All About the Thyroid
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your throat. It’s part of the endocrine system—a series of glands that produce and regulate hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that “tell” certain cells and organs what to do, influencing nearly all of the body’s functions.
Your thyroid makes the hormones that regulate your metabolism: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Metabolism is the process by which your body converts food into energy, facilitating vital functions such as blood circulation, breathing, and cell repair. Without the thyroid, the body could not break down protein, fats, and carbohydrates for fuel.
The thyroid gland does not simply act on its own. It receives signals from the pituitary gland, the body’s “master gland,” which is located at the base of the brain and regulates vital body functions. The pea-sized pituitary gland sends its instructions through a hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH levels rise and fall in the blood, telling the thyroid the exact amount of each hormone to secrete. Hormone levels within the body are a delicate balancing act, and several disorders can arise if the thyroid overproduces (hyperthyroidism) or underproduces (hypothyroidism) T4 and T3.
When the Thyroid is Out of Balance
With hyperthyroidism, the thyroid gland makes too many hormones, accelerating the body's metabolism, which can cause unintentional weight loss and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. According to the Mayo Clinic, other symptoms may include increased appetite, nervousness or anxiety, sweating, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. Without treatment, hyperthyroidism can lead to serious complications, including heart conditions like congenital heart failure, eye problems, and osteoporosis.
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid isn’t making enough hormones, and symptoms may not be noticeable at first. Common symptoms of hypothyroidism may include increased sensitivity to cold, fatigue, constipation, weight gain, and dry skin. If left unchecked, the condition can eventually lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility, and heart disease.
Both conditions can be treated, often through the use of synthetic hormones or anti-thyroid medications. If you’re concerned about thyroid health, your healthcare provider can administer a blood test to check your thyroid hormone levels and recommend the appropriate treatment.
Supporting Thyroid Health
Eating a nutritious, well-rounded diet is essential for thyroid health. Many vitamins and minerals support the thyroid, and iodine is chief among them. This trace mineral is an essential building block of thyroid hormones, but our bodies don’t produce it. Therefore, we need to consume iodine in foods such as iodized salt, seafood, seaweeds, egg yolks, dairy products, and lima beans.
It’s important not to go overboard, however. Consuming iodine in excess can negatively affect hormone levels in some individuals. Iodine deficiency is rare in the United States, so if you’re eating a varied diet, you’re likely within the range of the recommended 150 micrograms per day.
Selenium is another critical mineral for thyroid function that can be found in brazil nuts, fish, meat, poultry, and fortified cereals and grains. Just like with iodine, selenium deficiency in the U.S. is rare, and it can be detrimental to go too far over the recommended 200 micrograms per day.
Both the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health recommend eating a variety of healthy foods rather than focusing too heavily on specific foods or supplements for thyroid health. If you have any concerns about your intake of essential nutrients, talk with your doctor about taking a multivitamin with minerals.
A Word of Caution about Thyroid Supplements
Your endocrine system maintains a very precise balance of hormone levels. For that reason, it’s not a good idea to experiment with your hormone health on your own. According to Cleveland Clinic endocrinologist Christian Nasr, MD, taking over-the-counter iodine supplements could result in getting more than the recommended daily value, which may leave you worse off than before. “The effect of iodine supplements can vary by person, causing the thyroid to produce either too much or too little hormone,” he cautioned.
Consumer Reports also issued a warning about thyroid supplements, reporting that many have been found to contain thyroid hormones derived from animal glands—and there’s often no indication on the labels. When researchers randomly tested ten “thyroid support” supplements, they found that nine contained “clinically relevant” levels of thyroid hormones, in some cases at levels that rivaled prescription thyroid medications. Researchers concluded that these supplements posed a “potential danger to public health.”
Keep in mind that dietary supplements are not reviewed for safety or effectiveness by the FDA, so it’s best to talk with your healthcare provider before beginning a new over-the-counter supplement. Taking “thyroid support” supplements could alter your hormone levels in unpredictable ways and have undesirable health consequences. If you’re at all concerned about your thyroid health, consult your doctor so you can have your hormone levels tested and begin a prescribed treatment plan.
Getting the Care You Deserve
A healthy thyroid contributes to feeling energized and ready to live life to the fullest. If your doctor determines that your hormone levels are out of balance, taking medication can restore your vitality. Once you develop a treatment plan, we’d be happy to take over the details of managing your medications. We’ll drop them off at your doorstep for free, and your prescription information will always be at your fingertips through our desktop and mobile apps. Plus, our pharmacists will only be a phone call, text message, or in-app chat away if you have questions about side effects or which foods to avoid eating around dosage time.
Want to learn more about a better pharmacy experience with Alto? Our care team and endocrinology specialists are available to answer your questions from 9 am - 9 pm PT Monday - Friday and 10 am - 6 pm PT on weekends; reach out via phone, text, or the app.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.