Medically reviewed by Dr. Shunmukha Priya, Ph.D. in Food Science and Nutrition
Just like PCOD, diabetes and other lifestyle-related diseases, thyroid disorder is also on the rise. Thyroid disorder is linked to weight gain, it causes fatigue and many other problems.
Sadly, many of us do not recognise the problem until it starts affecting the body. Before going in detail about thyroid disorder and its many consequences, what is a thyroid gland and why is it important?
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A portion of the endocrine structure, the thyroid gland is responsible for releasing and producing thyroid hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones help in the regulation of the body’s metabolic functioning.
The hormones produced by the thyroid gland also aid in the effective functioning of the heart, the digestive system, brain development and muscle control.
Location and Functioning of the Thyroid Gland
Glandula Thyreoidea, or simply put the thyroid, is situated in the neck, under the larynx. It is shaped like a butterfly. The 2 side lobes lie around and against the trachea and are connected in front by a narrow strip.
The Thyroid gland is controlled by the pituitary gland, the master gland located in the brain. The pituitary gland secretes thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in our bloodstream. TSH, in turn, prompts the thyroid organ to deliver thyroxine (T4), and triiodothyronine (T3) which stimulates the metabolism of pretty much every tissue in the body.
Types of Cells in the Thyroid Gland
1. Follicular cells:
These cells are responsible for the secretion of thyroxine. The hormone plays a vital role in controlling the basal metabolism of the body. It controls how quickly calories are burned. Burning of calories has a direct impact on issues related to body weight.
This, in turn, helps in regulating the heartbeat. It also influences the functioning of the digestive tract. TSH also indirectly controls the way muscles contract, and how quickly dying cells are replenished.
2. C cells:
These help in making calcitonin, a hormone that participates and is required in calcium metabolism.
Thyroid disorder and their causes
The effective functioning of the thyroid gland is imperative for the overall metabolism to be regulated.
But at times, internal or external disorders can lead to a thyroid disorder.
- Iodine deficiency – Iodine is a key building block of both the hormones secreted by the thyroid gland. Our bodies cannot produce this trace element. Iodine deficiency can lead to a reduced secretion of thyroid hormones.
- Autoimmune diseases – autoimmune diseases are those under which your immune system works against you and attacks your own body. This can lead to thyroid disorders.
- Inflammation – painless inflammation caused by certain viruses or bacteria nodules or non- cancerous tumours of the thyroid gland can also become a cause of thyroid disorder.
- Pregnancy – Occasionally, pregnancy can cause thyroid problems too. If not treated on time this can cause problems for baby and mother, including premature birth, miscarriage, or stillbirth.
In some cases, certain medical treatments or medicines can have adverse effects on the functioning of the thyroid gland.
- Radiation therapy
- Thyroid surgery
- Some genetic disorders
Hypothyroidism is a condition that occurs when the thyroid gland secretes insufficient amounts of the thyroid hormones required to maintain your normal body metabolism.
Causes of Hypothyroidism
Thyroiditis – An inflammation of the thyroid gland, thyroiditis is also known as Hashimoto’s Disease. It is one of the most common causes of hypothyroidism. It is an autoimmune disorder where your immune system produces antibodies that attack your own body’s tissues.
In defence the pituitary gland, in turn, releases TSH. The increased demand for hormone production causes the thyroid gland to enlarge- a condition termed as goitre.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
The signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism depend on the severity of the deficient hormones.
Some of the symptoms to look out for on a continual basis include:
- Weight gain
- Decreased appetite
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Puffiness around the eyes
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Impaired memory
- Slowed heart rate
- Enlarged thyroid gland (goitre)
Diagnosis and Treatment for Hypothyroidism
The doctors usually prescribe blood tests to measure TSH levels and thyroid hormone levels.
For Screening, a simple finger-stick blood test is used to measure thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels. It is the key indicator of how well the thyroid gland is functioning. No fasting is required. TSH hormone levels are reported in mIU/L, which is milli-international units per litre of blood.
