By Kim Robson:
The thyroid gland is located in the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple and above the collarbones. Small and butterfly-shaped, the thyroid gland plays an important role in the body, influencing the function of the heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin. Thyroid hormones affect metabolism, body temperature, heart rate, energy levels and mood.
Believe it or not, thyroid disease is more common than diabetes or heart disease, affecting approximately 30 million Americans — with more than half undiagnosed. Women are five times more likely than men to suffer from hypothyroidism (when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormone). Aging is just one risk factor for hypothyroidism. Untreated, thyroid disease can lead to elevated cholesterol levels, heart disease, infertility and osteoporosis. Research shows a strong genetic link between thyroid disease and other autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and anemia.
The thyroid is like a car engine that sets the pace at which the body operates. The engine produces the required amount of energy for a car to move at a certain speed. In the same way, the thyroid gland manufactures enough thyroid hormone to prompt cells to perform functions at a certain rate.
Just as a car can’t produce energy without gas, the thyroid needs fuel to produce thyroid hormone. This fuel is iodine, which comes from your diet and is found in seafood, bread, milk and iodized table salt. Sea vegetables are an excellent source of iodine, too. The thyroid extracts this important element from the bloodstream and uses it to make two kinds of thyroid hormone.
Disease, damage to the thyroid, or certain medicines can cause the thyroid not to produce enough hormone. This condition, known as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) slows down the body’s functions. As your body slows down, you may feel cold, tired and even depressed. You may gain weight even if you’re eating less.
The thyroid can also produce too much hormone, sending the system into overdrive, a condition known as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). These two conditions usually are symptoms of an underlying thyroid disease.
If you’re not getting enough iodine, your thyroid can’t make enough thyroid hormone. But it will try anyway, working harder and harder, leading to enlargement of the gland and a protrusion or large swelling in the neck, known as a goiter. Goiters used to be common but are much less so in developed countries because of iodine-fortified foods.
Sometimes, when antibodies mistake the thyroid for a foreign invader, the thyroid is attacked by the body’s own immune system. Over time, the defenseless thyroid, inflamed and scarred, surrenders and fails. Ailments like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis result from this kind of abnormal immune response, aka autoimmune disease.
Sometimes the thyroid keeps churning out more and more thyroid hormone even when the body has had enough, pushing the metabolism into overdrive and speeding up the body’s processes. This is hyperthyroidism. Symptoms can include a racing pulse, an irritable and overheated feeling, and sleep trouble. You may lose weight in spite of a good appetite, and experience anxiety and nervousness. As with hypothyroidism, you may develop a goiter. In this case, the thyroid enlarges because it’s working so hard overproducing thyroid hormone.
Another cause of a revved up thyroid is Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism in the United States. As with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, antibodies attack the thyroid, but in this case they stimulate the thyroid to overproduce thyroid hormone. In addition to symptoms of hyperthyroidism, some people with Graves’ disease develop thyroid eye disease, characterized by swollen, bulging, red eyes; wide-open eyelids; and double vision.
It’s important to recognize the symptoms and risk factors of thyroid disease. Since many symptoms may be hidden or may mimic other diseases and conditions, it’s best to ask your doctor for a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test, a simple blood test to measure the thyroid gland’s condition. Because thyroid disease often runs in families, examinations of your family members and a review of their medical histories may reveal other individuals with thyroid problems.
Coming up soon in January we will have Thyroid Awareness Month, a perfect reminder to perform a self “Neck Check.” It’s simple and easy to do:
- Fill a glass of water.
- Hold a mirror in your hand, focusing it on the lower front area of your neck, above the collarbones and below the voice box (larynx). This is where your thyroid gland is located.
- While focusing on this area in the mirror, tip your head back.
- Take a drink of water and swallow.
- As you swallow, look at your neck. Check for any bulges or protrusions in this area when you swallow. You may want to repeat this process several times.
If you do see any bulges or protrusions in this area, see your physician. You may have an enlarged thyroid gland or a thyroid nodule that should be checked to determine whether further evaluation is needed.