For such a small body part, the thyroid is quite a workhorse. And when it’s not functioning properly, your health could suffer. Here’s what you need to know about your thyroid.
It’s more than a butterfly in your throat
Often described as butterfly-shaped, the thyroid sits at the base of the throat and controls many functions of the body. But in actuality, the gland is controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain that secretes thyroid stimulating hormone into the bloodstream to regulate the thyroid.
“When the thyroid is overproducing thyroid hormones (T3 and T4), the pituitary is bombarded by them and shuts down production of thyroid stimulating hormone,” said Dr. Silvana Yovanof of Medical & Endocrinology Associates in Monongahela. “When the thyroid is underproducing thyroid hormones, the pituitary sense their absence and put out more TSH to try to stimulate the thyroid to do its job.”
It affects more than you think
Feeling tired, sluggish, overweight or cold? How about hot and anxious with unexplained weight loss? Believe it or not, all these symptoms could be signs that your thyroid isn’t functioning properly.
“The function of the thyroid is to regulate the body’s metabolism (i.e. its energy expenditure),” said Yovanof. “Symptoms of an underactive thyroid may include severe fatigue, low heart rate, heart failure, fluid buildup or edema, weight gain and low mentation or brain fog.”
Other signs of a thyroid imbalance include changes in sleep habits, muscle cramps and aches and even changes in libido.
You may not recognize an imbalance
There are myriad symptoms of thyroid imbalance, and many of those signs are also symptoms of other conditions or even lifestyle habits. For that reason, many people don’t realize they are living with a thyroid imbalance. According to the American Thyroid Association, an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. That said, up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition. If you suspect you may have a thyroid imbalance, an endocrinologist can help diagnose any disorders.
It’s more common for women
If you’re a woman over age 50, you should take any possible symptoms of a thyroid imbalance seriously. That’s because thyroid disorders are more common in women – particularly those over 50. In fact, according to Healthy Women, 1 in 8 women will develop a thyroid disorder in her lifetime. Thyroid issues are more likely to appear in women just after pregnancy or just after menopause. Since hormones fluctuate during those times, many women suffering from an underactive or overactive thyroid may not recognize the symptoms.
It can be serious
The thyroid is usually about 4 cm in height and just 1 to 1.5 cm in length. That said, an enlarged thyroid could be a sign that something is wrong. An enlarged thyroid, known as a goiter, can be so big you can feel or see the enlargement. Sometimes, patients with goiters produce normal amounts of thyroid hormones, but other times they may be experiencing overproduction or underproduction.
“Blood tests are necessary to determine what may be causing the goiter,” said Yovanof.
Among the causes are autoimmune conditions, like Grave’s disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, inflammatory conditions, malignancies (lymphoma, medullary thyroid cancer), medications (lithium, iodine, amiodarone), thyroid nodules, pregnancy and undetermined causes.
Nodules are of particular concern.
“Up to 10 percent of nodules may be cancerous,” Yovanof explained. “It’s important to be evaluated, especially if there is a family history of medullary thyroid cancer, or if they are rapidly enlarging, causing voice change, difficulty swallowing or difficulty breathing.”
Treatment can improve your quality of life
Whether you’re suffering from weight gain and sluggishness or experiencing anxiety and a rapid pulse, getting treatment can help you feel better quickly. Usually, an overactive or underactive thyroid can be diagnosed through a simple blood test to determine the levels of T3 and T4 in the bloodstream.
“Determining what is going on with your thyroid is the key to proper treatment,” Yovanof said.
This article is brought to you by Dr. Silvana Yovanof of Medical and Endocrinology Associates.
A journalism graduate from Brigham Young University, Kristen Price has experience writing in a variety of fields, including art and culture, health and fitness and financial and real estate services. Kristen has written for USA Today, SFGate and the Knot.