It’s a tiny gland that plays a giant role in the human body’s functions. Located in the base of the neck, the thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ that releases hormones into the bloodstream that are then carried to every cell in the body. These hormones control metabolism – the way your body uses energy.
Metabolism is fueled by thyroid hormones similar to the way a car is fueled by gasoline. Your body needs fuel to function properly. Hormones from the thyroid fuel metabolism, growth and maturation in the human body while keeping the heart, brain, muscles and other organs working as they should. This includes breathing, heart rate, the nervous system, body weight, muscle strength, menstrual cycles and body temperature.
With low levels of thyroid hormones (called ‘hypothyroidism’) the body burns less energy. Hypothyroidism is the most common form of thyroid disease. When enough thyroid hormones aren’t produced, the body uses energy more slowly than it should. Symptoms may include dry hair and skin, constipation, increased menstrual flow, feeling sluggish, cold, depressed, or forgetful.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much hormone and makes the body use more energy than it should. Symptoms may include nervousness, irritability, shaky hands, increased perspiration, warm skin, thinning hair, weight loss, eye changes, and weak leg muscles. Grave's disease is the most common form of hyperthyroidism. This is an autoimmune condition in which the body produces antibodies that overstimulate the thyroid gland, so that it produces too much thyroid hormone.
The Centers for Disease Control report that in the United States, approximately 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, including many who may not be aware of their condition. It’s more common in women than men. Those at high risk for thyroid disorders include:
Being over 60
Having an autoimmune disease (like diabetes)
Having a family history of thyroid or autoimmune disease
Having a personal history of thyroid problems
Taking medications that put you at risk for hyperthyroidism
Being Asian or Caucasian
As with any other health issue, seeing your caregiver for proper diagnosis and early treatment is important. With specialized tests including blood work and scans, your doctor will be able to determine the appropriate course of treatment, which can be medication or surgery.
The following is a list of symptoms that may indicate a thyroid disorder. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, especially for those over age 60, consult your doctor immediately.
Unexplained changes (loss or gain) in body weight
Extremes in mood (depression, apathy, anxiety, irritability)
Goiter (swelling in the neck
Altered mental capacity (easily distracted, lack of concentration)
Hair Loss, dry or brittle hair
Unpredictable bowel movements (constipation or diarrhea)
High blood pressure
Changing sleep patterns
January is Thyroid Health Awareness Month. To help you protect your powerhouse thyroid, the Dept. of Health and Human Services offers this free guide to thyroid information and health: