Let’s be honest, most of us who’ve not faced thyroid issues don’t know two cents about it. While the bigger chronic ailment villains like diabetes and hypertension get a lot of attention among the general public, thyroid and it’s related issues don’t. But the lack of general awareness about thyroid-related issues should be cause for concern.
While we know the symptoms of high or low blood sugar or pressure and know how to handle it, thyroid symptoms are not as well known.
But this lack of knowledge stops here.
We’re going to try and better understand what exactly is thyroid, what it’s importance is and how we can make lifestyle changes that can ensure better thyroid health.
What Exactly Is The Thyroid Gland?
We’ve all learnt about thyroid in high school biology – it’s a butterfly-shaped gland that sits low in front of the neck and when it’s in its normal size, you won’t be able to feel it from outside. This gland is responsible for the secretion of several hormones that contribute to many functions in our body.
This ranges from our metabolism, growth, body temperature and so on. Especially during infancy and childhood, these hormones are necessary for a person to develop their brain properly. The main hormone produced by the thyroid is called thyroxine or T4. Triiodothyronine (or T3) is the other major hormone that works together with T4 to regulate the above-mentioned aspects of the body.
Why Do We Have To Talk About Thyroid, Anyway?
The thyroid is a tiny gland, in comparison to many others in the body. But it’s size is deceiving when compared to the function it serves. This gland is responsible for major functions in the body such as metabolism, growth, development and maintaining body temperature. By producing a steady amount of thyroid hormones, it keeps these functions intact.
To better understand the importance of thyroid, the following are some of the vital functions impacted by this gland – breathing, heart rate, central and peripheral nervous system function, body weight, muscle strength, menstrual cycle, cholesterol levels, body temperature and metabolism.
What’s the Difference Between Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism?
Thyroid function, like all bodily functions, is a delicate game of checks and balances. When there is underproduction of thyroid hormones or overproduction, it can lead to severe problems within the body. When there are too much T3 and T4 hormones in the body, hyperthyroidism occurs. This condition can cause the body processes to speed up.
The symptoms for this condition include:
- Irritability or moodiness
- Weight loss
- Sweating or sensitivity to high temperatures
- Hand trembling
- Hair loss
- Missed or light menstrual period
A lot of the time, hyperthyroidism is caused by Grave’s disease – an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own thyroid gland. This can cause the thyroid to swell up and secrete excess hormones, leading to the above symptoms.
But on the other end, if your body is not producing enough thyroid hormones, it can cause hypothyroidism. According to a study,1 in 10 adults in India experience hypothyroidism. Especially older, overweight females are more prone to having this condition. The worst part of hypothyroidism is that the symptoms for this condition are not as apparent, which can cause further problems. The symptoms to look out for include:
- Cold intolerance
- Dry skin
- Depressive mood swings
- Muscle Weakness
- Increased sweating
Now that we know what symptoms to watch out for, recognizing and managing these conditions should come easy to us, right?
But the truth is that there is also a need to understand the factors that affect your thyroid so that you can address the causes and not the resulting symptoms.
What Are the Factors That Cause Hyperthyroidism and Hypothyroidism?
When it comes to hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease is the major cause for it. This common autoimmune condition causes the immune system to recognize the thyroid as a foreign body and starts to attack it. This causes the thyroid to grow in size and release more thyroid hormones.
Some of the other causes of hyperthyroidism include:
- Swollen thyroid
- Thyroid nodules
- Small masses within the thyroid (called a toxic nodular goitre)
- Thyroiditis — an inflammation of the thyroid due to a virus
- Postpartum thyroiditis (after giving birth)
- Taking too much thyroid hormone
Here’s the sad bit about hypothyroidism – genetics is often the main culprit behind it and genetics is one of those things that you cannot change. Hypothyroidism is caused when an underactive thyroid causes the immune system to fight its own thyroid, that leads to inflammation and lowers thyroid hormone production. The symptoms for hypothyroidism are so vague that it could even be confused for other conditions like fatigue or vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Some of the common causes of hypothyroidism are:
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder
- Low-iodine diet
- Certain medications used to treat cancer, heart problems and psychiatric conditions
- Surgical removal of the thyroid
- Previous radiation for cancer
- Conditions that affect the pituitary gland in the brain (such as Sheehan’s syndrome)
- Hypothyroidism present at birth
- Certain medications, including amiodarone, lithium, and anti-epilepsy drugs
While these factors are not dependent on your lifestyle per se, they can be better controlled by making lifestyle changes. Eating better, moving more, paying more attention to your stress levels and sleep cycle can go a long way in regulating your thyroid levels.
How Can You Make Better Lifestyle Choices for Thyroid Health?
Reading until this point should have made it obvious that unlike diabetes or cholesterol, thyroid problems aren’t directly related to lifestyle activities. Watching your diet, losing weight or taking supplements is not going to work miracles. However, keeping a few guidelines in mind can go a long way in better managing your hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
For those with hypothyroidism, a clean diet with minimally processed food can go a long way in boosting their energy and keeping their metabolism working well. A lot of companies promote thyroid-related supplements, but most of the time, they aren’t proven to be effective. Some alternative medicine practitioners suggest iodine supplements for hypothyroidism, but too much of it can also cause a decline in thyroid function.
Regular exercise at a moderate intensity can keep a hypothyroid patient fit, but overexertion can potentially worsen hypothyroidism symptoms. Getting good sleep can help regulate cortisol levels in the body, which in turn optimize the thyroid functions. Most importantly, patients should learn to take cues from their own body and give it what it wants. Hypothyroid may be different for different people and tuning into your body can help manage it better.
When it comes to hyperthyroidism, high levels of thyroid hormones in the body can lead to severe problems in the long run. To manage this better, doctors will put patients on medications. While these thyroid medications can help regulate the condition, certain food items can also help keep your thyroid healthy and manage the condition better. Certain minerals, vitamins and other nutrients can also help balance thyroid function.
A low-iodine diet is usually recommended for those with hyperthyroid so that the production of thyroid hormones will be better controlled. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale and such are great for hyperthyroidism as it can assist in preventing iodine from being used by the thyroid. Vitamins like Iron, Selenium, Zinc, Calcium, Vitamin D, as well as healthy fats, can improve thyroid health and better balance thyroid hormones.
Regular exercise can contribute to both the mental health and physical health of those living with hyperthyroidism. It can help prevent excess weight gain and better manage your appetite. Even if a hyperthyroidism patient chooses to exercise, they should ensure not to overdo it. This condition already causes increased heart rate and metabolic rate in the body and when overtraining adds to it, this can potentially cause problems. Lower intensity training like yoga or walking is great ways to better control hyperthyroidism and keep a handle on a patient’s weight.
While some of us may be more predisposed to having thyroid issues and may even have to go on medications to manage it, lifestyle changes can also assist in managing it better. A clean diet nutrient-rich diet, a moderate-intensity workout routine, managing your stress levels are all simple acts that anyone should do. These acts can go a long way in moderating your thyroid hormone levels and keeping you away from the more dangerous side of thyroid conditions.