The thyroid gland is a 2-inch butterfly-shaped organ located at the front of the neck. Though the thyroid is small, it’s a major gland in the endocrine system and affects nearly every organ in the body. It regulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism, respiration, body temperature, brain development, cholesterol levels, the heart and nervous system, blood calcium levels, menstrual cycles, skin integrity, and more.1
Most physicians diagnose hypothyroidism by simple blood tests that measure the level of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), which is made by the pituitary gland in response to thyroid hormone and the body’s needs, and indicates thyroid status. As levels of thyroid hormones fall, the pituitary releases TSH to stimulate the thyroid to produce more hormone. Clinicians may also measure circulating levels of T-3 and T-4, which are the thyroid hormones themselves. Low levels of T-4 and high levels of TSH reveal an underactive thyroid. Other variants of hypothyroidism can exist. Patients can have no symptoms and normal serum thyroid hormone levels, but elevated TSH. Others can have symptoms, but normal TSH and T-4 levels. Patients with either of these variants may benefit from supplementation. In addition, someone with a temporary illness might have a completely normal thyroid but high TSH, a condition called “sick euthyroid” which usually resolves without any intervention.
People diagnosed with hypothyroidism are more susceptible to problems with infertility, miscarriages, and having babies born with birth defects. As hypothyroidism progresses it can even lead heart failure, fluid collection in the lungs, and enlarged heart and even a life-threatening condition called myxedema coma. This condition requires immediate medical attention and hospitalization. If you suffer from hypothyroidism and have any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor at the earliest:
Megan Casper, RDN, a dietitian based in New York City and the founder of Nourished Bite, points out that iodine deficiency is the leading cause of hypothyroidism worldwide. This mineral can’t be made by the body, so dietary sources like iodized salt, dairy products, seafood, seaweed, and fortified cereals are important. “Iodine is an essential nutrient in the body, and thyroid hormones are composed of iodine,” explains Rizzo. “Those lacking thyroid hormones may also be lacking iodine.”
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