Overactive Thyroid

If your thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone, you’re said to have an overactive thyroid, a condition known as hyperthyroidism. It means that your body systems go into overdrive.

Although hyperthyroidism can occur in men, it’s much more of a problem for women, with women aged between 25 and 50 being most at risk. Some sources suggest in the USA around one in 1,000 women are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism every year.

Symptoms

Symptoms of the condition can include: rapid heart rate and palpitations, shortness of breath, goiter (swelling of the thyroid gland), increased perspiration, shakiness, anxiety, increased appetite accompanied by weight loss, insomnia, swollen, reddened and bulging eyes, and occasionally raised, thickened skin over the shins, backs of the feet, back, hands, or even face.

If you suspect you have symptoms of hyperthyroidism, consult a doctor right away. By accelerating your metabolism, the condition places an extra strain on your heart, in the long term potentially increasing your risk of heart failure. It can also interfere with your menstrual cycle and has been linked to infertility.

Causes

The most common cause of an overactive thyroid is Graves’ disease, which affects mostly young and middle-aged women. The triggers for Graves’ disease are unclear (although stress and heredity may play a part), but the disease itself is thought to be an autoimmune condition in which the immune system launches an antibody attack on the thyroid gland. This causes the thyroid to overproduce the hormone T4, leading to an increased metabolic rate.

Diagnosis

Blood test In order to diagnose an overactive thyroid, your doctor will perform a blood test. This test measures your blood levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). In hyperthyroidism, you would expect these levels to be lower than normal as your body attempts to reduce the rate at which your thyroid gland produces the hormone T4.

Conventional Treatments

If your doctor diagnoses hyperthyroidism, he or she will try to reduce your body’s’ levels of T4. There are several ways in which this can be done. The treatment you’re offered will depend on what your doctor thinks is causing your particular problem.

Medication Anti-thyroid drugs, such as methimazole and propylthiouracil in the USA and carbimazole in the UK< dampen the action of your thyroid gland by blocking the production of thyroid hormones. Your doctor will try to find levels of medication that keep your thyroid gland functioning at a “normal” rate. Intervention Your doctor may recommend that you have part of your thyroid gland removed. This procedure usually involves taking pills containing radioactive iodine. Your thyroid gland takes up iodine in your system to produce thyroid hormone, but, as it does so, the radioactivity in the medication destroys some of the thyroid cells. The result is that the thyroid shrinks and, so, produces less hormone. Note that this treatment can make some of the symptoms of Graces’ disease temporarily worse, especially swelling in the eyes.

Alternatively, your doctor may advise surgery to remove a nodule or a large part of your thyroid gland; or you may have a procedure called thyroid arterial embolization, in which the blood supply to your thyroid is blocked to disable its hormone-producing capabilities. All these are permanent solutions: You’ll need to take thyroid hormones in drug form for the rest of your life to do the work of your lost thyroid gland.

Your Diet

Your thyroid is one of the most important regulators your body has, and so it’s crucial that your doctor manages any problem with it. However, nutrition can provide wonderful complementary care. Try to eat more foods that naturally suppress thyroid function, in particular raw cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, radish, cauliflower, and arugula. These foods help block the thyroid’s uptake of iodine, which it needs in order to make T4 and T3. However, keep your doctor and/or nutritionist informed of any increase in these thyroid-suppressing foods in your diet, especially if you’re on medication, as the foods’ action may interfere with the dosage of any drugs you’re given.

Cut down on dairy product because they can provide a high level of iodine in your system, and avoid caffeine-containing drinks, such as coffee, tea, and sodas. Caffeine stimulates the action of your thyroid gland (and you need to suppress it).

Underactive Thyroid

Your body burns food rather like a car burns fuel. Just as the accelerator regulates how much fuel gets to the engine of the car, so your thyroid regulates how quickly your body uses food.

