Thyroid Disorders: What Patients Need To Know

Thyroid disorders are common and can affect anyone, from infants to adults. Some people are born with thyroid disorders, while others develop with age. Women are over five times more likely than men to have a thyroid disorder. It often starts between 20 and 40 years of age, but the risk increase with age. If you have a thyroid disorder, you need to know what to do and not do when it comes to taking care of your thyroid.

Key takeaways:
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    Thyroid disorders are common, affecting anyone at any age.
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    If the thyroid is not working correctly, it can affect your entire body.
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    There are several thyroid disorders, the most common being hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
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    Treatments are available. Take medications as directed to avoid serious complications.
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    Follow diet guidelines to avoid the risk of complications.

The Thyroid

The thyroid is a gland that sits over the throat at the base of the neck, shaped like a butterfly. This endocrine gland has an important role in several functions throughout the body. It releases hormones that control body functions like metabolism, mood, and growth. Plus, it helps organs like the heart and brain function correctly.

The thyroid releases T3 (thyroxine) and T4 (triiodothyronine), which tell the body how to work. T3 and T4 levels are regulated by the pituitary gland located in the brain. It controls how much thyroid hormone circulates in the body by releasing its hormone. If thyroid levels are too high or too low, stimulating thyroid hormone (TSH) released from the pituitary gland regulates the thyroid. TSH stimulates the thyroid to increase or decrease its hormone release, returning thyroid levels to normal.

If the thyroid is not working correctly, it can affect your entire body. The amount of hormones the thyroid releases is altered and not what the body needs. Too much or too little thyroid hormone is the result of a thyroid disorder.

Thyroid disorders

A thyroid disorder is a medical problem where the thyroid does not release the amount of hormone the body needs. It either releases too much or not enough. There are several thyroid disorders that can affect people. The most common are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid is underactive and does not produce enough hormone for the body to perform as normal. As a result, things start slowing down. This can occur gradually.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Fatigue;
  • Dry skin;
  • Weight gain;
  • Thinning hair or nails.
  • Depression;
  • Enlarged thyroid gland (also known as a goiter);
  • Slowed heart rate;
  • Heavy or irregular menstrual cycles.

The opposite is hyperthyroidism, which happens when the thyroid is overactive and releases too much hormone. As a result, the body speeds up and uses too much energy, which can occur suddenly.

Symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss (without trying);
  • Increased appetite;
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat;
  • Nervousness or anxiousness.
  • Difficulty sleeping;
  • Tremors;
  • Bulging eyes.

Some other thyroid disorders include:

  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis;
  • Grave’s disease;
  • Postpartum thyroiditis.

Diagnosing thyroid disorder

Your healthcare provider can diagnose a thyroid disorder by doing a physical exam and blood tests. In some cases, an ultrasound may be ordered to look at the thyroid, but this is often not necessary.

Blood testing is the best way to diagnose and monitor thyroid disorders. Your provider will check the Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) first. An abnormal TSH is the first sign the thyroid isn’t functioning properly. The provider will also check T4, Free T4, T3, and Free T3 to help monitor poor thyroid function.

In some cases, thyroid ultrasound is needed when the thyroid is enlarged or a mass can be felt on exam. A needle biopsy may also be used to diagnose thyroid nodules, masses, or tumors.

How are thyroid disorders treated?

Thyroid disorders are common and are generally easily treated with medicine. The goal of treatment is to return the thyroid hormones to a normal level. If thyroid hormone levels are high, in the case of hyperthyroidism, treatments can include:

Anti-thyroid medications - stop the thyroid from making hormones.

Beta-blockers - a common type of heart medication that treats the symptoms but not the hormones.

Radioactive iodine - the iodine causes damage to the thyroid cells and decreases hormone production.

Thyroidectomy - surgery to remove the thyroid and stop the overproduction of hormones. However, this treatment option requires thyroid replacement hormones to be taken instead.

In the case of hypothyroidism, thyroid replacement medications are synthetic hormones used to replace what your body lacks.

Dos and don’ts of thyroid treatment

If you have a thyroid disorder and are receiving treatment, you need to be aware of things you should or shouldn’t do.

Hypothyroid patients

Tips if you have hypothyroidism and take medicine to replace the thyroid hormones.

DO:

  • Take your medication every morning when you wake up on an empty stomach, one hour before eating or drinking.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet added iodine is typically unnecessary.
  • Use caution when eating foods high in iodine.
  • Have thyroid levels checked as directed.

DON’T:

  • Take supplements or herbal remedies without discussing them with your doctor.
  • Take your thyroid medication with supplements, multivitamins, and iron.
  • Use caution when taking antacids or cholesterol-lowering medications.
  • Take additional iodine without direction from a healthcare provider.
  • Miss your medication doses.

Hyperthyroid patients

Tips in the case of hyperthyroidism.

DO:

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat foods low in iron: egg whites, proteins, fruits, non-iodized salt, unsalted nuts, nut butters.
  • Eat selenium-rich foods: Oatmeal, spinach, rice, nuts, fortified pasta and cereals.
  • Eat cruciferous vegetables: brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, kale, broccoli, cauliflower.
  • Eat foods with iron: Fortified cereal, raisins, red meats, protein, spinach, seafood, beans/legumes.
  • Use caution with over-the-counter medications like cough syrup which can contain iron.
  • Eat calcium and vitamin D-rich foods.
  • Avoid caffeine: coffee, black tea, chocolate, soda, etc.

DON’T:

  • Eat iodized salt, shellfish, seaweed.
  • Use iodine supplements.
  • Use soy products when taking radioactive iodine uptake treatment (including edamame and tofu).
  • Don’t use alcohol or tobacco.

Complications of uncontrolled thyroid disease

Serious problems can occur if you don’t take your medications as directed or follow these diet tips. Eating too much iodine can overwhelm the thyroid and cause it to increase hormone production when it shouldn’t, causing an increase in symptoms.

If high hormone levels aren’t controlled, patients can experience thyroid storm, which can be life-threatening. Uncontrolled hypothyroidism can lead to myxedema coma, which is also life-threatening.

Thyroid disorders are common, affecting anyone at any age. This causes an imbalanced release of thyroid hormone levels. The imbalance prevents the body from functioning correctly. Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are the most common. Several other disorders exist, and all are treatable. It is necessary to take medication as directed and follow these dos and don’ts to avoid risking complications that could cause serious health problems or death.

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