Nestled like a resting butterfly at the base of the neck, each “wing” just 3×5 cm, the tiny thyroid gland was named after a Greek warrior shield, “thyreoid”. This powerful moniker is fitting, as it is a major boss in the body, directing metabolism throughout our systems. We only recently, however, have come to understand just how important this hormone organ is and how to effectively support it should it start to fail..
Ancient medical practitioners were in the dark regarding thyroid gland function. Egyptians theorized it was inert, just a “cosmetic organ”, and paintings from that civilization suggestively emphasized thyroid size in female subjects. Modern scientists, however, recognized it as a vital structure, although their first theories were incorrect. 18th century doctors felt the thyroid had two jobs, to lubricate the trachea and to divert blood away from the brain in high stress situations. We now know neither of these is true, but interest in this gland was sparked.
It was not until treatment of goiter by surgically removing it became the standard of care in the next century, however, that doctors truly understood just how important the thyroid gland was!. Patients who had theirs removed were exhausted, ill-tempered, with poor memories and reduced cognitive skills. Their hair fell out and their skin became thick and waxy, and they gained weight continuously. Scientists initially proposed it was reduced oxygen levels, due to post-surgical scarring in the throat that evoked this downward spiral, but ultimately it was recognized that a lack of essential glandular secretion was the culprit. This prompted practitioners to try and cure their patient’s thyroid hormone shortage termed “hypothyroidism” with replacement therapy, and it worked. Initial treatment protocols included prescriptions to ingest part of a sheep’s thyroid, slightly fried, once weekly.
Soon dried, pulverized animal thyroid from creatures commonly available, such as sheep, pigs and cows, was readily obtainable and thus doctors could administer specific doses of this “medicine” to their patients in need. Natural animal-sourced type of hormone supplement is still used, but now the majority of patients are treated with manufactured thyroid hormone. Regardless of the medication source, the ability for doctors to replace thyroid hormone in people whose gland has failed has been a significant advance in the field of medicine.
We now know that thyroid hormones have a controlling influence on almost every organ system in the body. Normal function of the brain, heart, and gastrointestinal tracts depend on adequate levels. Unfortunately, It is estimated that over 8% of people in North America have some element of thyroid dysfunction, though only <1% have total gland failure. Even those with the mildest form of under-activity can have significant symptoms, including fatigue, constipation, hair loss, dry & thickened skin and weight gain. Women may have excessively heavy menstrual periods and babies born with hypothyroidism fail to have normal neurological development.
There are two main causes of low thyroid function, or hypothyroidism. Worldwide, it is the lack of the Iodine atom which is a key part of the thyroid hormone molecule. This explains why seaweed, rich in this element, had been recognized as a goiter treatment for millennia. It was not until the thyroid-Iodine connection was scientifically proven, however, that many governments mandated the addition of iodine to he that most-common-of-all spices, salt. The rate of hypothyroidism, particularly the subset severe enough to result in goiter, subsequently plummeted in those countries.
The other frequent cause of under-active thyroid is autoimmune inflammation. Since the advent of routine iodine supplementation, this had become the leading etiology of hypothyroidism in first world nations. In these cases, for whatever reason, be it a viral infection or stress or an inherited tendency, the body starts producing antibodies against it’s own gland. The Japanese scientist Haraku Hashimoto’s work focused on this phenomenon and “Hashimotos Thyroiditis” is the name given to the most common variant. There is a very strong tendency for this type of hypothyroidism to run in families.
Fortunately, the diagnosis of thyroid disease is typically very simple; a blood test called TSH can reliably indicate thyroid function and also is used to help determine the proper dose of thyroid medication should it be needed. Regardless of the cause, the treatment is to support thyroid function by supplying replacement hormone. As thyroid medication works by simply giving your body back the hormone molecule it needs, it is extremely well-tolerated.
Our tiny thyroid gland is tremendously important; when it isn’t working properly, we suffer in a variety of ways. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for a thyroid check if there’s any suspicion on your part that yours might be under-active. A simple test can determine this, and simple medicine can change your life for the better.