Your thyroid is a small, more or less butterfly shaped gland in the back of your throat, and it’s very, very important to your overall health, although problems with it, even cancer, aren’t usually fatal.
Despite the fact that thyroid problems won’t generally kill you directly, having a messed up thyroid can affect your overall health in a number of ways, and that can impact your quality of life and indirectly influence both how you age and how long you live.
The thyroid gland, which is the proper name for it, is one of the largest glands in your endocrine system. Generally speaking, it’s responsible for your metabolic rate, which it controls by means of thyroid hormones, the main two being Triiodothyronine, more commonly called T3 because no one can really pronounce it, and Thyroxine.
These hormones influence growth and development through out your body, and in turn are in control of your metabolic rate. The thyroid itself is control by your hypothalamus and your pituitary gland, which are the master control centers for pretty much your entire body.
One of things that’s pretty much a universal truth for the human body is that things need to be in balance. Too much fat on your body and your health is going to suffer. Too little, and your health suffers. It’s the same with your blood sugar, your cholesterol levels and pretty much everything else. Unsurprisingly, your thyroid is no exception; the two main thyroid issues stem from it producing either too many thyroid hormones or too little.
Hyperthyroidism is the technical name for what happens when your body produces too much of the thyroid hormones. The symptoms generally include feeling weak, tired or nervous, as well as trembling hands, a racing heart beat and unexpected weight loss.
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ Disease, where the body’s immune system begins to attack the thyroid gland, which causes the gland to fight back by putting out excess hormones.
Generally speaking, hyperthyroidism is usually treated with radioactive iodine isotopes, which destroy part of the gland, or, if the case is mild, by taking antithyroid drugs that block the effects of the excess hormone.
Hypothyroidism, as you’ve probably guessed, is when your thyroid hasn’t produced enough of the hormones. The symptoms include weight gain, feeling tired or depressed, as well as dry skin and an inability to stand the cold.
The most common cause here is Hasimoto’s thyroid disease, where, like Graves’ Disease, the immune system attacks the thyroid. The difference is that the thyroid is damaged and is unable to produce enough of the hormones.
The standard treatment for hypothyroidism is supplemental thyroid hormones. This is highly effective, but you generally have to stay on the drugs for the rest of your life or the symptoms will return.
The other two thyroids problems that occur often enough to mention are goiter and thyroid cancer. Goiter is a swelling of the thyroid, and it can become severe. The usual cause is iodine deficiency, but in places where iodized salt is used, goiter is more commonly a side effect of Hashimoto’s.
Thyroid cancer is more common in women, and treatment usually involves removal or destruction of the thyroid, which means you need to take thyroid hormones for the rest of your life. The most common form of the cancer, fortunately, is very treatable and most people have a normal lifespan with treatment.