WELLNESS WEDNESDAY TIP- Vitamin D, often referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ plays a vital role in our overall wellness. Vitamin D is especially important for bone health; research suggests it may play a part in a healthy immune response to infection, and possibly in the prevention of a variety of chronic diseases. With the arrival of the cold months and decreased sunlight exposure, many of us will become deficient in Vitamin D. Fortified dairy products, tofu, eggs, and some fish are all great dietary sources of Vitamin D. You can also talk to your physician about other ways to increase your Vitamin D level to help improve your overall health and wellness this winter.

By: Radha Nandagopal, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor, College of Medicine

As part of our ongoing exploration of wellness, this week we are focusing on a gland that is central to well being and health.

What is the thyroid and what does it do?

The thyroid is a small gland shaped like a butterfly inside the neck, in front of your trachea (windpipe) and just below your larynx (voicebox). It produces thyroid hormones (called T4 and T3) that make their way through the blood to all tissues in the body. These thyroid hormones are important for normal growth and development, including cognitive development, in children, normal puberty, and normal energy metabolism. The thyroid is controlled by the pituitary gland, located in the brain, which is the switch that moderates how much thyroid hormone is made.

Causes of Thyroid Disease

Because the thyroid is so important for all aspects of our body’s functions, from heart health to our digestive processes, it’s no surprise that too much or too little thyroid hormone can have pretty serious effects. Children born without a thyroid gland (one form of a condition called congenital hypothyroidism) are at high risk for severe mental disability and growth failure. In the U.S., the most common cause of an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) is autoimmune disease, which occurs when a person’s own immune system attacks their own thyroid gland (“friendly fire”). In most of the world, iodine deficiency is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. Most of us in the U.S. get enough iodine through our diets and especially through the use of iodized salts (a major public health success).  People with untreated hypothyroidism may suffer from severe fatigue, constipation, dry skin and brittle hair and nails, and moderate weight gain. The treatment for autoimmune hypothyroidism includes thyroid hormone replacement in the form of a small tablet taken once a day.

An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) is also most commonly caused by autoimmune disease, but is less common than hypothyroidism. In hyperthyroidism, people may suffer from a huge increase in appetite coupled with weight loss, heart palpitations (“fluttering in the chest”), very frequent bowel movements, and an uncontrolled sense of agitation and anxiety. Treatment is more complicated than treatment for hypothyroidism, and can involve anti-thyroid drugs (which block the formation and release of thyroid hormone from the gland), radiation therapy to shrink the gland, or surgical removal of the thyroid.

Finally, thyroid nodules and cancer can occur with or without changes in the levels of hormones produced by the gland. Some of these conditions are genetic, while others are thought to be due to environmental exposures, such as radiation.

Does nutrition make a difference in thyroid disease?

A healthy, well-balanced diet and plenty of activity is important for maintaining thyroid health. Specifically, however, few studies have shown that any particular foods or herbs can prevent the onset of hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, or thyroid nodules. However, if you have been treated for thyroid conditions, lifestyle changes can sometimes ease your symptoms. Some interesting facts:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage) can slightly decrease thyroid hormone levels – not enough to cause hypothyroidism in the reasonable amounts that most people eat. However, if you have hyperthyroidism, eating a daily serving or more of one of these vegetables is a great idea.
  • Daily activity is important in all thyroid conditions. Exercise gives your thyroid the tools it needs to help keep your metabolism in balance.
  • Soy products can sometimes interfere with the absorption of thyroid hormone replacement medication hypothyroidism in people who are also getting enough iodine (which is important for thyroid health), but soy itself does not cause hypothyroidism. Soy products (edamame, soy milk, and tofu, for example) can be important parts of a healthy and well-balanced diets, especially among people looking to cut back on their consumption of animal products.

So the next time you look in the mirror, check out that butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck and say a little thanks for all it’s doing to keep you at your best all day!