The thyroid gland is an organ in the body that is often affected by the changes that occur during, and after, pregnancy.
This lesson will explain some of the problems that may arise, including symptoms and treatment options.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid gland is a small organ located in your neck. Despite being small, the thyroid is mighty – it’s responsible for regulating the body’s metabolism, hormone production, heart rate, nervous system, body weight, and even the body’s temperature. That’s pretty impressive for an organ only a few inches long.
The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system, which is the network of glands in the body that help regulate hormone production and distribution. The thyroid uses the mineral iodine to produce two hormones: triiodothyronine (known as T3) and thyroxine (known as T4). When the thyroid is functioning properly, T3 and T4 balance each other out to maintain an equilibrium.How does the body maintain the right balance? Well, the hypothalamus (in the brain) produces something called thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH). The amount of TRH present signals the pituitary gland to either increase or decrease the production of a thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).
The TSH level then signals the thyroid gland to increase or decrease hormone production.It sounds confusing, so let’s make sure this process is clear. When the body needs more T3 or T4, the pituitary gland releases more TSH, and the elevated TSH levels prompt the thyroid to produce more thyroid hormones (T3 and/or T4). Conversely, when the body has too much T3 or T4, the pituitary gland will decrease its production of TSH, signaling the thyroid gland to slow hormone production. So, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland are directly related to the functioning of the thyroid gland.
Thyroid Problems During Pregnancy
Now that we know how the thyroid works, we can get to the meat of the lesson. Specifically, there are things that can go wrong with the thyroid during pregnancy that we should know about.
Most pregnancies cause a woman’s thyroid gland to produce more hormones than usual, and a little extra T3 and T4 is ok; problems arise when the thyroid overcompensates and creates way too many hormones, or when the thyroid slows down and doesn’t produce enough.The hormone levels during pregnancy are important because untreated thyroid disorders can cause premature births, still births, low birth weight, and preeclampsia (seriously high blood pressure). The developing fetus uses thyroid hormones during brain and nervous system development, so it’s important to monitor hormone levels throughout pregnancy.When the thyroid produces too much T3 and T4, this is called hyperthyroidism.
Basically, the body’s functions go into overdrive and speed up, and this can be harmful to both mom and baby. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include irregular heart rate or even congestive heart failure, fatigue, nervousness, extreme nausea or vomiting, trouble sleeping, sensitivity to hot temperatures, and limited weight gain (or even weight loss).The most common cause of hyperthyroidism in pregnant women is Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that ultimately causes the thyroid to produce too many hormones.
Luckily, there are antithyroid medications available that help limit the amount of hormones the thyroid produces. In some cases, hyperthyroidism spikes right after birth, so it’s important to monitor thyroid function and hormone levels even after pregnancy.When the thyroid produces too little T3 and T4, this is called hypothyroidism. With this condition, the body’s processes slow way down, and this can be especially harmful to the fetus during the first trimester. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include anemia, dry skin, depression, constantly feeling tired, weight gain, constipation, problems with memory, muscle cramps, and sensitivity to cold temperature. (Thyroid problems can be hard to diagnose due to the overlap in symptoms with just being pregnant!)The most common cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland.
With this condition, the body gets confused and ends up attacking thyroid cells, limiting the thyroid’s function. There are different forms of thyroxine medication that can be taken to help combat hypothyroidism; these are man-made, artificial hormones that don’t affect the developing fetus. Thyroxine use is monitored throughout pregnancy, and it can affect the absorption of prenatal vitamins, so it’s important to include all medications when discussing options with a doctor.
Thyroid Problems After Pregnancy
Unfortunately, the mother isn’t out of the clear after giving birth. Birth causes a rush of hormones and things can become unbalanced, especially if thyroid dysfunction occurred during the pregnancy. Postpartum thyroiditis often occurs during the year following birth.
Typically, the woman experiences mild hyperthyroidism the first few months, and then it switches to hypothyroidism. In many cases, the thyroid balances itself out within the first year, but in others, long-term medication use is required to regulate thyroid function.
Wow, we’ve learned a lot about the thyroid gland and how pregnancy can disrupt its function! Let’s recap what we covered because there was a lot of information here. The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system, and it’s responsible for regulating a lot of the body’s processes through the production of two hormones: T3 and T4. Hormone production usually increases slightly during pregnancy, but if it increases too much, it’s a condition called hyperthyroidism.
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is an autoimmune disorder called Grave’s disease, and there are antithyroid medications that can help regulate hormone production. If the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones, this is called hypothyroidism, and this is most commonly caused by an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. There are artificial thyroxine medications that can help stimulate hormone production. In the first year after giving birth, a woman may experience abnormal thyroid activity – both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are common. Monitoring and medication can help regulate function until it returns to normal.Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.