The thyroid gland is a small gland near the front of your neck that. It’s shaped a bit like a butterfly, and has an important role in keeping you healthy. January is Thyroid Awareness Month, so today we’ll take a look at what our thyroid gland does, and two of the most common problems that affect the thyroid—hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism.
Small but mighty, the thyroid gland affects the functioning of the heart, brain, skin, kidneys and liver. The thyroid gland is responsible for turning iodine in your diet (from things like iodized table salt, bread, milk, and seafood) into thyroid hormones, which are responsible for assisting in keeping many of our body systems working properly . The pituitary gland, also responsible for hormone production, is responsible for ensuring the thyroid gland “behaves” properly [1.1].
Our bodies need specific levels of different thyroid hormones to function properly. Too much or too little thyroid hormone can cause problems.
Hypothyroidism is a condition where the thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormone. Usually diagnosed by a blood test , symptoms of hypothyroidism include tiredness and weakness, weight gain or difficulty losing weight, coarse, dry hair and dry, rough, pale skin, hair loss, muscle cramps, mood changes—like depression and irritability, memory loss, abnormal menstrual cycles (periods that are too frequent) and decreased libido, and constipation . Rarely, swelling in the neck (the thyroid itself) may develop as the gland has had to enlarge to attempt to meet the body’s need for thyroid hormones [1.1, ]. If hypothyroidism is caused by low levels of dietary iodine, increasing intake of this nutrient might help. In many cases, though, the body has attacked the thyroid gland—known as an autoimmune disorder—and the thyroid no longer can work properly. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a disorder where the thyroid becomes inflamed, is one type of endocrine (hormone-related) disorder that causes hypothyroidism [1.1].
Hypothyroidism is, in some cases, difficult to diagnose and may require the specialization of an endocrinologist, a physician that specializes in hormone disorders like thyroid problems and diabetes. However, in all cases, hypothyroidism is also completely treatable by taking a pill to replace the thyroid hormones that the body is lacking . If untreated, hypothyroidism can develop into life-threatening conditions such as heart failure, depression, or a coma . This is why it’s important to talk with your doctor if you have concerns about the health of your thyroid.
Sometimes, the thyroid gland goes a bit overboard and keeps producing massive amounts of thyroid hormone—even when the pituitary gland has signalled for it to stop completely. This might feel like your heart is beating way too fast, you may be irritable, and in contrast to hypothyroidism, you may feel too hot, lose weight despite eating a lot, and feel anxious or nervous; you may also have trouble sleeping, have light or missed menstrual periods, and have bowel movements more frequently than normal [1.1, 2.2]. We discussed an enlarged thyroid, also called a goiter, when describing hypothyroidism: to make things more complicated, you may also develop an enlarged thyroid gland from hyperthyroidism as well. Harmless thyroid growths, like cysts and non-cancerous tumours, might cause these problems. Cancerous (malignant) tumours of the thyroid do not cause either hypo- or hyperthyroidism [1.1].
Hyperthyroidism is treated with medications that interfere with production of thyroid hormones, or partially destroy or damage the thyroid—such as radioactive iodine therapy and in rare cases, surgical removal or resection (partial removal) of the thyroid gland [2.2]. Treatment choices for hypothyroidism will be weighed against many lifestyle and life-stage factors for each patient [2.2].
Thyroid symptoms can sometimes sneak up on you. They might be subtle and you may just generally feel unwell. This is why it’s important to know your body, and see your doctor regularly—especially if you notice anything is amiss. While not normally life-threatening, thyroid problems can affect your quality of life—and it’s best to deal with any health problems sooner than later.