Did you know that the small gland in your neck -- the thyroid -- is one of the most important glands in the body? The thyroid produces an important hormone that regulates consistent cellular activity and your metabolism.
But sometimes the thyroid gland can cause problems, including producing too little or too much hormone, the formation of nodules or lumps, increased growth of the thyroid itself and even cancer. Because of its vital role in the body, it’s important to understand how the thyroid works, common problems that can happen and how to take care of it.
How the thyroid works in the body
Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland, normally weighing less than one ounce, located in the front of the neck. It is made up of two lobes, or halves, that lie along your windpipe and are joined by a narrow band of thyroid tissue, known as the isthmus. The function of the thyroid gland is to take iodine and convert it into thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3).
Thyroid cells are the only cells in the body that can absorb iodine. These cells combine iodine and the amino acid tyrosine to make T3 and T4, which are then released into the bloodstream and are transported throughout the body to control your metabolism. Sometimes, your thyroid gland might produce too much or too little T3 and T4, which can lead to issues.
Thyroid disease can affect anyone, and is very common: an estimated 20 million people in the U.S. have a thyroid disorder.
Signs and symptoms of thyroid issues
There are two main types of thyroid disease: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. They can be caused by other diseases.
Hypothyroidism, also known as sluggish thyroid, occurs when the thyroid produces too little thyroid hormones. This disease is 10 times more common in women than men.
Mild hypothyroidism often can go unrecognized, but as the condition progresses, symptoms can include:
- Increased tiredness
- Weight gain
There can also be other symptoms, such as achiness, brittle hair and itchy skin.
Hypothyroidism can be caused by:
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis
- Postpartum thyroiditis
- Iodine deficiency
- A non-functioning thyroid gland
Treatment can include taking thyroid hormone, which the body no longer produces properly.
Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid, is caused when the thyroid produces too many hormones.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism vary, but can include:
- Weight loss
- Faster heart rate
- Difficulty sleeping
Hyperthyroidism can be caused by:
- Grave's disease
- Nodules on the thyroid
- Too much iodine
This type of thyroid disease affects women five to 10 times more often than men. Treatment choices for an overactive thyroid include surgery, radioactive iodine therapy and medication.
Thyroid nodules, or lumps, are quite common. Though most are benign, sometimes, nodules on the thyroid can develop into cancer. Often, thyroid cancer carries no symptoms. Some of the warning signs of thyroid cancer include:
- Problems with swallowing
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
- Pain in the neck or throat
- Difficulty breathing
Talk to your doctor about thyroid symptoms
If you are having repeated symptoms, or you suspect that your thyroid may be causing health issues, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. The thyroid is an important gland in the body, and it is critical to take care of it.
In addition to medical procedures, a doctor might suggest other lifestyle changes.
Foods that improve thyroid function
Get plenty of iodine
Iodine is essential for thyroid health. Without iodine, your body cannot make thyroid hormones, and issues then follow. You can increase your intake of iodine by consuming it by certain foods, including:
- Fresh eggs
- Dairy products
- Seaweed, including kelp, nori and wakame
Eat a balanced diet
Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole-grain foods to improve your overall health. Protein should come from lean sources, such as fish or beans. Fish including salmon, cod, sea bass, haddock or perch are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and selenium, which supports healthy thyroid function.
Nuts including hazelnuts, macademia nuts and Brazil nuts are also good sources of selenium to support thyroid health.
Cut down on simple carbohydrates and overly processed foods. Certain dietary fats contribute to heart disease and some forms of cancer. Reduce saturated fats, which come mainly from animal products, such as meat, cheese, and trans fats, which take the form of hydrogenated oils in processed foods.
Talk to your doctor about your diet to see if any changes are needed to support your thyroid health.
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Photo credit: Deucefleur