The thyroid, believe it or not, was discovered centuries ago, back in the 1500s to be precise. It was named after the shield used in ancient Greece (thyreos) because it looked like one of them! Modern science has continued to affirm that this little butterfly-shaped organ that sits tightly at the base of your neck is way more important than its small size reflects!
The thyroid’s main job is the production of iodine-containing thyroid hormones; namely T3 and T4. These hormones are the only ones in the entire body made using the essential nutrient iodine. Iodine is so vital for thyroid function and health that many countries now enforce iodine fortification of everyday foods like flour, salt, and bread.
Element 53 of the periodic table (for my sciencey friends out here) is found mostly in the soils and water and is more abundant in coastal areas. Iodine deficiency was actually discovered due to a notable prevalence of goiter in inland, northwest USA in the early 1900s although Chinese medicine writings from back in 3600 BC actually recorded how goiters were treated with seaweed and burnt sea sponge!
The thyroid hormones have far-reaching and extremely important effects in the human body including:
Metabolic - Thyroid hormones are necessary for efficient metabolism in all your tissues. They are responsible for increasing your basal metabolic rate and they stimulate your body to produce proteins.
Cardiovascular - These hormones naturally increase your heart rate as well as the strength of your heartbeats, essentially increasing blood flow and raising body temp. They work tirelessly to increase the oxygen available to every single cell in your body.
Developmental - thyroid hormones are needed to grow, they actually increase the growth rate in children! Amazingly these hormones also play a very crucial role in brain maturation during fetal development and in the first few years of postnatal life
Reproductive - Thyroid hormones play a role in maintaining a normal menstrual cycle and they influence fertility and libido in both men & women. Thyroid issues have actually been shown to cause early-onset menopause!
Surprisingly 1 in 8 women will develop a thyroid problem and more so in inland, mountainous areas. ( Iodine is more bioavailable the closer you live to the sea). Women, in general, are more likely to experience thyroid issues than men.
There are two major types of thyroid issues: hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism
HYPOTHYROIDISM - UNDERACTIVE THYROID
This condition is the more common one and is characterized by too little thyroid hormones circulating in the body. The most common cause is Hashimoto’s disease which is a hereditary, autoimmune condition where the white blood cells and antibodies attack the thyroid. Iodine deficiency is also a notable cause of hypothyroidism. When the thyroid is not working as it should, all the areas mentioned above are affected starting with a slowed reduced metabolism.
Other symptoms include:
Puffy face & drooping eyelids
Extra dry hair and skin
Lethargy and fatigue
Feeling cold (even on warm days)
Numbness and tingling in the hands
Unusual weight gain
Reduced concentration and brain fog
Goiter. (swelling of neck resulting from the enlargement of the thyroid gland).
Development of high cholesterol
Miscarriage and preterm birth
HYPERTHYROIDISM - OVERACTIVE THYROID
In this case, the thyroid is working in overdrive and producing much more thyroid hormone than it needs to! The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves disease, a hereditary condition where again antibodies overstimulate the thyroid. The first response is a very speedy metabolism and some of the other symptoms include:
High blood pressure
Extra moist skin
increased sweating ( high body temps)
Nervousness & anxiety
Increased appetite with weight loss
Diarrhea, and/or frequent bowel movements.
Vision problems and/or bulging eyes
Osteoporosis /brittle bones
Irregular menstrual cycles
Red, swollen skin on the lower extremities.
Liver damage is common in the long term ( the liver keeps working harder and harder to breakdown the excess thyroid hormone)
Generally, hypothyroidism is the more common of the two conditions and conventional medicine addresses it by giving thyroid replacement therapy. In TCM, we always aim to get to the root cause of the thyroid problem and treat it with a targeted approach of herbs, acupuncture, and dietary interventions.
Maintaining a healthy thyroid begins by simply ensuring you are getting adequate Iodine. Iodine is rich in seafood as well as in iodized salt. Dairy products and eggs are also rich sources of Iodine. Iodine supplementation is often unnecessary and can be dangerous. Lastly, too much soy can alter the activation of thyroid hormone, so it’s advisable to go a little easy on the soy
There you have it! All about the thyroid.