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11 Eye-Opening Facts About the Thyroid

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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that lives just below your larynx. Its two halves, or lobes, which rest against the trachea, weigh less than an ounce. The thyroid is under the control a peanut-shaped gland in the brain called the pituitary gland, which in turn takes its commands from the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that works as the communications center for the pituitary—sending messages in the form of hormones to control the release of thyroid hormones from the pituitary.

Once stimulated, the thyroid gland takes up iodide from the foods we eat and converts it into iodine to make the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These hormones are then released into the bloodstream, where they help your body regulate so many processes it would take several pages to describe them all. Generally, these hormones dictate your metabolism, digestion, fertility, weight loss, aging, and more.

Mental Floss spoke to a few experts to better understand this small but powerful gland. Here are 11 things we learned.

1. YOUR THYROID INFLUENCES EVERY CELL IN YOUR BODY.

Thyroid hormones regulate the metabolic functions of literally every cell in the body by stimulating nearly all tissues in the body to produce proteins and by increasing oxygen available to cells.

2. IT'S ALSO YOUR BODY'S FURNACE.

You can think of your thyroid gland as your body’s furnace, and your pituitary gland as its thermostat, says Michelle Corey, a functional medical practitioner and author of The Thyroid Cure: The Functional Mind-Body Approach to Reversing Your Autoimmune Condition and Reclaiming Your Health! When the furnace (thyroid) gets too cold, the thermostat (pituitary) senses it and produces TSH to stimulate thyroid hormone production, which warms you up. When the levels of thyroid hormones rise and the furnace gets too hot, the pituitary gland then slows the production of TSH, cooling you down.

3. YOUR THYROID AND YOUR LIVER HAVE A TIGHT PARTNERSHIP.

The liver is the major location where T4 is converted into the active T3. If your liver is taxed for any reason, it can’t do the job of converting these hormones, and you won’t have enough of the active thyroid hormone circulating in your body. As a result, you’ll feel sick and tired, even if you’re taking T4 hormone replacement. “If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid condition, such as Hashimoto’s disease, supporting your liver is critical to recovery,” Corey says.

4. THYROID DISORDERS CAN BE DIFFICULT TO DIAGNOSE.

Often, symptoms of thyroid disorder may go unnoticed “since they are gradual and non-specific,” says Nilem Patel, an endocrinologist at Los Angeles’s Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital. “Left untreated, thyroid disorder can cause disruption in patients’ lives,” he says. Dysfunction in the thyroid can cause the thyroid to overproduce or underproduce thyroid hormones. If you suspect an issue with your thyroid, request tests beyond just your baseline TSH levels, including T3 and T4 levels as well as thyroid antibodies.

5. ANXIETY AND INSOMNIA CAN BE SIGNS OF AN OVERACTIVE THYROID …

Your wee hour tossing and turning, as well as a racing heart and anxiety, could actually be symptoms of hyperthyroidism, or the overproduction of thyroid hormone. Other symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, palpitations, increased heart rate, and nervousness.

6. … WHILE SUDDEN WEIGHT GAIN AND DEPRESSION MIGHT BE CAUSED BY AN UNDERACTIVE THYROID.

When these symptoms seemingly come out of nowhere, they can be evidence of an underproduction of thyroid hormone. Other common signs of a sluggish thyroid include fatigue, hair loss, constipation, dry skin, irregular menses, cold intolerance, brittle hair, slow heart rate, and general lethargy.

7. IT CAPTURES AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT.

“The thyroid is the only gland to take up and trap iodine,” says Alan P. Farwell, section chief of endocrinology, diabetes, and nutrition at Boston Medical Center.

Thyroid hormones are also the only iodine-containing hormones. The thyroid gland not only takes up this element from dietary sources but stores a significant amount of iodinated tyrosines (a kind of amino acid) to maintain thyroid hormones in instances of iodine deficiency.

