Of all the health awareness months and observances, perhaps January’s is most important.
That’s because January is Thyroid Awareness Month. Many people don’t even know where the thyroid is located, much less what it actually does. But in fact, the thyroid is one of the most important little glands in the body, and when it’s not functioning properly, you feel it.
So many symptoms—sudden weight gain or loss, constant fatigue, depression or anxiety, stomach problems, and more can be traced back to thyroid function.
So let’s dive into the thyroid and what it does.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a small gland shaped like a butterfly. It’s located at the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple. While it’s small and may look relatively insignificant compared to the magnificent brain, the thyroid packs a big punch.
The thyroid is part of the endocrine system, the network of hormone-producing glands that rule the body. Our hormones are responsible for metabolism, growth and development in children, tissue function, sexual and reproductive health, sleep, and mood. Without the proper balance of hormones, all of the above functions start to break down.
As such, when your thyroid isn’t working well, it affects your:
- Body temperature
- Central and peripheral nervous systems
- Cholesterol levels
- Heart rate
- Muscle strength
- And more
How the Thyroid Works
Taking iodine from the foods we eat, the thyroid releases two main hormones into the blood stream. These are triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), which control our cell metabolism.
It’s important for T3 and T4 to remain in balance for optimal function, since every single cell in our body depends on them for regulation.
The endocrine system is made up of a complex communication network between the different glands that produce hormones. Its control center in the brain, the hypothalamus, measures the level of T3 and T4. Using a hormone called TRH (TSH Releasing Hormone), the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to either increase or decrease the amount of TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) it sends out.
When T3 and T4 levels are too low, the pituitary gland releases more TSH, telling the thyroid to produce more hormones.
When there is too much thyroid hormone in the blood, the pituitary gland releases less TSH, signalling the thyroid to slow down production.
When Systems Break Down
The thyroid is so important in our daily life, but many people don’t give it a second thought until it malfunctions. When the thyroid doesn’t perform as it should, it can wreck your life in a matter of months.
Thyroid problems are surprisingly common, affecting nearly 20 million Americans. But even more shocking, according to the American Thyroid Association, up to 60 percent of them don’t even know they have thyroid disease!
Here are the most common thyroid conditions. If you have these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.
When the thyroid produces too little T3 and T4, it’s called hypothyroidism. These are just some of the symptoms of the disease:
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
- Dry skin and hair
- Sensitivity to cold temperatures
- Joint and muscle pain
- Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
The causes of hypothyroidism (and most thyroid problems) are mostly unknown, although many cases can be traced to an autoimmune condition that targets the thyroid, called Hashimoto’s disease.
Hypothyroidism is diagnosed by a blood test that measures the level of TSH in your blood. When thyroid function is depressed, TSH levels rise, so the higher your level, the worse your hypothyroidism.
Fortunately, hypothyroidism can be managed easily with a daily dose of synthetic thyroxine (T4), marketed under the brand name Synthroid.
Hyperthyroidism is the opposite of hypothyroidism, occurring when the thyroid produces too much hormone. The symptoms are often the mirror-opposite of hypothyroidism’s, including:
- Irritability or moodiness
- Sweating or sensitivity to high temperatures
- Hand tremors
- Hair loss
Just like hypothyroidism, the causes of this condition are unknown, but there is an autoimmune condition called Grave’s disease that can cause the thyroid to produce too much T3 and T4.
A blood test showing extremely low levels of TSH will usually indicate hyperthyroidism. Treatment is a little more complicated when the thyroid is working too much.
Some treatments include taking radioactive iodine orally, which shrinks the thyroid; anti-thyroid medicaitons that suppress thyroid function; beta blockers to manage symptoms; or surgery to remove the thyroid.
All these treatments have the risk of turning you hypothyroid, in which case you’ll have to start Synthroid to maintain your thyroid function.
In some cases of both hypo and hyperthyroid, the pituitary gland could be to blame, by not releasing the right amount of TSH. In that case, a blood test that shows too much or too little T3 and T4, but normal TSH, will indicate the problem.
A goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland associated with both forms of thyroid disease. It causes swelling of the neck, and most cases are benign.
Over 90 percent of goiter cases worldwide come from iodine deficiency. Since we use iodized salt here in the US, it’s more commonly caused by thyroid disease.
Treatment of goiter usually goes together with its cause. Sometimes, surgery is required.
Since the symptoms of thyroid disease can often be chalked up to exhaustion, aging, or “just life,” people can go years before they get a diagnosis.
Don’t let your thyroid run your life. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, see your doctor right away. A simple blood test will tell you immediately how your thyroid is doing.