Understanding functions of the thyroid

Published: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 2:39 p.m.

The thyroid gland plays a major role in health maintenance. Yet, it is not an organ that most people talk a lot about. It certainly does not get the attention that the heart and kidneys receive.

There is probably a good reason for that, given the fact that an abnormality of the thyroid gland does not usually present an emergency situation. However, knowledge of its function can be very helpful in understanding the production and distribution of hormones and the process by which energy is disbursed in our bodies.

Webmd.com describes the thyroid as a butterfly-shaped gland that sits low on the front of the neck.

The purpose of the thyroid gland is to secrete (produce and discharge) several hormones that are a collective group known as the thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones act throughout the body and influence metabolism, growth and development and body temperature. During infancy and childhood, adequate thyroid hormone production is crucial for brain development in growing children.

If you have had a diagnosis of a condition that affects the thyroid gland, you are probably familiar with its function and some of the abnormal conditions associated with it. I do believe that most of us take for granted the function of this gland and therefore may be less familiar with the associated conditions.

Webmd.com lists some of the conditions associated with the thyroid gland and the impact these conditions have on the state of our general health. Below are some of those conditions:

* Goiter: A swelling of the thyroid gland that can be harmless or related to an iron deficiency or additional conditions.

* Thyroiditis: Inflammation of the thyroid, usually from a viral infection or an autoimmune condition. Thyroiditis can be painful or have no symptoms at all.

* Hyperthyroidism: Excessive thyroid hormone production. Hyperthyroidism is most often caused by Graves disease or an overactive thyroid nodule.

* Hypothyroidism: Low production of the thyroid hormone. Thyroid damage caused by an autoimmune disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.

* Graves disease: An autoimmune condition in which the thyroid is overstimulated, causing hyperthyroidism.

* Thyroid cancer: An uncommon form of cancer, thyroid cancer is usually curable. Surgery, radiation and hormone treatments may be used to treat thyroid cancer.

* Nodules: A small abnormal mass or lump in the thyroid gland. Thyroid nodules are extremely common. Few are cancerous. They may secrete excess hormones, which can cause hyperthyroidism, or cause no problems at all.

Be aware that the problem with recognizing the symptoms that are most important is that those symptoms are also related to a number of other conditions. Your health care provider is aware of this and will be able to rule out other possible conditions.

According to about.com, the symptoms of hyperthyroidism tend to reflect a rapid metabolism. Common symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, rapid weight loss, diarrhea, high heart rate, high blood pressure, eye sensitivity/bulging and vision disturbances.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism — an underactive thyroid — tend to mirror the slowing down of the physical processes that results from an insufficient thyroid hormone. Common symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, constipation, fuzzy thinking, low blood pressure, fluid retention, depression, body pain, slow reflexes, and much more.

To help you plan your strategy for preventive health practices related to your thyroid, try avoiding the risk factors listed below.

* Surgical removal of all or part of the thyroid or radioactive iodine treatment to the thyroid, both of which typically result in an underactive thyroid.

* Being pregnant or within the first year after childbirth.

* Current or former smoker.

* Recent exposure to iodine via contrast dye or a surgical antiseptic.

* Iodine or herbal supplements containing iodine in pill or liquid form.

* Living in an iodine-deficient area.

* Overconsumption of raw goitrogenic foods, i.e., Brussel sprouts, turnips, cauliflower and soy products.

* Overconsumption of soy foods.

* Recent neck trauma, biopsy, injection or surgery.

* Radiation exposure through radiation to the neck area or exposure to a nuclear facility or accident, i.e., Chernobyl.

* High-stress life events.

I encourage you to take a look at the risk factors that you can identify as they relate to your lifestyle and make the changes you can.

Vivian Filer is a retired professor of nursing at Santa Fe College. Email your questions, with "Health Files" in the subject line, to news@gainesvilleguardian.com.

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