Because of its function as a fuel regulator, your thyroid gland is responsible for maintaining your energy levels and regulating your weight. It performs these functions by secreting the hormones thyroxine (also called T4) and triidothyronine (also called T3). These are the hormones that tell your body how fast to burn calories. Most T3 is converted from T4 (itself an inactive hormone), and the production of both T3 and T4 is regulated by another hormone called TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone or thyrotrophin), which is made in the pituitary gland in the brain.

With the right amount of thyroid hormones, your body burns fuel at the optimum rate, and you’ll have plenty of energy. You’ll also have a constant body temperature and a regular heart rate and menstrual cycle. When you have too little T4 in your blood, your thyroid gland is said to be underactive – a condition known as hypothyroidism. This can happen as a result of an auto-immune disorder, a congenital abnormality in the thyroid gland (present at birth), or a nutritional iodine deficiency (the body needs iodine to manufacture thyroid hormones). Alternatively, if your pituitary under-products TSH, your thyroid isn’t stimulated to create T4, and this can be another cause. Left untreated, hypothyroidism puts you at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, emphysema, arthritis, depression, migraine, and carpal tunnel syndrome (a condition in which you experience pain, tingling, or numbness in the wrist). See your doctor immediately if you suspect that an underactive thyroid may be affecting you.

Hypothyroidism Checklist

A poor diet, stress, inactivity, smoking, antibody attack, and certain drugs can all influence the functioning of your thyroid. There are certain symptoms that may indicate an underactive thyroid condition when they appear together. If four or more of the following apply to you, visit your doctor right away.

• Have you put on weight despite keeping to your eating and exercise patterns?
• Do you often feel cold, even when the weather is warm?
• Do you suffer from constipation?
• Is your mood low?
• Do you suffer from irregular periods?
• Is your hair thinner and drier than before?
• Do you suffer from fatigue?
• Does your skin feel much drier than usual?

Diagnosis

Blood test If you ticked the above in at least four of the questions in the checklist, you should ask your doctor to test you for an underactive thyroid. Normal levels of TSH and T4 in your blood indicate your thyroid is working properly. If your results are borderline normal (only just within the normal range), your doctor will take into account your symptoms when deciding whether or not you should be treated for an underactive thyroid.

Basal body temperature If your blood test comes back normal but you continue to have all the symptoms of an underactive thyroid, we would suggest you take your temperature over the course of three days. This is because if the problem doesn’t lie with your thyroid itself but with the cells in your body that are supposed to latch on to your thyroid hormones, you don’t have a full-blown thyroid problem. However, you may have a slow metabolism, which can show up as a low body temperature.

For accurate measurement, use an electronic thermometer. During your menstrual cycle, your temperature rises after ovulation, which will affect your reading. Take your temperature on the second, third, and fourth days of your menstrual cycle to avoid this anomaly. On the first day, note the reading for that day, even before you get up. This is your basal body temperature, which is your body temperature when you’re resting. Over the following two mornings, take your basal body temperature in exactly the same way, first thing in the morning. If you find that your average basal body temperature is below 97.6 °F, your thyroid could be sluggish. (If your temperature is much lower than this, ask your doctor to repeat your blood test, as this suggests your thyroid is underactive).

Conventional Treatments

If a blood test reveals an underactive thyroid, your doctor is likely to offer you the standard treatment for hypothyroidism, which is the drug thyroxine. It may take a few months for your doctor to establish the correct dosage – he or she will test and, around three months later, retest for hormone levels in your blood until the balance is right. After that, you’ll be asked to repeat the blood test at regular intervals (usually six monthly to a year) to make sure that the dosage doesn’t need to alter in any way.

If you doctor does prescribe thyroxine, be sure to avoid taking iron supplements, and any vitamins and minerals supplements containing iron, at the same time of day that you take the thyroxine. This is because iron seems to bind to the thyroxine so that the body can’t use it. Natural sources of iron don’t trigger problems with thyroxine medication, so you can still keep eating plenty of iron-rich foods, such as leafy green vegetables and dried fruit.

