Your thyroid produces hormones that control a variety of functions and processes in your body. Ahead, we look at the various functions of the thyroid, symptoms of a thyroid problem, and why doctors may not correctly diagnose a thyroid problem.
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in your neck. It produces two different types of thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). As part of the endocrine system, these hormones help regulate your metabolism, the chemical process in your body that turns what you eat into energy.
These thyroid hormones regulate a variety of critical body functions, including:
Thyroid hormones are responsible for many processes that affect how you feel, which is why thyroid imbalances can cause so many different types of symptoms.
Free T4 and free T3 circulate throughout your body, ready to be used by your body's cells whenever they're needed. T4 is a mostly inactive hormone and needs to be converted to active T3 before the body can use it. This conversion happens primarily in the liver, but also takes place in cells of the heart, muscle, gut, and nerves.
When T3 is bound to a cell, it causes the production of specific proteins that control a variety of body functions. Different types of cells respond to T3 differently, so each tissue in your body has a different reaction to levels of T3 that are too high or too low.
The systems in our bodies are intricately interconnected.
The hypothalamus is a small but important part of the brain that produces thyrotropin-releasing hormones (TRH). TRH tells the pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ in the brain, to produce thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Then, TSH tells the thyroid to make and release more T3 and T4 hormone. This feedback loop is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis.
If you think about your thyroid as a furnace that produces thyroid hormone when it's necessary to help maintain stable levels in the bloodstream, the pituitary gland is the thermostat that tells the thyroid when to start and stop releasing thyroid hormone.
Sometimes, this butterfly-shaped gland doesn't function as it should. The thyroid might start producing too much or too little hormone - hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, respectively - or it might become enlarged or grow extra tissue.
Common thyroid problems include:
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid doesn't make enough thyroid hormone. When thyroid hormone production drops, virtually all body processes slow down, causing symptoms like weight gain or fatigue. Often, this condition is a result of Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune condition that attacks the thyroid.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone. When thyroid hormone production increases, virtually all body processes speed up, causing symptoms like irritability, weight loss, or heart races. Sometimes this condition is caused by Graves' disease, another autoimmune condition.
A goiter occurs when your thyroid gland swells up, sometimes causing a noticeable bulge in your neck or your voice to sound hoarse.
Nodules are growths on the thyroid gland that can develop singularly or in a cluster. These nodules are relatively common and rarely cancerous. Still, you consult with your doctor to identify the problem and proper treatment.
Many doctors only test levels of TSH, but that doesn't give a complete picture of how the thyroid is working. For instance, the problem could be that your pituitary gland is telling your thyroid to produce enough T4 and T3, but your cells are unable to use it properly.
For the best diagnosis, it's essential to measure levels of free T3, free T4, and TPO antibodies, in addition to TSH. TPO antibodies mark the presence of autoimmune thyroid disease, like Hashimoto's disease, which is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.
Should your results show that your thyroid isn't functioning optimally, it is easily treatable in almost everyone. Optimizing your thyroid levels with thyroid hormone replacement medication is usually the first step. When choosing thyroid medication with your doctor, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment.
Beyond taking thyroid hormones, you can support your thyroid with nutrition and lifestyle modifications.
Schedule a free call with a care advisor to determine if Paloma Health is the right fit for you.
Find inspiration for a healthy way to support your thyroid