By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
The thyroid gland is a small organ that’s located in the front of the neck, wrapped around the windpipe. It’s shaped like a butterfly, smaller in the middle with two wide wings that extend around the side of your throat. An underactive thyroid can affect your life in many ways. Hypothyroidism happens when your thyroid doesn’t create and release enough thyroid hormone into your body.
The effect makes your metabolism slow down.
“It is very common to have an underactive thyroid and it can dictate several aspects of your overall health — whether that is fatigue, weight gain or just a lack of energy,” said Michael Quartuccio, clinical endocrinologist with Rochester Regional Health.
However, the condition does have many stereotypes and misinformation. Quartuccio talks about five aspects of thyroid conditions.
Thyroid-related symptoms can be present in many different medical conditions. Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, heart palpitations, dry skin and high blood pressure. Lower-than-normal T4 levels usually mean you have hypothyroidism. However, some people may have increased TSH levels while having normal T4 levels. The thyroid helps regulate the heartbeat so it is not pumping blood too fast or too slow. Yet sometimes thyroid gets blamed for several negative symptoms in your overall health.
“People think that an underactive thyroid is the only thing that can cause low energy or weight gain and that simply is not the case,” said Quartuccio.
In addition, some may confuse hypothyroidism with hyperthyroidism. The latter, which is diagnosed as an overactive thyroid, has symptoms that include nervousness, anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, sensitivity to heat and muscle weakness.
Often times hypothyroidism is caused by a condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis where a patient’s immune system attacks and destroys the thyroid.
“Well over 90% of those who suffer from hypothyroidism have been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease,” said Quartuccio. “Generally the condition causes mild inflammation over time. It is a slow-moving process.”
In cases of hyperthyroidism, the most common diagnosis is Graves Disease. Although Graves’ disease may affect anyone, it’s more common among women and in people younger than 40.
For an underactive thyroid, doctors prefer to prescribe levothyroxine. It can also be used to help decrease the size of enlarged thyroid glands, often called a goiter, and to treat thyroid cancer.
Levothyroxine comes as a tablet and a capsule to take by mouth. It usually is taken once a day on an empty stomach, 30 minutes to one hour before breakfast.
“It is a very common treatment in pill form,” said Quartuccio.
In rare cases, a doctor can perform a thyroidectomy, which removes most of your thyroid gland. Risks of this surgery include damage to your vocal cords and parathyroid glands.
“Surgery is one of the last options we recommend for thyroid issues,” Quartuccio added. “It can be used as a last resort if several previous treatment options have been deemed unsuccessful.”
A diagnosis is made with a physical examination and laboratory tests that measure the amount of thyroid hormone. Blood tests that measure thyroxine and thyroid-stimulating hormones can confirm the diagnosis. High levels of thyroxine and low or nonexistent amounts can indicate an overactive thyroid. Occasionally if a patient feels a lump on their neck or throat an endocrinologist will perform an ultrasound or a biopsy.
When it comes to diet and food, thyroid treatments have mixed messages. Some believe in iodine treatments. Iodine is an element that is needed for the production of thyroid hormone. The body does not make iodine, so it is an essential part of your diet. If you do not have enough iodine in your body, you cannot make enough thyroid hormone, according to the American Thyroid Association. Remedies such as iodine supplements are not viewed as necessary if you live in the United States or most developed countries.
“We tend to have enough iodine in our food and dairy so most people in the United States are not going to suffer from not having enough,” said Quartuccio.