How does your thyroid feel today?
You may not know how to answer that question because if you are like most people, you probably do not think about your thyroid much, if at all. Yet the thyroid plays an important role in our overall health. January is Thyroid Awareness Month, a good time to familiarize ourselves with the thyroid, what it does and why it is so important.
The thyroid is a vital endocrine gland that helps regulate the body’s metabolism. Metabolism refers to the pace at which our body does things, such as digest food. Our temperature, heart rate, how much we sweat, the digestive process, the menstrual cycle and other bodily functions are all directly affected by our thyroid. It is estimated that 30 million Americans have a thyroid condition, yet just half that many have been diagnosed.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a butterfly-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. There are also natural sources of iodine, including eggs, cow’s milk, saltwater fish and shellfish. Today, most Americans get plenty of iodine.
There are several conditions that may affect one’s thyroid:
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 heartbeat
- Hot flashes
- Weight loss
- Hair loss
- 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 natural 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.
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
- Cold sensitivity
- Reduced sweating
- Weight gain
- Exhaustion, weakness and lethargy
- Muscle and joint pain
- A goiter
The most frequent cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s disease. Iodine deficiency can also lead to an underactive thyroid, but this is rare in the United States. A prescription drug that works to keep hormones at a normal level is a common treatment for this condition.
“Thyroid disorders, including hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, are typically diagnosed with a thorough history and physical along with a simple blood test," says Dr. Alan Davenport, an internal medicine physician. “Treatments for an overactive or underactive thyroid condition include prescription medications, and in some cases, surgery.”
A thyroid nodule is a small growth on the thyroid. They are particularly common in women and usually do not cause any problems; typically, nodules are not cancerous and do not affect the function of the thyroid. While most nodules are so small they are not noticeable, some can grow quite large. If a nodule becomes too large, it can cause swelling, create a feeling of pressure in the neck and interfere with swallowing. A problematic nodule can be removed surgically by an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Thyroid cancer is much more likely to affect women than men. In fact, cancer of the thyroid is the fifth most common cancer found in women. Women between the ages of 25-65 are more at risk, as are women of Asian descent.
People who have a history of thyroid cancer in their family, were exposed to radiation to the head or neck as children or have had a goiter are at 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.
The thyroid is not something we tend to think about until something goes wrong with it. Even then, it is very easy to attribute symptoms like lethargy or constipation to another cause entirely. That’s why it’s important to see your physician if things don’t feel right.
“If you’re one of the estimated 15 million Americans who has an undiagnosed thyroid condition, you’ll be glad you went to your doctor to discuss your symptoms,” says Dr. John Briscoe, an internal medicine physician. “If you have an overactive or underactive thyroid, or some other thyroid condition, getting it properly diagnosed and treated will make you feel a lot better and improve your overall health.”
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