“Hi there! I’m your thyroid.”
Hi there! I’m your thyroid. Most of you may not know who I am, but I am a small butterfly-shaped organ in your neck that is responsible for controlling a lot of the essential hormones in your body. If you wrap one of your hands right below your Adam’s apple, you may be able to feel two small bumps.
What do I do?
My main responsibility is to make sure that you have enough energy to go about your everyday activities. Whenever you go for a run or need to think hard about a math problem, I release some hormones into your body to give you more energy.
On the other hand, whenever you are doing something relaxing like taking a warm bath or trying to fall asleep, I reduce these hormone levels in your body to save the energy for when you need it most.
You are a bit more in charge of my daily activity than you may think. In fact, the amount of hormones that I release into your body is actually controlled by a small part of your brain called the hypothalamus. Whenever it senses that your body needs more energy, it will release a hormone called thyroid releasing hormone (TRH) into a special pathway that leads to another part of your brain called the pituitary gland. This is an extremely important organ which acts as the control centre for all the hormones in your body. After receiving TRH from your hypothalamus, the pituitary gland will release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which travels through your bloodstream to me, your thyroid. This will cause me to release my hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), into your bloodstream. Together, they will travel around your body to the cells that need energy and will increase the rate that they create glucose.
However, the process does not stop there. Once your hypothalamus detects that there is a lot of T4 and T3 in your body, it will stop releasing TRH. As a result, your pituitary will stop releasing TSH and I will stop releasing T4 and T3 into your body. This automatic system ensures that you don’t waste too much energy during your daily activities, but when you need energy you are able to get it.
The other main responsibility that I have in your body is maintaining calcium levels in your blood. I do this by producing two hormones called calcitonin and parathyroid hormone (PTH). If the calcium levels in your blood are too high, I will release calcitonin, which will travel to different parts of your body to increase the retention of calcium. It will cause your kidneys to release some calcium into your excretions, reduce how much calcium your gut is absorbing, and increase how much calcium you are storing in your bones. On the other hand, parathyroid hormone acts in the exact opposite way by reducing how much calcium you are storing in your bones, increasing kidney absorption and increasing gut retention of calcium. Calcium is extremely important for many essential processes in your body including muscle contraction, blood clotting and maintaining bone health.
What happens if I cannot do my job?
In some individuals, I am unable to perform my duties correctly resulting in many different types of health conditions. This can be due to many factors such as genetics, poor lifestyle choices, and even side effects from other medications that you are taking. Thyroid disease is the 6th most common disease in the United States, with over 3 million people diagnosed with thyroid-related disorders per year. Although anyone can be affected, it is especially prevalent in women and older individuals.
There are two main types of thyroid disease: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism occurs when I produce too little hormones. As a result, you may feel tired, experience weight gain, and be less tolerant of cold temperatures. There are many conditions that can cause hypothyroidism, but the most common is Hashimoto’s disease, where your body mistakenly thinks I am an invader and starts to attack me. This prevents me from being able to produce the essential hormones to help you function. To keep your body in peak condition, I may need some help with creating hormones. Luckily scientists have developed levothyroxine, a man-made version of thyroxine that acts in exactly the same way as the hormones that I make. That way, you are able to maintain a normal energy level and continue on with your daily activities.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when I produce too many hormones. You can often tell that you have this condition if you see swelling on the sides of your throat. Hyperthyroidism is associated with a host of symptoms including anxiety, weight loss, and higher sensitivity to heat. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease. Very much like Hashimoto’s disease, your body thinks that I am an invader and starts to attack me. However, instead of decreasing hormone production, this causes me to overproduce hormones. To treat hyperthyroidism, your doctor may prescribe anti-thyroid medications or radioactive iodine which will decrease how much I am swelling and reduce my hormone production to normal levels.
One particularly bad thyroid-related condition is called thyroid cancer. This happens when there is a mutation in one of my cells resulting in abnormal growth. Although you may not be able to detect this form of cancer very quickly, it can be very dangerous if the mutated cells spread to nearby tissues. To treat this, doctors may perform surgery to remove me from your body. Unfortunately, this means that you will have to take substitutes for my hormones every single day to keep yourself in top shape.
What can you do to help me?
I’m sure that many of you are shocked to learn that such a small organ in your body can be so important to your everyday life and can lead to so many health complications if mistreated. Now that I have told you some of the main complications that can occur if I am not performing at my normal levels, you may be wondering what you can do to keep me healthy. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a straightforward answer. The best thing that you can do is to make sure that you try to live a healthy lifestyle. If you are eating healthy and exercising regularly, you are at a much lower risk of being affected by thyroid disease. Additionally, if you have a high risk of developing a thyroid condition, you may want to consider eating foods that are high in iodine because it is a very important component for making thyroid hormones. As long as you keep doing what is best for your body, I will keep doing what is best for you!
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