The thyroid is a small gland that causes big problems - or does it? What topic do you think would get one of the biggest listener responses in the history of the BBC Radio 4 medical programmes?
Obesity, asthma, heart disease? In fact, it was the thyroid, the tiny gland in the neck that controls the speed of the body’s metabolism.
As well as being the topic of a recent episode of the health series Am I Normal?, which I present, controversies about treatment for thyroid conditions was the subject of fierce debate at a medical conference this month in Birmingham. So, why the big fuss?
First, thyroid problems, either underactive or overactive, affect as many women in the UK as diabetes. It’s a big problem. And with underactive thyroids affecting twice as many people as overactive ones — about one woman in 50 and one man in 500 — this condition cannot be ignored.
The problem in the UK lies in diagnosis and treatment, especially of underactive conditions. This is causing a medical tug-of-war between patients and doctors, with those affected saying that doctors are using inappropriate standards to judge their illness, and that they are being labelled as normal despite persistent symptoms.
Doctors, however, are concerned that some individuals are blaming their thyroid for problems that are not medical but social, such as weight gain, or even ageing.
Falling levels of thyroxine, the hormone produced by the thyroid, affect body and mind. Body temperature is reduced, a person feels tired all the time, becomes constipated, may gain weight, be sluggish and depressed, with lacklustre hair and nails. The extreme effect of low thyroid levels can be seen in countries where there is a lack of iodine, which is essential to the hormone’s manufacture in the body; 26 million people are brain damaged because of it.
But in Britain falling levels are usually caused by auto-immunity, when the body’s immune system creates thyroid autoantibodies that attack and damage the gland, causing it to produce less thyroxine than it should (hypothyroidism). It occurs ten times more often in women than men, and particularly in older women. For reasons that are not clear, this gender disparity is a feature of many other autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Source - Times