boston-12-26The thyroid is one of the most important organs in the body, although it generally receives much less attention. This small gland in the neck produces the key hormones that regulate metabolism in all areas of the body. Problems with the thyroid and its hormones can have serious health consequences. Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland overproduces the hormone thyroxine. This results in an unbalance in the body’s metabolic rate. In extreme cases, this can become serious enough to require hospitalization. Older adults should be especially aware of the causes and symptoms of hyperthyroidism and see a doctor of they think they may have it.

Common Causes
A variety of things may cause hyperthyroidism. The most common cause is Graves’ Disease. This is an autoimmune disorder that can impact anyone with a genetic predisposition for the disease regardless of other health factors. Similar to all autoimmune disorders, a person with Graves’ Disease has an immune system that attacks its own bodily tissues. This causes inflammation and overstimulation of those tissues and leads to many diseases.

The second leading cause of hyperthyroidism is Plummer’s Disease. This results when the thyroid develops various nodules of over-active tissue. These tissues produce excess thyroxine. There are a variety of causes of Plummer’s Disease. Most causes involve the thyroid being exposed to toxins or deficient in key nutrients.

Relationship Between Hyperthyroidism, Hypothyroidism and Iodine
Iodine is a micronutrient that has a major impact on the thyroid. Humans need iodine in very small amounts, and most people get all of the iodine they need from food sources. Iodine is the fuel that runs the thyroid’s hormone production. An iodine deficiency is one of the best ways to cause hypothyroidism, which is when the thyroid gland produces too little hormone. Interestingly, there is a cause and effect relationship between iodine deficiency, hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

It is important to understand how an iodine deficiency might occur. It is far more likely to happen in older adults due to diets or a less-than-optimal digestive system. Modern agriculture and processed food are also notorious for providing foods depleted of key nutrients, especially iodine. Certain foods, especially kale and spinach, which are otherwise very healthy, may actually cause iodine deficiency if consumed in large amounts. This is because these foods contain chemicals that block the absorption of iodine. A person may supplement with an iodine solution such as Lugol’s Solution or foods such as kelp that are very high in iodine to prevent deficiency.

When an iodine deficiency leads to hypothyroidism, the thyroid becomes enlarged and overworked trying to produce enough hormone. This leads to an increased risk of the thyroid cells mutating or becoming damaged. If this occurs, the thyroid could begin to overproduce hormone even if the iodine deficiency is corrected.

Common Symptoms
In older adults, the symptoms of hyperthyroidism can be especially hard to detect. This is often because they are confused with normal symptoms of aging, such as fatigue, heart problems or heat sensitivity. They may also be masked by the high blood pressure medication many older adults take.

Since the hormone imbalance effects metabolism, it often has an effect on heart rate, digestion, energy level, appetite and mood. A person may sleep less, become irritable, sweat too much, eat much more than usual and also need to use the bathroom much more than usual. There is often a sudden loss of weight and rapid heartbeat accompanied by shaking or nervousness.

Treatments for Hyperthyroidism
The good news is that there are a variety of effective treatments available for hyperthyroidism. Most treatments center on bringing the thyroid back under control and balancing the production of hormones. Anti-thyroid medications are commonly used to decrease the thyroid’s production of hormones gradually.

The thyroid may also be targeted directly with the goal of reducing its size and ability to produce hormones. Radioactive iodine is a common treatment that kills of some of the thyroid cells and gradually reduces its production. This treatment, however, may also produce hypothyroidism that requires additional treatment. Portions of the thyroid may also be surgically removed, although this option is rarely done.

Finally, the symptoms can be masked with beta-blockers. While these medications don’t do anything to the thyroid or the hormones, they can control the symptoms of the disease and allow a person to live normally.

In many cases taking steps to keep the thyroid healthy and functioning normally can prevent the disease. Understanding hyperthyroidism and its causes is important for all adults middle aged or older.