Graceful Health: What does your thyroid do?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck (just below the Adam's apple). I have heard this gland compared to a car engine because, just as the engine controls when and how fast the car runs, likewise, the thyroid gland produces hormones that control everything that happens in your body. These hormones determine your adrenaline and dopamine levels, and therefore, your responses to fear, excitement, and pleasure. They also control metabolism--how fast your heart beats, how calories are burned, how your body uses food, and a number of other important actions. If your thyroid is not working right, all kinds of things will go wrong.
Thyroid disease is actually quite common, affecting as many as 30 million Americans. Women are five times more likely than men to have underactive thyroids. Thyroid issues are more common as people age.
I'm often asked by my patients, "How do I know if my thyroid is working properly?" Actually, it is difficult to do this on your own. Many of the symptoms can easily be attributed to other factors, so the best way to determine thyroid health is through blood tests, something you should do every year. A simple blood test called a "TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test" can determine your thyroid's condition.
Thyroid disease often runs in families, so it's good to know the medical histories of your family members.
Thyroid problems can cause swelling of the thyroid, so one test you can do yourself is a neck-check: While looking in a mirror, tilt your head back slightly and take a drink of water. Do you see any bulges at the base of your neck, just above the collarbone, when you swallow? You might want to try this several times. If you see anything unusual, make an appointment with your medical provider to check it out.
The four most common thyroid diseases are hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Hashimoto Syndrome, and Grave's Disease. Let's look at these one by one.
Hypothyroidism results when the thyroid is not producing enough hormones, causing all of your body's functions slow down. An underactive thyroid can lead to a tendency to feel cold when other people do not. It can also cause constipation, weight gain, muscle weakness, joint or muscle pain, feeling tired and depressed, thinning hair, and problems with menstruation and pregnancy. As you can see, these symptoms can have many causes, so a blood test can help to determine if a malfunctioning thyroid is the reason for them.
Sometimes a lack of iodine in the diet leads to hypothyroidism. Iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormone, but the body cannot make iodine; it must be ingested through food. Iodine deficiency used to be quite common in some parts of the U.S. before the introduction of iodized salt. It is still a problem in some parts of the world, leading to goiters, or enlarged lumps in the neck. Good food sources for iodine include saltwater fish, seaweed, dairy products, and eggs.
Hashimoto thyroiditis is a form of hypothyroidism that happens when the immune system goes awry, treating the thyroid gland as a foreign invader and attacking it with antibodies.
Hyperthyroidism is the opposite of hypothyroidism. It is caused by an overactive thyroid that produces too much hormones. This speeds up your body functions, leading to a racing pulse, a tendency to overheat, irritability, anxiety, trembling, weight loss, diarrhea, and difficulty sleeping.
Grave's Disease is a form of hyperthyroidism caused by an immune system disorder. Like hypothyroidism, it can lead to menstrual and pregnancy problems for women. It can also increase the risk for everyone of osteoporosis—thinning bones that break easily.
While all of these thyroid conditions can have profound impacts on your health, they are all controllable with medications, so don't hesitate to get the TSH blood test and to discuss any symptoms listed here with your provider.
The thyroid gland is also susceptible sometimes to cancer, but this is often completely curable through surgery that extracts the affected part of the gland. For most people, the worst result is that they have to take a thyroid hormone replacement medication for the rest of their lives.
If you have any other questions about your thyroid, I am happy to discuss them with you during an appointment at Grace Cottage Family Health.
Best wishes to you for a healthy New Year.
A native of Townshend, Devan Lucier received her Bachelor's and Master of Science in Nursing from the University of Vermont. Lucier worked at UVM Medical Center in Burlington prior to joining Grace Cottage in 2015 as an Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner. She is certified by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.