The normal range for TSH is .50-4.59 mIU/L;
- < 0.59 mIU/L indicates a possibly overactive thyroid or Hyperthyroidism
- > 5 mIU/L indicates a potentially underactive thyroid or Hypothyroidism
In most of the cases, the condition is treated with oral intake of thyroid hormone pills. But it is important to keep the dosage in mind. An increased dosage can lead to Hyperthyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism or an overactive thyroid is a condition that is characterized by an excess secretion of the hormone thyroxine. It tends to accelerate the patient’s metabolism that can cause an unintentional loss in weight or irregular heartbeat.
Causes of Hyperthyroidism
- Graves’ disease – one of the most common causes of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease.
It mostly affects women between the ages of 20 and 40 years.
- Graves’ ophthalmopathy – is also a form of the Grave’s disorder and the most evident symptom is characterized by bulging eyes or a wide-eyed stare.
- Thyroiditis – intake of too many thyroid hormones while being treated for hypothyroidism can also lead to symptoms of an overactive thyroid.
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism
Some of the initial symptoms may appear to be overlapping but generally the hyperthyroid symptom checklist would include the following:
- Appetite change (decrease or increase)
- Difficulty in sleeping (insomnia)
- A frequent bowel movement, perhaps diarrhoea
- Heat intolerance
- Heart palpitations
- Increase in perspiration
- Mental disturbances
- Light menstrual periods or even missed periods
- Muscle weakness
- Problems with fertility
- Sudden paralysis
- Vision changes
- Possible increase in blood sugar
- Weight loss and weight gain
- Thinning of hair
- Itching and hives
Diagnosis and treatment for hyperthyroidism
Blood tests to measure thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine levels can confirm the diagnosis. High or low amounts of TSH indicate an overactive thyroid.
Anti-thyroid medicines work by reducing the secretion of the thyroid hormone.
Beta-blockers are also a form of medication that aids in controlling the rapid heartbeat. Apart from these, the doctors can advise radioactive ablation.
In some cases, it may be required to destroy a part of the thyroid gland. Surgery may be needed in extreme cases to remove the thyroid gland.
Lumps in the thyroid are called hot nodules. These are growths that form on or in the thyroid gland. The nodules can be solid or fluid-filled.
Mostly they are harmless but at times can also be cancerous. Women are at a higher risk as compared to men and the risk increases with age.
If they grow large enough, they can cause swelling in your neck and lead to difficulties in breathing and swallowing. It can also cause a lot of pain and may also form into a goiter.
Thyroid nodules diagnosis and treatment:
A standard physical examination can help detect a nodule. In addition to this, an ultrasound, a CT scan or an MRI are also conducted for confirmation.
A fine-needle aspiration biopsy can also be conducted to check if the nodule is cancerous or not. Harmless thyroid nodules are not life-threatening and generally do not require treatment.
Usually, nothing is done to eliminate the nodule if it does not change with time. A doctor may suggest a biopsy and prescribe radioactive iodine to shrink the nodules if it increases in size.
At times thyroid disorders can also become cancerous.
Cancerous Thyroid Tumors
Healthy cells in the thyroid at times begin to change and grow out of control thus forming a tumour.
A cancerous tumour is malignant in nature. It can grow and spread to different parts of the body.
A non-malignant tumour, on the other hand, can grow but will not spread.
Types of Thyroid Cancer:
1. Papillary thyroid cancer – This type of cancer tends to develop in the follicular cells. It is one of the most widely recognized sorts of thyroid malignant growth. Under a magnifying instrument, the carcinogenic tumour looks like an ordinary thyroid tissue. Papillary thyroid cancer has the potential to spread to the lymph nodes.
2. Follicular thyroid cancer- Just like papillary thyroid cancer, Follicular thyroid cancer also germinates in the follicular cells.
Diet for Keeping Your Thyroid in Check
Thyroid disorders occur when the body does not secrete the required levels of thyroid hormones. Doctors treat hypothyroidism with medicine that replaces the thyroid hormones.
Intake of certain essential nutrients along with medication can help manage thyroid disorders.
- Required nutrients that can help maintain proper thyroid functions are iodine, selenium, and zinc.
- Iodine is essential for producing thyroid hormones. However, the body cannot make iodine, so iodine has to come from the diet. Cheese, milk, iodized table salt; saltwater fish and seaweed are some of the best iodine sources.
