It is small and shaped like a butterfly, but there's nothing trivial or flighty about the thyroid gland when it comes to our bodies. It has been called the body's engine, and from its location at the bottom front of our neck just below the Adam's apple, it plays a key role in producing a hormone that affects the function of numerous organs in our bodies, including the brain, heart, liver, kidneys and skin.
The thyroid is part of our endocrine system and is responsible for coordinating the rate of metabolism in our entire body. This helps explain why the gland gets special recognition this month with January being National Thyroid Awareness Month. The intent is to shed the spotlight on thyroid disease, an affliction that affects an estimated 20-30 million Americans, about half of whom have not been diagnosed.
The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists goes as far as, according to consumerhealthdigest.com, to say that thyroid disease is actually more common than either heart disease or diabetes. Also, the American Thyroid Association reports, women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid conditions requiring medical care.
Thyroid problems usually are manifested in one of two ways – when hormone production is too low or when it is too high. The former condition is known as hypothyroidism with symptoms that include weight gain, depression, fatigue, hair loss, low sex drive and infertility; the latter condition, known as hyperthyroidism, which is typically accompanied by rapid heart rate, otherwise inexplicable weight loss, anxiety and heat tolerance.
One factor that sets the thyroid gland apart from most other mechanisms housed in our bodies is its need for iodine, which is the fuel that the thyroid needs to produce its hormone. By the way, this is the same iodine whose variety of uses also includes water purification, as a skin application to kill germs and radiation emergencies. Common food sources of iodine include iodized table salt, seafood, bread and milk, according to thyroidawareness.com.
The thyroid also is dependent upon another small gland, the pituitary gland, which is found at the base of the brain. The pituitary gland sends signals to the thyroid, essentially informing how much hormone the thyroid needs to be producing. All in all, it's a well-coordinated, highly-efficient machine playing a paramount role; all it asks of us is that we feed ourselves properly and take reasonably good care of our bodies—and that we will submit to annual physicals and seek proper medical help when things get out of whack.
If experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms for reasons unknown, it's time to see the doctor, who, assuming thyroid disease, will likely examine the problem from two perspectives. First comes making a determination to see if the thyroid is producing too much or too little hormone – usually a series of blood tests are involved – and, second, if there is any sort of structural change to the gland, such as a lump or some other kind of enlargement known as a goiter. Some thyroid disorders might be two-for-two.
Here are some tips to follow for maintaining a healthy thyroid gland, offered by Consumer Health Digest:
- Consume enough high-quality protein daily – the thyroid needs an amino acid known as tyrosine, which can be found in protein-rich foods such as red meat, chicken, fish and almonds. (Tyrosine is also available in dietary supplements.)
- Foods to be avoided when you have an underactive thyroid are raw veggies such as cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage – each of which have high amounts of goitrogens.
- Keep an eye on your liver's health (via your annual physical's companion blood tests). The liver plays a key role in converting the thyroid's hormone into their active form.
- Include adequate amounts of beneficial fatty acids in your diet, i.e. salmon, tuna, mackerel, raw nuts/seeds, avocados and organic coconut oil.
- Have your thyroid gland checked regularly – which usually is part of a routine physical, where the doctor checks for bumps, lumps or enlargements.