About Thyroid Disorders

What does the thyroid gland do?

The thyroid gland is a small butterfly-shaped gland found in the throat. The thyroid produces thyroid hormone (TH), an important regulator of the body’s metabolism. Too much TH speeds up the body’s metabolism – increasing heart rate and temperature. Too little TH causes the body to slow down – causing one to feel tired or cold. Abnormal levels of thyroid hormone affect all aspects of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing – untreated thyroid disorders can be fatal. To learn more, visit our Types of Thyroid Disorders page.

What causes a thyroid disorder?

The causes of thyroid disorders have not been positively identified, but can include genetics, environment, stress, bacterial and viral infections and pregnancy. There are no definitive statistics for the incidence of thyroid disorders, but it has been suggested that at least 10% of the general population will have some thyroid dysfunction in their lifetime, and that thyroid disorders occur more often in women than in men. Levothyroxine (also known as thyroxine) is widely used in New Zealand with approximately 70,000 patients prescribed it (Pharmac 30/9/2008).

How is a thyroid disorder treated?

Medical treatments include medication, surgery and radioactive iodine. Although some people go into remission (euthyroid) where thyroid levels are stable, a significant proportion of people with thyroid disorders need lifelong treatment.

How does a thyroid disorder affect quality of life?

Thyroid imbalance takes a large toll on the body with symptoms ranging from muscle wasting (including heart muscle) to hair loss. The unseen toll is the mental and emotional damage. Brain function relies on stable hormone levels and the consequences when the endocrine system is unstable can be devastating. One sufferer labelled what happens to them as “brain fog”. At its worst we can be unable to walk and/or talk. Commonly we find it difficult or even impossible to plan and complete tasks, we forget what we were going to say and the stimulus of the world is overpowering. Add to that depression caused by chemical imbalance, anxiety attacks and the emotional effect of some of the physical symptoms such as protruding eyes, excessive weight loss or gain, sleeping too much or too little to name just a few.

In addition to the above, those who have autoimmune forms (Hashimoto’s and Graves’) often suffer from other autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. In autoimmune disorders the body’s T-cells react to antigens (a normal part of cells) and change B-cells into autoantibodies which attack the antigens.

For more explanation about these disorders, visit our Helpful Links section of this website. You could also learn more about specific types of thyroid disorders in our Types of Thyroid Disorders page.