Many people wonder what the thyroid is or what is does exactly. Many people (even perhaps you reading this) also struggle to understand how to define what it means to have a “healthy” thyroid, and whether they can really optimize their overall health without addressing their thyroid.
The unfortunate truth though is that you can’t be totally, optimally, healthy without a proper functioning thyroid producing balanced levels of the hormones that it creates. The other bad news is that the thyroid can be pretty complicated and most doctors (or even many websites) don’t do the best job of trying to explain how it works – or even talk about it all in the first place!
And this is a big deal, because the impact having a poorly functioning thyroid can take a huge toll on your body. This is because it effects literally everything else in your body. The thyroid is the body and the body is the thyroid. They’re inextricably connected, and you need them to be communicating properly to experience stellar health.
As stated above, the thyroid is an often misunderstood but very important part of your body that contributes to your health in a multitude of ways. When people say the “thyroid”, what they’re really referring to is a gland that is located at the base of your neck.
It’s main job is to release hormones that effect your metabolism. The thyroid’s hormones help to regulate many of the following bodily functions:
- heart rate
- nervous system
- body weight
- muscle strength
- menstrual cycles
- body temperature
- cholesterol levels
- and more…
How the Thyroid Works
The thyroid is a component of the endocrine system, which is comprised of glands that create, store, and deliver hormones into your bloodstream so that they can become active in your cells. The thyroid gland takes iodine from food you consume to make the two primary thyroid hormones:
- Triiodothyronine (T3)
- Thyroxine (T4)
Within the body it is important that T3 and T4 hormones are at balanced levels, never on the extreme end of of high or low. Many things have an impact on the levels of T3 and T4 in your body, but two parts of the brain – the hypothalamus and the pituitary – play a major role and work together to maintain T3 and T4 balance.
The hypothalamus has the ability to communicate with the pituitary, which can then tell the thyroid gland to produce more or less of T3 and T4. This process is all about something called thyroid stimulating hormone or TSH. The thyroid will either release more or less TSH, depending on how much T3 or T4 is present in the body – in order to keep them in relatively balanced levels.
Basically, the whole TSH/T3/T4 interaction looks something like this:
- When T3 and T4 levels drop in the body, the pituitary gland releases more TSH to signal the thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormones.
- If T3 and T4 levels are already high, the pituitary gland gives less TSH to the thyroid gland – so that production of these hormones will slow down.
Why You Need a Thyroid Gland
As stated above, thyroid hormones interact with every cell in your body. In fact the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 get released into your bloodstream and eventually get into every cell you own. The main job of these hormones is to regulate the speed at which those cells – as well as your overall metabolism – run.
Two specific things T3 and T4 do for instance, is to control how fast your intestines process food and how fast your heart beats. This means if T3 and T4 levels are suppressed, your heart rate may be reduced and your overall metabolism will slow, resulting in weight gain and other symptoms.
When your thyroid hormone levels are suppressed, this is typically referred to as hypothyroidism.
On the flip side, if T3 and T4 levels are elevated above where they should be, the heart may beat at a more rapid rate, and you may experience weight loss as well as other symptoms. When this occurs in the body, the condition is referred to as hyperthyroidism.
There are many other symptoms that occur with either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. For instance, with hyperthyroidism, a number of the following may be experienced:
anxiety, moodiness or irritability, nervousness, sweating and sensitivity to high temperatures, hand trembling, hair loss, and missed or light menstrual periods in women.
With hypothyroidism on the other hand, people often can experience any of the following symptoms:
difficulty sleeping, fatigue, trouble with concentration, dry skin and hair, depression, sensitivity to cold temperatures, frequent heavy periods, and joint and muscle pain.
Check out How to Optimize your Thyroid, where we review what can go wrong with the thyroid and overall health, and how to fix it.