Tackling Thyroid Disorders
The thyroid gland produces hormones that help the body use energy and stay warm, regulate the function of vital organs and control body metabolism.
When the thyroid is over or under active, the resulting imbalances can lead to health problems that require specialist intervention.
Tied to the production of hormones, the thyroid can prove a troublesome gland – especially for older women.
Words: Dr Jacinta Halloran
The thyroid gland sits at the lower part of the neck. Its role is to produce hormones that help the body use energy and stay warm, regulate the function of vital organs and generally control body metabolism. Not uncommonly, the thyroid can produce either too much or too little hormone and these imbalances can lead to health problems.
Hyperthyroidism – or overactive thyroid – affects about 2 percent of women and 0.2 percent of men1.
Signs and symptoms can include irritability/anxiety, rapid heart rate, weight loss, sleeplessness, heat intolerance, diarrhoea, menstrual problems, breathlessness and eyes that are dry, gritty or protruding.
The most common cause of an overactive thyroid is a condition called Graves’ disease, when antibodies produced by the body activate the thyroid uncontrollably. Other causes can include overactive thyroid nodules or short-term inflammation, known as ‘thyroiditis’.
An overactive thyroid is diagnosed with a blood test. The treatment depends on the cause and usually includes medication, radioiodine therapy and/or surgery, all of which have the effect of decreasing the production of hormone.
Each treatment has advantages and disadvantages. A thyroid specialist should guide you with regard to the most appropriate treatment for you and your particular thyroid condition.
Hypothyroidism – or underactive thyroid – occurs when the thyroid produces too little hormone. It usually occurs in people over 40 and is more common in women, with studies indicating it affects up to 15 percent of women over 602.
Signs and symptoms vary but can include low energy, depression, slow heart rate, weight gain, dry skin, cold intolerance, hair loss, constipation and goitre (enlarged thyroid gland).
Hypothyroidism is easily diagnosed by a blood test. Once diagnosed, a hormone replacement called thyroxine is used to boost hormone levels. Your doctor will monitor your blood levels regularly and adjust your dose if needed. People usually remain on thyroxine for life.
The importance of iodine
Iodine, an essential nutrient for human growth and development, is needed to make thyroid hormone. Iodine is usually found in food but some parts of Australia produce iodine-deficient food because of low iodine content in soil.
Over the past decade, there has been a re-emergence of iodine deficiency in Australians, with nearly half the population thought to have inadequate iodine intakes3. The main reasons for this are the reduction of iodine in milk since the dairy industry replaced iodine-rich cleaning solutions with other sanitisers, and the fact that fewer than 10 percent of Australians are now using iodised salt4.
From October 2009, the Australian Government has required that the salt used to make bread, except organic bread, be replaced with iodised sal.
A note of warning: while enough iodine is important, too much can be bad for you.
- Thyroid Australia Ltd: thyroid.org.au/
- Better Health Channel: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/thyroid-gland
- Health Insite: .healthdirect.gov.au/causes-of-thyroid-problems
- Jean Hailes Foundation: jeanhailes.org.au
References: 1 http://www.livestrong.com/article/410412-foods-to-avoid-with-hyperthyroidism/ 2 http://yourmedicalsource.com/content/what-causes-hypothyroidism-0#axzz4E9tVg6Qa 3 foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/generalissues/pregnancy/Pages/iodineandpregnancy.aspx 4 Li M, Ma G, Boyages SC, Eastman CJ. Re-emergence of iodine deficiency in Australia. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2001;10(3):200-3. 5 http://foodstandards.gov.au/code/userguide/documents/Rewrite%20Mandatory%20Iodine%20Fortification%20User%20Guide%20_Formated%20Master_.pdf
Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.