8. IT STORES A POTENTIALLY LETHAL DOSE OF HORMONES.

The gland can store a very large amount of hormone—so much that if the gland released all of its hormone into the bloodstream at once, it could kill you (this is known as thyrotoxicosis), says Linda Anegawa, a Hawaii-based physician with a specialty in obesity medicine. Fortunately thyroid hormone is very tightly regulated by constant, exquisitely sensitive signals traveling between the brain, the gland, the body’s tissues, and the blood concentrations of the hormone at any given moment.

9. THE THYROID PLAYS A CRITICAL ROLE IN PREGNANCY AND FETAL DEVELOPMENT.

To meet the increased metabolic needs of a pregnancy, a mother’s brain stimulates the thyroid gland to produce more hormone. “In the uterus, the fetal thyroid gland begins to function by 18 weeks of gestation. Should the fetus not get enough thyroid hormone from either the mother or from its own gland, severe outcomes can occur including abnormal brain development, abnormal growth of the skeletal system, problems with the placenta, or even miscarriage and increased perinatal mortality risk,” Anegawa says.

10. BALANCING YOUR THYROID MIGHT HELP YOU AVOID CHOLESTEROL-LOWERING DRUGS.

“I sometimes see patients with very elevated cholesterol on cholesterol-lowering medication that doesn’t seem to be working. But then I discover that their thyroid function is off-kilter,” says Anegawa. In these cases, she generally recommends adjusting a patient’s thyroid medicines or beginning treatment for at least six to eight weeks prior to checking the blood cholesterol level. This has helped some of her patients reduce their doses of cholesterol medicines, or stop taking them completely. “[Thyroid hormones] may someday be used as a cholesterol treatment, especially for patients who cannot tolerate statins, the most commonly used drugs,” she says.

11. SYNTHETIC THYROID HORMONE MAY HAVE EXCITING NEW MEDICAL USES.

A specially engineered form of thyroid hormone that only targets heart cells is under research as a treatment for heart failure, Anegawa says. Another form of the hormone, which selectively can enter nerve cells, may someday be a treatment for neurodegenerative disease.

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The Body
11 Interesting Facts About Lymph Nodes

The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

The lymphatic system is a crucial part of your body's ability to fight off infection and viruses. It's a key player in the immune system that functions by circulating lymphatic fluid through a series of lymph vessels all throughout your body. This fluid gathers up anything foreign, such as viruses and bacteria from your body tissues and flushes them to your lymph nodes, where immune cells attack whatever isn't helping your body. 

Mental Floss spoke to Adriana Medina, an internal medicine doctor with a specialty in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, about these important tissues. 

1. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF NODES.

They're about size and shape of a pea, and hundreds of them are scattered all throughout the body. In order to fight many little pathogens and clear out unhelpful debris, your body needs a lot of nodes to rally to these causes, according to Medina. 

2. LYMPH NODES ARE HOME TO IMPORTANT IMMUNE CELLS.

"The lymph nodes are in charge of harboring lymphocytes," says Medina. Your body makes two main types of these immune cells, B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes (or B- and T-cells), which are crucial to your body's ability to fight off infections of all kinds. There are many sub-classes of the T-cells because "they are very important to attack infection," says Medina.

3. LYMPHOCYTES ESCORT FOREIGN INVADERS OUT.

When your lymph nodes receive some sort of foreign debris they recognize isn't ours, Medina says, "the B-lymphocytes are in charge of making antibodies." These antibodies "leave with the toxic substance," and signal other immune cells to come in and attack the cells.

4. WHERE DO ALL THE TOXINS GO?

Once the lymphatic fluid has grabbed up its targets, most of it returns to your blood stream, Medina explains, which is why it's so important for lymph cells to do their job: kill what aims to harm you before it gets flushed back into your system.

5. THERE ARE MANY CAUSES OF SWOLLEN LYMPH NODES.

When your immune system senses a foreign invader, be it a virus, bacteria, vaccine, or even some medications, it preps the lymph nodes to make antibodies and lymphocytes to fight off the offender. This also increases the amount of lymphatic fluid in the node, which can make it swollen and tender. Most of the time swollen lymph nodes are not a big cause for concern.

