You probably never even think about your thyroid. Like most parts of our body, we rarely consider it unless something goes wrong. But when your thyroid goes haywire, it can affect nearly every part of your body.
January is Thyroid Awareness Month, making this the perfect opportunity to boost your knowledge about the thyroid and what can happen if it isn’t working well.
Read on as Rauf Baba, MD, endocrinologist with West Tennessee Medical Group, offers some perspective about the thyroid and symptoms to watch for in your health.
What Is the Thyroid?
First things first, let’s define the thyroid. It is a butterfly-shaped gland that’s located just beneath your Adam’s apple at the base of your neck.
This tiny gland secretes the thyroid hormone, which then travels through the blood to all areas of the body.
While this gland may be tiny, it packs a big punch! The hormone secreted by the thyroid regulates your metabolism. While you might think of metabolism as tied to your weight, it actually plays a much bigger role in your body and its health.
The thyroid hormone helps to regulate systems and capabilities throughout the body, including body temperature, breathing, cholesterol, heart rate, the menstrual cycle and the nervous system.
But where does that hormone come from? The thyroid turns iodine in the foods you eat into the two types of thyroid hormone your body needs to function optimally.
If your thyroid isn’t producing the right amount of hormone, you can experience a broad range of symptoms that may affect every part of your body.
What Happens When the Thyroid Doesn’t Work Well?
To think about what happens when the thyroid isn’t working correctly, you have to consider two main possibilities—what happens when your body produces too much thyroid hormone and what happens when your body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone.
Let’s first talk about when your body produces too much thyroid hormone. This occurs when your thyroid is overactive, a condition called “hyperthyroidism.”
If you’re experiencing hyperthyroidism, you may have:
- Sleep issues
- Extreme hunger
- Increased sweating
- Missed or light menstrual periods
- Muscle weakness or fatigue
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Unexplainable weight loss
If you think about it, those symptoms are all associated with your body speeding up—in other words, going into overdrive. That’s the effect of too much thyroid hormone.
Graves’ disease, a condition affecting the immune system, is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.
Now let’s talk about when your body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. This occurs when the thyroid is underactive, a condition called “hypothyroidism.”
When you have this condition, you experience the opposite of what happens with hyperthyroidism. Instead of everything in your body speeding up, everything slows down. You may experience:
- Decreased sweating
- Dry hair
- Extreme fatigue
- More frequent menstrual periods
- Sadness or depression
- Slow heart rate
- Unexplainable weight gain
Hashimoto’s disease, another condition affecting the immune system, is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.
How Are Thyroid Problems Treated?
The good news is that there are treatments available to help when your thyroid isn’t working effectively. The type of treatment you’ll undergo varies depending on whether you have hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
If you have hyperthyroidism—and too much of the thyroid hormone—treatment may include oral medications, radioiodine treatments or surgical removal of the thyroid.
If you have hypothyroidism—and too little of the thyroid hormone—your condition will be treated by supplementing the thyroid hormone that your body is producing naturally. Your physician can choose between using natural hormone therapy, made from pig thyroid, and synthetic hormone therapy. Regardless of the type prescribed, you typically continue taking the supplement for the rest of your life.
Treatment for hypothyroidism may also involve treatment to lower levels of low-density lipoprotein, commonly known as LDL cholesterol or the “bad” cholesterol. In many cases, people with hypothyroidism also have high levels of LDL, which can increase the risk of heart disease.
Are There Other Thyroid Conditions?
While hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are by far the most common conditions affecting the thyroid, there are some other less common conditions.
Less common thyroid conditions include:
- Goiters, a noncancerous enlargement of the thyroid
- Thyroiditis, an inflammation of the thyroid
- Thyroid nodules
- Thyroid cancer
It’s important to note that thyroid cancer is relatively uncommon, affecting around 60,000 Americans in a given year.
If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms related to your thyroid, talk with your primary care provider. A simple lab test can help determine whether your thyroid is working well. FIND A DOCTOR HERE.