January is Thyroid Awareness Month
Your brain may be the body’s command center but think of the thyroid as your body’s engine!
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck. It is relatively small (about the size of two thumbs held together in the shape of a V), and when normal in size, you can’t feel it!
In the way an engine produces the required amount of energy for a car to move at a certain speed, your thyroid gland sets the pace at which your body operates and plays a huge role in the body, influencing the function of many important organs, including the heart, brain, reproductive organs, GI tract, and skin. Your thyroid gland manufactures enough “thyroid hormone” to prompt cells in your body to perform a specific function at a certain rate.
When the engine “needs a tune-up”, several symptoms can present. If not enough “active” hormone is produced, it is called hypothyroidism. This happens when either the thyroid produces less “inactive” or pro-hormone (thyroxine) than the body needs or the body is unable to convert what the thyroid produces into “active” hormone (triiodothyronine) through an enzyme conversion process, impacting virtually all organ systems in the body.
Some common symptoms of hypothyroidism may include:
- Constant fatigue
- Weight gain and/or fluid retention
- Dry, brittle hair and nails
- Dry, itchy skin
- Muscle or joint pain or stiffness
- Sensitivity to cold
- Menstrual cycle changes
- Slow pulse
- High cholesterol
- Increased sensitivity to medication
Your thyroid could also produce too much hormone sending your systems into overdrive, a condition known as hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid. Often this is caused by an autoimmune disorder.
Common symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include:
- Nervousness or irritability or mood swings
- Hair loss
- Oily skin
- Muscle weakness
- Trouble tolerating heat
- Trouble sleeping
- Tremor, usually in your hands
- Rapid and/or irregular heartbeat with or without shortness of breath
- Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
- Weight loss
- Goiter (an enlarged thyroid that may cause your neck to look swollen). Sometimes it can cause trouble with breathing or swallowing.
The early effects of both hypo & hyperthyroidism are often mild, appear gradually and aren’t concentrated in a single area of the body, so it’s easy to disregard them or chalk them to other causes. Also, two people may have entirely different symptoms, and one person’s can develop quickly, while the other person’s symptoms may take years to emerge.
As we age, diminished or faulty hormone production or enzyme conversion from “inactive” (T4) to “active” (T3) is common, so it’s understandable that older patients in particular often go undiagnosed. Plus, the body has the ability to compensate somewhat over the short term by increasing the stimulation to the thyroid to produce more hormone! Another thing that I often find in my practice is that patients have been told that their thyroid tests, “are fine” or “normal”, but they have many of the symptoms listed above. These patients are clearly not fine. They are what I diagnose as having, “sub-clinical hypothyroidism” and benefit from medication.
Although symptoms can vary dramatically from person to person and not every symptom means that you have an underactive thyroid, but if you have been suffering from health issues and your provider hasn’t determined what the underlying cause is, ask to have your thyroid function checked.
Prevalence and Impact of Thyroid Disease
Here are a few statistics about thyroid disease from the American Thyroid Association.
· The causes of thyroid problems are largely unknown.
· An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease.
· Up to 60% of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.
· Women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.
· One woman in 8 will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
· Undiagnosed thyroid disease may put patients at risk for certain serious conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and infertility.
· Most thyroid diseases are life-long conditions that can be easily managed.