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 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.
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.
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.
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 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).