Like all organs and systems in the human body, the hormones secreted by the thyroid gland must remain in balance to maintain good health. In simple terms, the thyroid’s job is to release a measured stream of two primary hormones known as triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxin (T4), which are responsible for controlling metabolism.
Metabolism, in essence, is the body’s ability to control its core temperature, calorie-burn rate, fat storage and overall energy levels. By extension, these factors affect feelings of hot and cold, endurance and exhaustion, heart rate and weight.
What happens when the thyroid stops doing its job adequately or, conversely, starts working overtime and dumps too much hormone into the bloodstream? Here are two common conditions that warrant a visit to your doctor:
Hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid, is the condition that results from a patient’s thyroid slowing its production of T3 and/or T4 hormones. As a result, the body’s natural metabolism is thrown out of balance, typically functioning slower than it should. In general, hypothyroidism is most common among females over age 60, but it can occur in anyone and at any age, including infants.
One of the most common and easily detectable symptoms associated with hypothyroidism, and a slowed metabolic rate, is sudden weight gain without any changes to diet or activity level. Additionally, hypothyroidism patients also typically complain of low energy and a nagging feeling of tiredness, even with adequate sleep. Many also experience frequent constipation, erratic menstrual cycles, very dry skin, and/or depression.
Inability to maintain core body temperature, usually feeling cold when others are comfortable, is another strong indicator of a slowed thyroid. While occasional coldness is a common problem for everyone during temperature extremes, even with a fully functioning thyroid, feeling cold in only moderately cool temperature, especially in connection with sudden gained weight, is noteworthy.
Many hypothyroid sufferers also have poor circulation in their extremities – particularly fingers and toes – which sometimes causes them to turn blueish in temperatures that previously were tolerable.
For an estimated 5 to 10 percent of postpartum women, a thyroid flux can occur shortly after giving birth, often starting with a hyperthyroid condition which gradually settles into hypothyroidism. This is often a result of hormonal changes associated with becoming a mother, and in most cases is self-resolving in a few months to a few years. However, any woman who feels she may be at risk of, or already has, a thyroid problem during pregnancy should talk to her doctor immediately about treatment options, since irregular metabolism can have dangerous consequences for a fetus.
The thyroid can become overactive in its production of T3 and/or T4 hormones, a condition known as hyperthyroidism, which is frequently associated with Graves’ disease.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism are virtually the opposite of hypothyroidism, in that it causes a “revving-up” of the metabolic rate. While some have considered a few of its symptoms to actually be somewhat desirable, the reality is that it is equally life-threatening, if not more so.
One of the earliest and most recognizable symptoms is weight loss without diet or exercise, and often with an increase in appetite. Hyperthyroidism is sometimes accompanied by the desire to fidget, mood swings without reason, irritability and/or poor, unrestful sleep. Bowel movements may become more frequent and intense. Even in cool weather, most hyperthyroid patients complain of feeling hot since the body is constantly working to burn calories and create energy. They may sweat noticeably more, as well.
While some claim they would gladly accept feeling hot and a little bit nervous in order to feel energetic and stay thin, in reality it’s not worth the risk because the most dangerous result of hyperthyroidism is a dangerously high heart-rate.
In the past, testing for thyroid conditions was much less precise and many patients went undiagnosed. Today however, thanks to advances in technology, it is much easier and more accurate. Typically, a blood test will reveal what thyroid irregularity, if any, is occurring and then a specialist can make an assessment and recommend the best treatment.
The effects of a thyroid condition can be debilitating and far-reaching. Thankfully, these conditions can be treated and managed through medication or, in rare cases, surgery.
Hypothyroidism is most commonly treated by prescription of the medication known generically as thyroxine. This drug will stimulate the thyroid to become more active, thus increasing metabolism. Another blood test is needed six to eight weeks after starting treatment to ensure the dosage is correct.
Hyperthyroidism is also treatable in mild forms with medication, namely radioactive iodine, methimazole, or propylthiouracil. All of these drugs serve to inhibit the release of T3 and T4, thus slowing metabolism. In extreme cases, surgery to partially remove the thyroid, thereby reducing its function, may be recommended as a final alternative.