What Is The Thyroid & How Does It Work?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck. You can’t usually see it unless it’s enlarged. It makes our thyroid hormones, known as T3 and T4, both of which are essential for regulating our metabolism and governing all sorts of functions in our body, from our digestion and heart rate to our overall mood.
What’s The Difference Between An Under-Active & Over-Active Thyroid?
If the thyroid is under-active (known as hypothyroidism), there will be a lack of the thyroid hormone in your body – this is the more common issue of the two and on the whole, it's easy to treat. If you’re suffering from an over-active thyroid (known as hyperthyroidism), it means there is too much of the thyroid hormone. Sometimes it’s not unusual for the gland to become over-active to start with and then switch to being under-active, which means you’ll require different treatments at different stages of the condition. This is why it’s so key to keep a close eye on your body and always book in with your GP regularly.
Is It True The Issue Is More Common In Women?
Yes! In fact, women are roughly twice as likely as men to suffer from the condition. This is because most thyroid pathology is caused by an auto-immune disease, where the immune system becomes too active and starts attacking organs in the body. Women are thought to have a more vulnerable immune system because of the way our bodies are adapted in order to carry a pregnancy. Medication, chronic stress, pregnancy and getting older can also be to blame for the condition. While thyroid issues are common, they shouldn’t be left untreated as it can eventually lead to other complications, including raised cholesterol, heart disease, strokes, anxiety and depression.
How Will A Doctor Diagnose You With Thyroid Issues?
If you suspect you have a thyroid disorder, the best way to get a diagnosis is to see your GP straight away for a blood test – this is called a ‘thyroid function test’. It measures the level of hormones produced by the thyroid (T3 and T4), and also a related hormone called TSH, which is produced by the pituitary gland. Keep an eye on the following symptoms for each condition:
Brittle hair and nails
Sensitivity to the cold
Low pitched voice
Thinning of hair and eyebrows
Shortness of breath
So, What Can We Do To Treat It?
As mentioned, an under-active thyroid is fairly easy to treat because you simply need to take a tablet (usually levothyroxine) that replaces the missing hormone – this will be prescribed and given to you by your GP. It takes some trial and error to establish the correct dose, so don’t be alarmed if you have to have repeated blood tests.
An over-active thyroid, on the other hand, is more difficult to treat, mainly because you have to stop it from producing so much hormone. In this case, you may be prescribed medication to reduce thyroid activity or you may even need surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid. Radioactive iodine can also be used to shrink the gland. After treatment, your thyroid may become under-active again, in which case, a replacement hormone will be needed. Although this sounds fairly complex, your GP will guide you through the process and keep a close eye on how the condition develops.
What About Mild Thyroid Dysfunction?
There’s actually a lot of controversy around treating this type of thyroid imbalance. Sometimes these problems rectify themselves without treatment, so if your levels are only mildly abnormal, you may be advised to simply watch and wait. After all, once medication for an under-active thyroid has begun, it will very likely be continued for life.
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