Your Diet

Other than following the hormone-balancing diet, guidelines, it’s important to stock up iodine-rich foods – in particular seaweed (which also has anti-cancer benefits and the ability to reduce cholesterol and improve fat metabolism in the body), as well as cod, prawn and tuna. Iodine is an essential component of the thyroid hormones, and deficiency has been directly linked to hypothyroidism because it hampers the body’s production of T4. When the pituitary gland recognizes that levels of T4 are low in the blood, it produces more TSH. If your TSH levels stay too high for too long, the thyroid gland can become enlarged to produce a goiter.

Avoid Goitrogens

Goitrogens are foods that can hinder the uptake of iodine in the blood, which can then make an underactive thyroid worse. In their raw state cabbage, turnips, soy, peanuts, and pine nuts are all classed as goitrogens. However, after cooking, the problem disappears, so you needn’t avoid these foods altogether. If you suffer from hypothyroidism, you can benefit from all their healthy properties, but only once they’re cooked.

Supplements

Manganese This is an important mineral for healthy thyroid function because it’s needed for the efficient production of T4.
Selenium is a vital component of the enzyme that helps trigger the creation of the thyroid hormone T3, so it’s essential that your levels of this mineral (found naturally in the soil, and also in shellfish and Brazil nuts) are optimum.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Essential fats are crucial for healthy thyroid function because they help keep cells more fluid, which means that they are more sensitive to thyroid hormones and respond more effectively. (Take flax seed capsules if you’re vegetarian).
Tyrosine This amino acid plays an important role in the healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, improving metabolism and suppressing appetite.

Natural Treatments

Homeopathy Take Arsenicum 30c twice daily for up to five days, then wait two months and ask your doctor to assess the levels of thyroid hormone in your blood. If there’s no improvement, consult a registered homeopath. Arsenicum is believed to help improve the thyroid’s ability to manufacture hormones.

Acupuncture You may find this therapy helpful if you have an underactive thyroid and thyroid antibodies that show your immune system is attacking your thyroid cells. An acupuncturist will use moxibustion (burning the herb mugwort near your skin) to reduce the levels of thyroid antibodies and try to help recover proper thyroid function.

Traditional Chinese Medicine A study at the Shanghai Medical University treated 32 patients with hypothyroidism for a year with a Chinese herbal preparation to stimulate the kidney meridian. The clinical symptoms of hypothyroidism were said to be markedly improved compared with a control group. You’ll need to visit a qualified practitioner to see if this treatment could work for you.

Aromatherapy Geranium essential oil is thought to help balance the thyroid hormones. Place 5 drops of the oil in your bath and soak in it for 20 minutes. Try to do this every day. Alternatively, you could dilute 5 drops of the oil in 2 tsp. sweet almond oil and massage it into your skin in any way you find soothing.

Self-Help

De-stress your life Stress (along with high levels of inactivity and smoking) can encourage thyroid under- activity because stress raises your body’s blood levels if the hormone cortisol, which in turn reduce levels of T3, slowing your metabolism right down.

If there are high levels of cortisol in your body, your muscles will begin to break down to provide fuel (in the form of glucose) to your brain. The less muscle you have, the slower your metabolism (and equally, the more muscle you have the faster your metabolism, which is why exercise is so important for general good health). To make matters worse, high cortisol levels inhibit the production of TSH from the pituitary gland, so the thyroid fails to be stimulated to produce T4. So, if you suffer from an underactive thyroid, relaxation time is essential. Take time out to do the things you love – whether that’s reading, walking, painting, or simply sitting and watching the world go by. Make relaxation an important part of your daily life. Schedule it in if need be, and make sure you stick to it.

Graves’ Disease

About 13 million people in the United States have a thyroid condition. Although many are not as mysterious as Graves’ disease, they still go misdiagnosed. Graves’ disease is not as frightening as it sounds.

Sheryl, once a nurse, was 46 when she found out she had Graves’ disease. Yet, it was a mystery to her. “I’m a nurse by background, and I knew of this disease but just did not key into it,” she says.

