Thyroid disease

Despite its small size, the thyroid produces important hormones for the body. Thyroid problems can result from overactivity (hyperthyroidism) and underactivity (hypothyroidism). Learn how to treat these problems and improve your quality of life.

What is the thyroid?

Located in the neck under the Adam’s apple, the thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland that weighs between 20 and 30 grams and that secretes iodine-rich hormones. Its main role is to stimulate cell and tissue growth. The thyroid also regulates a number of metabolic activities—such as digestion, heart rate, body temperature, sweating, and body weight—and has an affect on the nervous system and reproductive functions.

Diseases that affect this gland include hyperthyroidism (excess hormone production) and hypothyroidism (insufficient hormone production). To diagnose these thyroid problems, your doctor will have a blood test done to check certain lab values. If you have a thyroid problem, your doctor will also order periodic blood tests, even if your condition is controlled. Thyroid hormones need to stay within target values to keep your symptoms in check and improve your quality of life.

Thyroid disorders are more common in women and seniors.

Hyperthyroidism: causes, symptoms and treatment

Hyperthyroidism (or an “overactive thyroid”) is an overproduction of thyroid hormones. This causes the body to speed up its processes. Hyperthyroidism must be quickly controlled, as an accelerated heart rate, hypertension, diarrhea and insomnia can be very difficult to cope with and can have a major impact on your health.

The main cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease. In this condition, an immune system antibody targets thyroid cells and stimulates them to produce too much thyroid hormone.

Hyperthyroidism symptoms include:

  • nervousness
  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • palpitations
  • diarrhea
  • weight loss
  • increased appetite
  • trembling
  • profuse sweating
  • difficulty tolerating heat
  • hot and clammy skin
  • goitre (swelling in the neck due to an enlarged thyroid)
  • change in eye appearance (the eyes may bulge out of their sockets)

Different approaches can treat hyperthyroidism. Antithyroid medication may be prescribed to decrease thyroid function. In other cases, an overactive thyroid can be controlled with radioactive iodine or with the surgical removal of part of the gland. The goal of treatment is to reduce the level of thyroid hormones in the body so that thyroid functions go back to normal. If your doctor has prescribed you medication, it’s very important that you take it regularly.

Hypothyroidism: causes, symptoms and treatment

Hypothyroidism refers to a lack of thyroid hormones, which in turn slows down the body’s functions.

In Canada, the most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This condition causes abnormal antibodies to destroy the cells of the thyroid gland.

Hypothyroidism symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • lack of energy and depression
  • difficulty concentrating
  • dry skin
  • pale complexion
  • weight gain
  • intolerance to cold
  • cold extremities (hands and feet)
  • swelling around the eyes
  • loss of hair and eyebrows

The goal of hypothyroidism treatment is to bring thyroid hormone levels back within target values by providing these hormones in the form of medication. Hypothyroidism generally can't be cured. However, the condition can be well controlled through a daily dose of thyroid replacement hormones.

Hypothyroidism medication may interact with calcium, iron and some medications. Since a number of interactions are possible, you must consult your pharmacist before taking other medications or using natural health products. 

You should generally take this medication on an empty stomach or with food. Since some foods can decrease absorption of the drug, you must always take the drug the same way so that your dose can be adjusted accordingly. If you stop your treatment, the level of thyroid hormones in your blood will decrease and your hypothyroidism symptoms will come back.

Although thyroid gland problems can cause many unpleasant symptoms, they can be treated. With the right care and correct medication doses, your doctor can generally normalize your body functions and minimize any uncomfortable symptoms. Talk to your pharmacist, who is there to answer your questions.

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