
  • Heavier than normal menstrual periods
  • Impaired memory
  • Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter)
  • Pain or stiffness in the joints
  • Constipation [4]

Possible risk factors

Thyroid problems can affect anyone, but several factors can make a person more susceptible to disorders of the thyroid. Some common causes can include:

Autoimmune disorders: Autoimmune disorders like Graves’ and Hashimoto’s disease can lead to higher levels of thyroid hormones.

Genetics: Thyroid problems are often hereditary and if you have a close family member who has thyroid problems, you are more likely to develop the condition.

Pre-existing conditions: Undergoing procedures like radiation for cancer treatment can greatly increase your risk of developing a thyroid problem. Pregnancy can also cause hypothyroidism in some women.

Lifestyle factors: Your risk of thyroid problems increases if you smoke regularly. Smoking prohibits the absorption of iodine by the thyroid and disrupts the production of thyroid hormones. If you experience a large amount of stress, like the death of a family member, you may also experience thyroid problems. [5]

a lit cigarette on a ledge

Diagnosing techniques

If you think you are experiencing symptoms of a thyroid disorder, consult your doctor. The first course of action is typically a simple blood test. Blood tests can easily determine your thyroid’s hormone levels. Blood tests are typically used to diagnose hypothyroidism.

Hyperthyroidism is diagnosed a bit differently. Your doctor will likely perform a physical exam to see if your thyroid gland is bigger than normal and check your heart rate. They may also take a blood test and recommend a thyroid scan. A thyroid scan uses a small amount of radioactive tracer to see how well your thyroid is functioning. Another method involves taking a small dose of radioactive iodine by mouth. Once the iodine is in your system, a sensor is used to see how much of the iodine is absorbed by your thyroid. This method is known as a radioactive iodine uptake test (RAIU).[6] 

Treatment for thyroid disorders

Treatment for thyroid disorders depend on the severity and functionality of your thyroid. The goal of treatment is to return your hormone levels to normal. There are many ways to do this and your doctor will determine which method is best for you.

If you are experiencing hyperthyroidism, your treatment options may include:

Beta-blockers: Beta blockers do not change the amount of hormones in your body, but can help with symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Beta blockers work by decreasing the amount of beta-adrenergic receptors, which are responsible for the unpleasant side effects of high hormone levels. Beta blockers can help eliminate heat intolerance, heart palpitations, tachycardia (fast heart rate), and anxiety. [7]

Antithyroid drugs: Antithyroid drugs include methimazole and propylthiouracil. These two drugs work by reducing excessive thyroid activity.

Radioactive iodine: This treatment involves taking a one-time pill. This pill contains radioactive iodine that is absorbed by your thyroid gland. The radioactivity in the iodine destroys most or all of the tissue in your thyroid, but does not affect any other parts of your body. This treatment sounds intense, but it is commonly used and has the best chance of permanently curing hyperthyroidism.[8]

a man getting his thyroid scanned with an ultrasound machine

Surgery: If none of the above treatments are successful, then your doctor may recommend surgically removing your thyroid. If you undergo a thyroidectomy, your thyroid will not be able to create excessive hormones, but you will need thyroid replacement medications for the rest of your life. [9]

The treatment options for hypothyroidism are typically less invasive because it is generally easier to treat. The most common treatment option for hypothyroidism is:

Thyroid replacement medication: These drugs provide synthetic hormones to supplement an underactive thyroid. Synthroid (levothyroxine) is a commonly prescribed medication. This drug replaces and provides more thyroid hormone to the body. These drugs can also be used after the thyroid is removed to provide adequate hormone levels. You typically have to take thyroid replacement medications for long periods, if not the rest of your life. [10]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.