You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that helps regulate metabolism, heart rate, energy levels and body temperature. But thyroid disorders are very common. It’s estimated that 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, and as many as 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.
Thyroid disorders can mimic several other health conditions, making them more difficult to diagnose. If you even suspect you might have a thyroid problem, consult with your primary care physician or endocrinologist as soon as possible.
The most common thyroid conditions are known as hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.
> Hypothyroidism indicates an underactive thyroid gland, the most common thyroid disorder in older adults. Symptoms will vary, but they often include fatigue, unexplained weight gain, increased cold sensitivity, constipation, joint and muscle pain, dry skin and depression.
> Hyperthyroidism indicates an overactive thyroid gland, which is more common in people under age 50. Symptoms can include rapid heart rate, anxiety, insomnia, increased appetite, weight loss, diarrhea and excessive perspiration.
Thyroid disorders are not just a matter of discomfort and quality of life. Too much thyroid hormone can cause atrial fibrillation, affect blood pressure and decrease bone density, which can lead to osteoporosis. Pregnant women with untreated hypothyroidism have an increased risk of miscarriage, preterm delivery and developmental problems in their children.
Many thyroid disorders are hereditary, or they are caused by factors such as autoimmune disorders and certain medications. However, there is clear evidence that lifestyle factors can play a significant part.
Here are some tips to help protect your thyroid health.
> Anti-inflammatory diet. At least 70 percent of autoimmune activity happens in the gut, as a direct result of inflammation. Avoid sugar and processed foods and instead eat a Mediterranean diet emphasizing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, use healthy fats such as olive and canola oils, and season with herbs and spices instead of salt to reduce your risk of a damaged thyroid. Also, avoid eating broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and other cruciferous vegetables when they’re raw, as they contain substances that can interfere with the thyroid hormone.
> Optimize vitamin D. Adequate vitamin D levels are critical for regulating the body’s immune system and keeping inflammation at bay. Have your doctor test your vitamin D levels periodically to ensure they are within a healthy range.
> Avoid environmental toxins. Long-term exposure to endocrine disruptors in the environment might trigger thyroid problems. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a few problems to be aware of are perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in some carpets, flame-resistant and waterproof clothing and nonstick cookware. A 2011 study also revealed the exposure to phthalates, found in fragranced products and soft plastics, and bisphenol-A still found in some hard plastics and food cans, can cause disruptions in thyroid hormones. Many experts also recommend avoiding antibacterial soaps that contain triclosan, an ingredient proven to alter hormone levels in animals.
This tiny gland plays a powerful role in your overall health and well-being, and groundbreaking work is being done every year to better understand how to protect it and to more effectively screen for problems. Most thyroid diseases are lifelong conditions that can be managed effectively with regular screening, lifestyle adjustments and medications. As you add thyroid health to your family’s list of priorities, choose fresh or frozen foods over canned, store food in porcelain or glass rather than plastics, and keep your home well-ventilated.