What is Hyperthyroidism?
Hyperthyroidism, also known as an overactive thyroid, is a condition where the thyroid gland over-produces the hormone thyroxine.
The disorder tends to be higher in women than in men. According to the American Thyroid Association, about three percent of the U.S. population develops hyperthyroidism at some point in their life and one percent currently have the disorder. One of the most common causes of the autoimmune disorder is Graves’ disease, which is a result of an overactive thyroid.
If left untreated, the complications of hyperthyroidism can lead to serious health issues affecting the heart, bones, fertility, menstrual cycle, and muscles. Since the signs are not always obvious, it’s important to see your doctor regularly for exams and report any changes in your body as soon as they become obvious.
The thyroid, located at the base of your neck (just below the Adam’s apple) is a butterfly-shaped gland that plays a significant role in your health. While it may be small, the thyroid affects your metabolism and other hormones in your body. It produces two main hormones: thyroxine (T-4) and triiodothyronine (T-3), which influence the cells in your body. Thyroxine and triiodothyronine help your body control its temperature, regulate the production of protein, and influence your heart rate.
When your thyroid over-produces thyroxine, which leads to hyperthyroidism, it can be caused for several reasons. The three most common reasons include:
- Inflamed thyroid gland. It’s possible for your thyroid to become inflamed for unknown reasons. When this does occur, it causes the hormone stored in the gland to leak into your bloodstream. You may experience pain in your thyroid from this occurrence; however, for women who’ve recently given birth, the inflammation is often painless.
- Hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules. When one or more of your adenomas in the thyroid produces too much thyroxine, this can cause an enlarged thyroid. The adenoma is the area of the gland that walls itself off from the rest of the gland. In severe cases, a person may develop non-cancerous lumps that are visibly large on the side of the neck (known as pleomorphic adenoma of parotid).
- Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder that occurs with the overproduction of thyroxine. The immune system normally protects the body from bacteria and other foreign substances with antibodies but with Graves’ disease, the antibodies mistakenly attack your thyroid. In some cases, antibodies will also attack the tissue behind your eyes, your skin, and lower legs (shins). While it’s not scientifically known why this occurs, a genetic predisposition may likely be involved.
Methods of Prevention
While many of the causes of hyperthyroidism are unknown, there are methods of prevention that you can incorporate in order to lower your risk of getting the disorder. Similar to your routine dental exams, you should have your thyroid routinely examined. If you smoke, you should do your best to stop. Cigarette smoke has several toxins that are especially damaging to the thyroid. Moreover, if you consume foods and beverages with soy, you’ll want to cut back as the nutrient has proven to negatively impact the thyroid. Soy interferes with the absorption of levothyroxine, which is used to treat hyperthyroidism. Other methods of prevention will vary depending on your condition and health. Consult with our doctor for more information.
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism are not always detectable as they vary widely and some changes may be related to other health issues. For older adults, the symptoms may be subtle or they may not experience any changes at all. If you’re taking medications with beta blockers such as those used to treat high blood pressure, the symptoms will be masked.
If you suffer from hyperthyroidism, you may experience the following:
- Sudden weight loss
- Trouble sleeping
- Rapid heartbeat
- Increased appetite
- Nervousness, irritability, or anxiety
- Weakness or feeling fatigue
- Brittle or thinning hair
- Increased sensitivity to heat
Several forms of hyperthyroidism treatment are available but will depend on your age, health, physical condition, severity, your personal preference as well as the recommendations of your doctor.
Current hyperthyroidism treatment includes:
- Radioactive iodine. Radioactive iodine may be taken by the mouth and absorbed by the thyroid gland. This form of treatment has been used for the past 60 years and despite the substance, it has not been proven dangerous. The radioactive iodine causes the thyroid gland to become less productive, reducing the production of thyroxine. Eventually, you may need to take medication to supplement the loss of thyroxine.
- Anti-thyroid medications. An anti-thyroid medication can help prevent your thyroid gland from producing too many hormones. Generally, symptoms begin to improve within six weeks. Some patients will have a full recovery while others may relapse. Since anti-thyroid medications such as propylthiouracil may damage the liver or make you more susceptible to infection, you may want to consider other options.
- Surgery. For patients who are pregnant, cannot tolerate anti-thyroid drugs, or are against radioactive iodine treatment, thyroid surgery, known as a thyroidectomy is available. Since the surgery involves removing your thyroid gland, you may experience changes to your vocal cords and parathyroid glands.
In addition to clinical treatments, there are several home remedies and lifestyle changes that you can begin incorporating that may help reduce symptoms of the disorder. These include:
- Changes to your diet. If you’ve lost a significant amount of weight or muscle mass, adding more protein to your diet may be helpful. It’s important to consult with a professional dietitian or doctor who can make recommendations for a well-balanced meal.
- Adding more calcium and vitamin D. In addition to eating more protein, adding calcium and vitamin D to your diet could be necessary since hyperthyroidism leads to thinning bones. According to the Institute of Medicine, adults between the ages 19 and 50 should receive 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day.
- Incorporate regular exercise into your routine. Exercise such as strength training provides you with the ability to regain lost muscle mass and improve your cardiovascular system. For those who experience an increased appetite, exercise can also help reduce your cravings while increasing your energy level.
- Practice relaxation techniques. When dealing with a disorder, many people will experience a change in mood, often feeling a heavy burden of sorrow. To cope with these feelings, there are several relaxation techniques such as meditation that can provide you with a boost of positivity.
With the right help, your hyperthyroidism treatment can give you the relief and support you need to take hold of your health.