- Selenium is one of the essential micronutrients that are rich in antioxidant properties. It plays a vital role in the metabolism of thyroid hormones. This means it can protect the thyroid gland from damage caused by free radicals. Selenium-rich foods in your diet are a great way to boost your selenium levels. Brazil nuts, tuna, sardines, eggs, and legumes are all rich in selenium. However, one should avoid the intake of selenium supplements unless advised by the doctor. Intake of selenium in large doses can be toxic.
- It has been observed that zinc supplements in combination with selenium have significantly increased levels of thyroxine. Oysters, fortified cereals, legumes and pumpkin seeds have good amounts of zinc. On its own too, the intake of zinc also helps tackle thyroid disorders.
Nutrients to be Avoided
- Processed foods in addition to soy products and intake of gluten should be limited.
- Derived from the term goitre, Goitrogens are compounds that tend to interfere in the normal functioning of the thyroid gland. Most of our everyday foods like tofu, cabbage, spinach, cauliflower contain goitrogens that are considered harmful. In addition to these, fruits like strawberries and starchy foods such as sweet potatoes also contain these compounds that hinder the functioning of the thyroid gland. The intake of these should be in moderation.
- People diagnosed with hypothyroidism should also minimize their intake of gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat. Gluten tends to irritate the small intestine and also works against the absorption of hormone replacement medicines.
- Whole grain varieties of wheat, rice or bread are high in their fibre content. The whole grain varieties can aid in bowel irregularity which is one of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism.
- Supplements and certain food items can also interfere with absorption of thyroid replacement medicine. Limited intake of these foods will further aid in checking the disorders.
Success stories of individuals who fought thyroid with dietary modifications
Timely supervision by physicians, combined with a personal dietician and a meal fortified with superfoods is one of the most effective ways of addressing thyroid disorders.
A 36-year-old Chartered accountant, Rashmi Murthy had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
Rashmi’s physical movements were restricted owing to excruciating knee pains.
Under the assistance of a personal dietitian, regular meal plans and with the intake of superfoods, Rashmi successfully lost 22kgs in 8 months.
Sapna Shettigar, a 49-year-old former fitness trainer and aerobics instructor, was diagnosed with a borderline thyroid imbalance.
Determined to fight thyroid, she adopted an approach of ‘fat loss with healthy eating’. With timely diet plans and a dietitian’s guidance, Sapna lost 17.5 kgs in a short period of 6 months.
A homemaker in Bangalore, Vishnu Priya had been struggling with weight gain due to thyroid disorder.
Homoeopathy helped her regulate TSH levels but the excess weight was adding on to her frustration. Rigorous weight loss practices coupled with dieting and yoga helped her address her condition.
In addition to this, intake of superfoods coupled with right eating plans helped her shed her added kgs. A thorough combination of 70% home-cooked food and 30% of superfoods rescued her.
Within a period of three months, she succeeded in losing all her excess fat. A toned and a healthy body also acted as a boost to her self-esteem.
65-year-old Sharda Bajaj from Pune is yet another inspirational story. With age, she realized that her weight gain was becoming a problem for her health. Post-menopause, at the age of 56 years, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and a knee problem.
Being a wedding planner for more than 2 decades, she was more accustomed to erratic and unhealthy eating habits.
Sharada began her journey to tackle her disorder with dietary modifications and a detox regime. With persistent efforts, she successfully managed to lose 14 kgs in a time period of 10 months.
Studies have revealed that a number of Indians suffer from thyroid disorders, especially hypothyroidism. Though various reasons contribute towards thyroid disorder, certain preventive methods can keep thyroid disorder caused due to poor lifestyle at bay.
The first thing is eating nutritiously. Food plays a vital role in repairing the body and when you eat foods rich in protein, zinc, selenium, iron etc, you boost your body’s metabolism.
Likewise, if any of your immediate family members like father, mother or grandparents have a thyroid disorder, then it is best to get tested for the diseases periodically since it can pass genetically.
Most importantly, MOVE! A sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits are the main cause of thyroid disorders amongst the younger generation. An active lifestyle will help you prevent the development of this disorder.
Remember, when you opt for a healthier lifestyle, you do a lot of good to your body and improve the quality of your life. Eat healthily, stay fit! You’ll gain energy, confidence and happiness!