Often the first noticeable sign is eye protrusion. Famous people with Graves’ include Barbara Bush and Olympic gold-medalist Gail Devers, who says, “I had it in 1988, and it took them two-and-a-half years to actually discover what it was.”

Graves’ often goes undiagnosed in athletes because it can mimic sports-related conditions like over-training or chronic fatigue. Symptoms include weight loss, irritability, changes in menstruation and heart palpitations.

The endocrinologist explains the mystery of Graves’ disease, “Your body makes antibodies against the thyroid, and those antibodies will stimulate the thyroid to be overactive.”

The thyroid gland releases hormones into the blood that affect metabolism, body temperature, muscle tone and vigor. “Almost every organ in the body is affected by the thyroid, and so that’s why the symptoms are so diffuse and yet non-specific.

Graves’ is treatable and can be easily diagnosed during a physical examination. Sheryl says, “Have a good outlook. Be positive, and I believe that’s true with anything.” She has a healthy new outlook since Graves’. She’s back in school for a psychology degree.

Graves’ disease is four to eight times more common in women, especially between the ages of 20 and 40. If you have symptoms, it’s also a good idea to research your family history, as it tends to be hereditary.

Thyroid Crusader

Feeling sluggish? It could be your thyroid. One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder, and most don’t even realize they are sick. One woman is on a crusade to educate women about this often overlooked and important health problem.

Mary Shomon makes sure she gets a daily dose of exercise. It’s important she stays active, because her thyroid isn’t. Ten years ago, Shomon was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid. At that point, she didn’t even know where the thyroid was.

The small gland in the neck makes hormones that help regulate the body’s metabolism and organ function. After her diagnosis, Shomon began to do some research and discovered millions of Americans, mostly women, were unaware they had a thyroid disorder. “So people need to be aware of the symptoms, and they need to go in specifically and say to their doctor, ‘I want my thyroid test,'” Shomon tells Ivanhoe

Symptoms of thyroid disease are fairly common and may include severe weight gain, exhaustion, depression, hair loss, or cold hands and feet. Shomon says, “It’s become my mission ’cause I really want to make sure there are not people walking around struggling with these conditions and dealing with a life of chronic illness that is unwarranted.”

She’s learned so much about the condition, she’s written several books. Shomon’s advice: If you are not feeling up to par, talk to your doctor about your thyroid.

A simple blood test can diagnose the disorder, and it can be treated with medication. According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, the most common risk factors for a thyroid disorder are being female, over the age of 40, and if you have a family history of thyroid disease.

Thyroid Mystery

It isn’t menopause…it isn’t depression…and it isn’t normal. But that’s how thyroid disease is often diagnosed. If it’s left untreated, thyroid disease can be devastating. The bad news for Peggy Zunzel is her doctor spotted something suspicious in her throat. The good news is she’s getting tested to see what it is.

Stanley Feld, M.D., Presbyterian Hospital, Dallas, TX:
“The people most at risk are women. In fact, one-third of the female population has nodules and don’t know it.”

The thyroid is a bow tie-shaped gland that’s right under your voice box. It controls your metabolism. When it produces too much or too little thyroid hormone there can be problems…and they can be mistaken for depression, menopause, even heart disease. Thyroid nodules can also cause complications. Now, doctors can tell whether the lumps are serious with a simple biopsy.

Stanley Feld, M.D.:
“With a fine needle aspiration, and a small sampling of tissue, you can tell whether this abnormal growth is benign, or this abnormal growth is malignant.”

Thyroid specialists have also established new guidelines to determine when tests should be done.

Stanley Feld, M.D.:
“We believe these guidelines are going to decrease suffering to the patient, they’re going to increase the outcome of care to the patient, and it’s going to decrease the massive burden of health care costs to society.”

Thyroid disease can be treated with radioactive iodine to shrink the gland, antithyroid drugs to block hormone production, beta-blocker drugs to block the hormone’s effect, pills to give the body the right amount of hormones or surgery for thyroid cancer.