The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that lives just below your larynx. Its two halves, or lobes, which rest against the trachea, weigh less than an ounce. The thyroid is under the control a peanut-shaped gland in the brain called the pituitary gland, which in turn takes its commands from the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that works as the communications center for the pituitary—sending messages in the form of hormones to control the release of thyroid hormones from the pituitary.
Once stimulated, the thyroid gland takes up iodide from the foods we eat and converts it into iodine to make the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are then released into the bloodstream, where they help your body regulate so many processes it would take several pages to describe them all. Generally, these hormones dictate your metabolism, digestion, fertility, weight loss, aging, and more.
Mental Floss spoke to a few experts to better understand this small but powerful gland. Here are 11 things we learned.
1. YOUR THYROID INFLUENCES EVERY CELL IN YOUR BODY.
Thyroid hormones regulate the metabolic functions of literally every cell in the body by stimulating nearly all tissues in the body to produce proteins and by increasing oxygen available to cells.
2. IT'S ALSO YOUR BODY'S FURNACE.
You can think of your thyroid gland as your body’s furnace, and your pituitary gland as its thermostat, says Michelle Corey, a functional medical practitioner and author of The Thyroid Cure: The Functional Mind-Body Approach to Reversing Your Autoimmune Condition and Reclaiming Your Health! When the furnace (thyroid) gets too cold, the thermostat (pituitary) senses it and produces TSH to stimulate thyroid hormone production, which warms you up. When the levels of thyroid hormones rise and the furnace gets too hot, the pituitary gland then slows the production of TSH, cooling you down.
3. YOUR THYROID AND YOUR LIVER HAVE A TIGHT PARTNERSHIP.
The liver is the major location where T4 is converted into the active T3. If your liver is taxed for any reason, it can’t do the job of converting these hormones, and you won’t have enough of the active thyroid hormone circulating in your body. As a result, you’ll feel sick and tired, even if you’re taking T4 hormone replacement. “If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid condition, such as Hashimoto’s disease, supporting your liver is critical to recovery,” Corey says.
4. THYROID DISORDERS CAN BE DIFFICULT TO DIAGNOSE.
Often, symptoms of thyroid disorder may go unnoticed “since they are gradual and non-specific,” says Nilem Patel, an endocrinologist at Los Angeles’s Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital. “Left untreated, thyroid disorder can cause disruption in patients’ lives,” he says. Dysfunction in the thyroid can cause the thyroid to overproduce or underproduce thyroid hormones. If you suspect an issue with your thyroid, request tests beyond just your baseline TSH levels, including T3 and T4 levels as well as thyroid antibodies.
5. ANXIETY AND INSOMNIA CAN BE SIGNS OF AN OVERACTIVE THYROID …
Your wee hour tossing and turning, as well as a racing heart and anxiety, could actually be symptoms of hyperthyroidism, or the overproduction of thyroid hormone. Other symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, palpitations, increased heart rate, and nervousness.
6. … WHILE SUDDEN WEIGHT GAIN AND DEPRESSION MIGHT BE CAUSED BY AN UNDERACTIVE THYROID.
When these symptoms seemingly come out of nowhere, they can be evidence of an underproduction of thyroid hormone. Other common signs of a sluggish thyroid include fatigue, hair loss, constipation, dry skin, irregular menses, cold intolerance, brittle hair, slow heart rate, and general lethargy.
7. IT CAPTURES AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT.
“The thyroid is the only gland to take up and trap iodine,” says Alan P. Farwell, section chief of endocrinology, diabetes, and nutrition at Boston Medical Center.
Thyroid hormones are also the only iodine-containing hormones. The thyroid gland not only takes up this element from dietary sources but stores a significant amount of iodinated tyrosines (a kind of amino acid) to maintain thyroid hormones in instances of iodine deficiency.
8. IT STORES A POTENTIALLY LETHAL DOSE OF HORMONES.
The gland can store a very large amount of hormone—so much that if the gland released all of its hormone into the bloodstream at once, it could kill you (this is known as thyrotoxicosis), says Linda Anegawa, a Hawaii-based physician with a specialty in obesity medicine. Fortunately thyroid hormone is very tightly regulated by constant, exquisitely sensitive signals traveling between the brain, the gland, the body’s tissues, and the blood concentrations of the hormone at any given moment.
9. THE THYROID PLAYS A CRITICAL ROLE IN PREGNANCY AND FETAL DEVELOPMENT.
To meet the increased metabolic needs of a pregnancy, a mother’s brain stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more hormone. “In the uterus, the fetal thyroid gland begins to function by 18 weeks of gestation. Should the fetus not get enough thyroid hormone from either the mother or from its own gland, severe outcomes can occur including abnormal brain development, abnormal growth of the skeletal system, problems with the placenta, or even miscarriage and increased perinatal mortality risk,” Anegawa says.
10. BALANCING YOUR THYROID MIGHT HELP YOU AVOID CHOLESTEROL-LOWERING DRUGS.
“I sometimes see patients with very elevated cholesterol on cholesterol-lowering medication that doesn’t seem to be working. But then I discover that their thyroid function is off-kilter,” says Anegawa. In these cases, she generally recommends adjusting a patient’s thyroid medicines or beginning treatment for at least six to eight weeks prior to checking the blood cholesterol level. This has helped some of her patients reduce their doses of cholesterol medicines, or stop taking them completely. “[Thyroid hormones] may someday be used as a cholesterol treatment, especially for patients who cannot tolerate statins, the most commonly used drugs,” she says.
11. SYNTHETIC THYROID HORMONE MAY HAVE EXCITING NEW MEDICAL USES.
A specially engineered form of thyroid hormone that only targets heart cells is under research as a treatment for heart failure, Anegawa says. Another form of the hormone, which selectively can enter nerve cells, may someday be a treatment for neurodegenerative disease.