Do you ever think about your thyroid? If not, you’re probably not alone. However, if something ever goes wrong with this important part of your body, you’ll notice. That’s because the thyroid is a vital endocrine gland that helps to regulate the body’s metabolism. Our heart rate, how much we sweat, the digestive process and much more are all directly affected by our thyroid.
It is estimated that 30 million Americans have a thyroid condition, but only half of them have been diagnosed. That’s why January is Thyroid Awareness Month, a good time to look at the reasons the thyroid is so important and to know possible signs it’s not working correctly.
“The thyroid directly impacts many of our bodily functions and helps dictate how much energy we have,” explains Dr. John Ira Thurmond III, an internal medicine physician. “Your health will be adversely impacted if a thyroid condition is not properly diagnosed and treated.”
The Thyroid’s Importance
The thyroid is a bowtie-shaped gland located in the lower part of the neck, below the larynx and in front of the trachea. The thyroid’s main purpose is to release hormones into the body as we need them. It releases extra hormones at various points in our lives, including when the body is growing during childhood and during pregnancy.
The thyroid extracts iodine from our bloodstream and uses it to make the hormones that regulate many of our bodily functions. Iodine is not produced by our bodies; therefore, we must ingest an adequate amount through our diet for the thyroid to function properly.
A century ago, iodine deficiency was not uncommon in parts of the United States. This was abated in part through the introduction of iodized salt, which helped people get an adequate amount of iodine. Natural sources of iodine include eggs, cow’s milk, saltwater fish and shellfish. Today, most Americans get plenty of iodine.
An overactive thyroid, a condition known as hyperthyroidism, produces too many hormones. When this occurs, the body’s metabolism accelerates, causing symptoms such as:
Racing heart beat
Swelling of the thyroid, known as a goiter
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s antibodies attack the thyroid. Graves’ Disease can occur at any age, but is most common between the ages of 30 and 50. Women are seven to eight times more likely to be affected than men.
“Thyroid disorders, including hyperthyroidism, can usually be diagnosed with a blood test,” says Dr. Wilder Diaz-Calderon, an internal medicine physician. “Treatment for an overactive thyroid includes prescription medications, and in some cases, surgery.”
An underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroidism, is a condition resulting from the gland producing too few hormones. This is the most common type of thyroid disorder in the United States. Symptoms of underactive thyroid include:
Low heart rate
Exhaustion, weakness and lethargy
Muscle and joint pain
The most frequent cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Iodine deficiency can also lead to an underactive thyroid, but this is rare in the United States.
Hypothyroidism can also be diagnosed with a blood test. A prescription drug that works to keep hormones at a normal level is a common treatment for this condition.
Thyroid cancer is not especially common; it is the eighth most-common cancer in the United States. Its incidence was on the rise for several years, but researchers now believe the thyroid cancer rate may have stabilized.
People who were exposed to radiation to the head or neck as children are at a greater risk for thyroid cancer. Symptoms of thyroid cancer can include a lump or swelling in the neck. If you experience these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean cancer is present, but you should see a doctor as soon as possible to determine the cause. Cancer of the thyroid is usually highly treatable and curable.
“If you notice any unusual symptoms, such as a slower or accelerated heart rate, digestive issues, or you simply don’t have the energy you once did, you should see your doctor and discuss your symptoms,” says internal medicine physician, Dr. Amber Lesley. “While there could be other causes, an underactive or overactive thyroid may be to blame.”
“If you’re one of the estimated 15 million Americans who has an undiagnosed thyroid condition, you’ll be glad you had your thyroid checked,” adds Dr. Triwanna Fisher-Wikoff, a primary care physician. “Treatment for a thyroid disorder will make you feel a lot better and improve your overall health.”
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