One of the things I found most difficult to deal with, particularly in my early days of diagnosis, was the general lack of awareness of what a thyroid actually is, and what roles it performs in the body. The mere mention of 'thyroid' triggers bemused looks from most people; they are familiar with the word, but generally have no clue what it does, or even where it is located.
"Oh I don't think I have one of those," someone replied to me as I was explaining my condition. Erm... I'm pretty sure you'd know if you didn't! Because the truth is that you cannot function properly as a human being without one, unless you are being medicated daily to cope with the lack of its presence. Others believe the thyroid is only relevant to the elderly - or at the very least the post-menopausal - and many are also unaware of the fact that men also have a thyroid, not just women. If you have ever watched an episode of the medical drama series 'House', starring Hugh Laurie, you will likely have heard the thyroid being bandied about as a possible cause in many a diagnostic deliberation. But what does the thyroid actually do?
The thyroid is a small yet powerful gland situated in the neck, in front of the windpipe. Similar to a butterfly in shape - hence the nickname - it has two lobes mimicking the silhouette of a butterfly's wings. Part of the body's endocrine system, one of the thyroid's main jobs is to produce the hormones which regulate the body's metabolism (the process of turning food into energy). Regulated by the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) secreted by the brain, the thyroid gland produces three different types of hormones - T3, T4 and calcitonin - all of which have wide-ranging effects on the body.
Some of the main functions T3, T4 and calcitonin affect include:
- The body's metabolic rate (metabolism)
- The rate and strength of the heartbeat (cardiovascular)
- The rate of breathing and consumption of oxygen
- The activity of mitochondria
- The level of blood flow
- Body temperature regulation
- Brain cell development
- Maintaining normal sexual function
- Maintaining a healthy and regular sleep pattern
- Thought patterns and memory
- Maintaining a healthy and regular menstrual cycle
- Maintaining blood calcium levels
So, as you can see, that little butterfly in your neck plays a very significant role in the health and functionality of your body, and without one, or with only a partial one, or a malfunctioning one, you can imagine there are several aspects of life and wellbeing which become that bit harder to maintain.
Whilst I wouldn't expect anyone to know this level of detail off the top of their head, what I would ask is this: next time you hear of someone suffering from a thyroid-related problem, don't be so quick to shrug it off or dismiss it as a genuine affliction. Because as someone living through it, I can assure you it is very real indeed.