6. A HARD, RUBBERY LYMPH NODE IS A PROBLEM.

A lymph node that is harder rather than soft and persists for several weeks is worth a doctor visit. While lymph nodes can be tender or swollen and mobile when infected, "when there is a [cancerous] malignance…they're hard, rubbery, they don't move, and they don't go away. The lymph nodes are always telling us something."

7. YOU ARE THE PUMP FOR YOUR LYMPHATIC SYSTEM.

Unlike your blood, which has the heart to pump it through your body, your lymphatic fluid doesn't have a pump. Instead, it relies upon gravity and pressure, which you create when you move around, as well as light massage.

8. WHERE YOU FIND VEINS, YOU FIND LYMPHATIC VESSELS.

The lymphatic system and the circulatory system are separate systems, but connected, running in tandem like underground networks of streams. "Lymphatic vessels are distributed along the body wherever we have arteries [or] veins," says Medina.

9. YOUR LYMPH NODES AND YOUR SPLEEN WORK TOGETHER.

"The spleen is like one big lymph node," Medina says of the organ that lives between your stomach and diaphragm. "The spleen is able to produce additional blood cells in case we need it to." Additionally, she explains, many toxic substances are filtrated through the spleen. However, if something happens to your spleen and it needs to be removed, you can live without it; you just may become more prone to infection and require more vaccinations to protect you against aggressive viruses.

10. STAGES OF CANCER ARE DETERMINED BY THE NUMBER OF AFFECTED LYMPH NODES.

The easiest cancers to treat are those that remain in the tissue where they first occur. However, in metastatic cancers, cancer cells migrate to the lymph nodes, which can cause cancer to spread. "When the cancer is detected in lymph nodes, we have to try to find out how many lymph nodes are involved," Medina says. "Lymph node involvements [determines] the prognosis of the cancer." When lymph node involvement occurs, "the treatment has to be more aggressive," she says, often adding radiation to a regime of chemotherapy and other drugs.

11. RESEARCHERS ARE TURNING THE BODY'S OWN LYMPHOCYTES INTO CANCER FIGHTING TREATMENTS.

Breakthroughs in immunotherapy known as Car T-cell therapy turn the body's own immune system into a weapon against cancer by engineering patients' own immune cells to recognize and attack their tumors, according to the National Cancer Institute. "What's happening—it's just beautiful—is that [researchers] are using B-lymphocytes to fight not only breast cancer, but leukemia and lymphomas," Medina explains. "The results are so good and encouraging, changing chances of survival."

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The Body
13 Intriguing Facts About the Sciatic Nerve

The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

If you say someone's getting on your nerves, you could just cut to the chase and say they're getting on your sciatic nerve—this nerve is plenty big enough for both minor and major irritations. It's the largest nerve in the body, running a lengthy route from each side of your lower spine, deep into your buttock, wrapping around to the back of the thigh and into the foot. Mental Floss spoke to Loren Fishman, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in NYC and associate clinical professor at Columbia Medical School. Here are 13 things we learned about this important part of the nervous system.

1. AT ITS LARGEST POINT, IT'S ABOUT AS BIG AROUND AS A MAN'S THUMB.

No wonder this nerve hurts when it gets irritated—at its biggest point, it's one heck of a large nerve, says Fishman. 

2. THE SCIATIC NERVE IS ACTUALLY MADE UP OF FIVE NERVES.

The sciatic nerve is more accurately five nerves that come together on the right and left sides of the lower spine. Technically, the fourth and fifth lumbar nerves and the first three nerves in the sacral spine come together and merge into the unified sciatic.

3. WITHOUT SCIATIC NERVES, YOUR LEGS WOULD BE WEAK NOODLES.

"The sciatic nerve gives feeling and strength to the muscles and skin of the calf and foot, supplies sensation from the joints, bones, and just about everything else below the knee," says Fishman.

