The thyroid; A small, hormonic gland that we don’t pay attention to until it stops working properly. And while many of us may have heard of the thyroid, we probably don’t much about it and why it’s important to our overall health.
In short, the thyroid gland releases the hormones that control our metabolism and, therefore, it plays a pivotal role in helping you maintain a healthy weight.
Conditions that affect the thyroid are actually pretty common – affecting about 5% of women and 1% of men in Aotearoa. Thyroid problems are usually hereditary and are often undiagnosed, but they can result in some nasty symptoms that can affect you at any age.
But first, what is the thyroid and why is it important?
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck that produces two hormones: tri-iodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).
These hormones are carried into the bloodstream, where they travel to almost every cell in your body and help regulate vital body functions – including your heart rate and body temperature through to your digestion system and menstrual cycle.
When your thyroid is misfiring, it can lead to a hormone imbalance resulting in anxiety, moodiness, weight gain, tiredness and trouble sleeping.
In women, thyroid conditions can also cause issues with your menstrual cycle, making it more difficult to fall pregnant (as well as result in issues during your pregnancy). For others, thyroid disorders have shown to result in early onset menopause.
That is why making sure your thyroid is functioning properly, and treating it if it is not, is vital for your overall health and wellbeing.
So, what happens when this isn’t the case?
If you are suffering from a thyroid condition, you are likely to either have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) or an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
Hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid):
Hypothyroidism occurs when your thyroid is not producing enough T3 or T4 hormone. When this occurs, many of your body’s natural functions, like your metabolism, will start to slow.
Common symptoms associated with hypothyroidism include weakness and fatigue, weight gain or difficulty losing weight, dry skin, changes in your hair and skin, and an intolerance to the cold.
These symptoms may manifest to varying degrees depending on the severity of the deficiency as well as how long your thyroid has not been producing adequate levels of T3 or T4.
If you are suffering from hypothyroidism, its important to keep a close eye on the foods you are consuming. This is because with a slower metabolism, you need to make sure your body is still getting all the nutrients needed to maintain healthy function.
Foods containing high levels of fats, sugars or heavily processed foods need to be closely moderated as they contain large amounts of calories with limited available nutrients and, with a slower metabolism, this can accelerate weight gain.
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid):
Conversely, hyperthyroidism is when your thyroid gland is busy producing too much T3 or T4, accelerating our bodies metabolism.
If you have an overactive thyroid you are likely to experience unintentional weight loss, anxiousness or nervousness, irritability, an increased heart rate and sweating, difficulty sleeping, and weakness in your muscles.
Because your thyroid is releasing too much hormone, your metabolism is constantly in hyperdrive and this means that you’ll be burning through your calories quickly, leaving you feeling tired, hungry and unmotivated – making it tricky to maintain a healthy diet.
If you do suffer from an overactive thyroid, try to include more fibre-rich food into your diet, which will keep you feeling full and more energised for longer. Also try and eat small, frequent meals which are high in nutrient-dense calories, such as whole grains, oats or beans.
The good news is that thyroid conditions can be easily managed.
If you think you might be suffering from an undiagnosed thyroid condition, talk to your GP.
A thyroid condition can be easily detected through a simple blood test, which will look at the number of T3 and T4 hormones in your blood.
And while there is no cure for an over or under-active thyroid, it can be easily managed.
If you are suffering from a thyroid condition, your GP will likely prescribe medication that will need to be taken on a daily basis to regulate your thyroid.
This, alongside a healthy and well-balanced diet will alleviate most of the symptoms associated with your problem thyroid and allow you to meet your healthy lifestyle goals.
Dr Mataroria Lyndon is Co-Founder and Clinical Director for Tend.
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 Ministry of Health. A Portrait of Health. Key Results of the 2006/07 New Zealand Health Survey Ministry of Health: Wellington; 2008.