Understanding the thyroid gland
The thyroid gland: A small butterfly shaped gland in the neck, it releases thyroid hormone into the blood which influences the metabolic rate of the body. photograph: getty images
The endocrine system, which controls many parts of the body’s functions, remains a mysteryIn recent times, we have gained a better understanding of how our bodies work. This is particularly the case when faced with illnesses such as heart disease, lung cancer or other potentially fatal conditions. However, the endocrine system which controls many parts of the body’s functions including appetite, reproduction and stress responses remains a mystery to many.
The hormones which are released from the endocrine system have a more subtle yet hugely important impact on us both physically and psychologically. One of the key glands in the endocrine system is the thyroid gland.
A small butterfly shaped gland in the neck, it releases thyroid hormone into the blood which influences the metabolic rate of the body – basically the rate of cell growth, division and turnover of the body.
When the thyroid gland malfunctions, it either produces too much thyroid hormone leading to hyperthyroidism or too little thyroid hormone, leading to hypothyroidism (see panel). And while diagnosis of the condition is pretty straightforward once symptoms are linked to it, the problem is that some patients and doctors don’t first consider the thyroid as a possible cause of their symptoms.
One woman in her early 50s says, “I thought I was going through the menopause. My heart was racing. I was sweating. I had mood swings and insomnia. At first, I thought the menopause is more difficult than I suspected but when I had my thyroid checked, I discovered the symptoms were due to an overactive thyroid.”
Another woman in her late 50s was recovering from breast cancer treatment when she became very emotionally distressed.
“I was highly nervous about everything and doing everything at speed. I was also losing an enormous amount of weight and was very worried that the cancer hadn’t gone even though I had been given the all-clear physically.
“I was so emotionally upset that I had started to attend a psychiatrist but I didn’t feel it was a mental problem. When I finally had my thyroid checked, it was found to be hugely overactive.
“If I hadn’t had the test, I would have been admitted to hospital and had drugs treating me for what I didn’t have. Now, I’d advise people to go to their GP to have a general medical check-up following cancer treatment.”
Prof Donal O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin, says that a lot of the symptoms of thyroid disease can be associated with many different medical conditions.