4. THE SPINAL CORD'S CONNECTED TO THE THIGH BONE.

The nerve connects the spinal cord with the outside of the thigh, the hamstring muscles in the back of the thigh, and the muscles in your lower leg and feet. This is why sciatic nerve impingement often results in muscle weakness, numbness and/or tingling in the leg, ankle, foot, and toes.

5. INJURIES TO THE SCIATIC NERVE OFTEN AFFECT THE CONNECTION TO THE BRAIN RATHER THAN THE NERVE ITSELF.

After severe spinal cord injury, the nerve itself is often just fine, but the connection between it and the brain has been severed, Fishman says. Until now, there's been no way to fix such injuries, but "recent work with stem cells has begun to restore the connection in dogs and other animals."

6. BACK INJURIES ARE THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF SCIATIC PAIN.

A variety of lower back problems can lead to pain that radiates along the sciatic nerve. Most commonly, sciatica pain is caused when a herniated disc at the L5 (lower lumbar back) irritates the S1 (sacrum) nerve root in the lower spine. The exiting nerve roots are highly sensitive, and the bits of the disc that herniate contain inflammatory proteins such as interleukin and tumor necrosis factor that can also aggravate the nerve.

7. SCIATIC PAIN CAN BE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY.

In a small number of people, a condition called cauda equina syndrome (so named because the nerve bundle at the base of the spinal cord resembles a horse's tail) can masquerade as sciatica—but it also usually causes weakness that extends to bowel or bladder incontinence and sometimes weakness or loss of sensation in the legs that gets progressively worse. In this case, immediate medical attention should be sought, and recovery may not be as quick as with common sciatica.

8. ANCIENT GREEKS AND ROMANS COULDN'T DISTINGUISH BETWEEN JOINT AND NERVE PAIN …

When the ancient Greek and Roman physicians were treating the pain we now commonly know as sciatica, they believed it stemmed from "diseases of the hip joint," according to a 2007 study in Spinal Cord. It wasn't until 1764, write the authors, "that leg pain of 'nervous' origin was distinguished from pain of 'arthritic' origin."

9. …AND HIPPOCRATES TREATED IT WITH THE BOILED MILK OF A FEMALE ASS.

Among the many treatments Hippocrates and his ilk came up with for this painful condition were: "Fumigations, fasting, and subsequently, laxatives, and ingestion of boiled milk of the female ass." In his Treatise of the Predictions, Hippocrates noted that elderly patients with "cramps and colds at the loin and the legs" would experience their pain for up to a year, whereas young people could be free of pain in about 40 days.

10. SCIATICA DERIVES ITS NAME FROM THE 15TH CENTURY.

The modern name for the disease, according to Fishman, comes from 15th-century Florence. "They called sciatica ischiatica, since they thought it came from tuberculosis that worked its way down to the ischial tuberosity (the sit-bones)," Fishman says. These medieval doctors had the cause wrong, but the name stuck.

11. SOMEWHERE BETWEEN 1900 AND 1925 PHYSICIANS CONNECTED HERNIATED DISCS TO SCIATIC PAIN.

Different researchers in different countries began to make sciatic breakthroughs when doing autopsies on corpses with fractured or herniated discs, where they noticed compression on the sciatic nerve.

12. WEIGHT HAS LITTLE INFLUENCE ON SCIATIC PAIN, BUT HEIGHT DOES.

A 1991 cross sectional study of 2946 women and 2727 men published in Spine found that neither gender nor body mass made any difference in the likelihood of developing sciatica. Body height did, however, in males between the ages of 50 and 64, with taller men being more likely to have the condition. Other studies have found a similar link [PDF]. Over 5'8"? Your risk is higher. 

13. SUFFERING FROM SCIATICA? YOU'RE NOT ALONE.

Sciatica has a surprisingly common negative impact on daily life. "Low back pain and sciatica are the second biggest reason for lost days of work—just behind the common cold," says Fishman. The condition is most commonly found in people over 50 and rarely seen in anyone under 20 years old—and then it most often has a genetic cause.

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