10 Signs Something’s Up With Your Thyroid
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in your neck. It is about 2-inches long and lies in front of your throat below the prominence of thyroid cartilage sometimes called the Adam’s apple. During a routine physical exam your doctor may place their fingers on this area of your throat and ask you to swallow. They are feeling the lobes (“wings”) of this gland. The purpose of this is to determine the size and free movement of the thyroid.
This gland is one of many that make up our endocrine system. It’s function is to take iodine from the food we eat and convert it into thyroid hormones Triiodothyronine(T3) and Thyroxine(T4). These hormones are then circulated throughout the body by the blood in order to carry out metabolism. It should be noted, that the cells of the thyroid are the only ones in the body that are capable of absorbing iodine. These cells take the iodine and combine it with an amino acid called Tyrosine to produce T3 and T4.
Like many other glands within the endocrine system, the thyroid is controlled by another gland, called the pituitary. The pituitary is about the size of a small peanut and is located at the base of the brain. This gland acts to regulate the proper levels of thyroid hormones in our body. When thyroid hormones decrease, the pituitary release thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). This in turn, tells the thyroid to produce and secrete more T3 and T4 hormones. When these reach an adequate level in the body, the pituitary gland senses this and reduces the amount of THS being released.
As you can tell already, the endocrine system is quite complicated. We are about to make this process a little bit more involved and add another step. The pituitary gland is also regulated by another gland in the brain, called the hypothalamus. This gland produces and releases TSH Releasing Hormone (TRH), which in turn tells the pituitary gland to stimulate the thyroid gland. It is much like a chain reaction where each step must function correctly and in the proper order to be successful.
With all that being said, what happens if this sequence doesn’t work properly? This can affect the way your body uses energy and regulates vital body functions, including:
- Body weight
- Heart rate
- Body temperature
- Central nervous system
- Peripheral nervous system
- Muscle strength
- Menstrual cycles
- Cholesterol levels
When the thyroid is overactive and produces too much hormone, this is called hyperthyroidism. If there is too much thyroid hormone, every function of the body tends to speed up. It is not surprising that some of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism are:
- Weight loss
- Increased perspiration
- Rapid pulse
- Hand tremors
- Difficulty sleeping
- Muscle weakness
- Changes in skin and hair loss
You may have more frequent bowel movements, but diarrhea is uncommon. You may lose weight despite a good appetite. For women, menstrual flow may lighten and menstrual periods may occur less often. Since hyperthyroidism increases your metabolism, many individuals initially have a lot of energy. However, as the condition continues, the body tends to break down, so being tired is very common.
Hyperthyroidism usually begins slowly. At first, the symptoms may be mistaken for simple nervousness due to stress. With Graves disease (the most common form of hyperthyroidism), the eyes may look enlarged and one or both eyes may bulge. Some patients have swelling of the front of the neck from an enlarged thyroid gland (a goiter).
Treatment depends on the cause and severity of symptoms. Hyperthyroidism is usually treated with one or more of the following:
- Antithyroid medicines (propylthiouracil or methimazole)
- Radioactive iodine to destroy the thyroid gland and stop the excess production of hormones
- Surgery to remove the thyroid
If the thyroid is removed with surgery or destroyed with radioactive iodine as a means of treatment, thyroid hormone replacement pills will need to be taken for the rest of your life.
Hypothyroidism happens when the thyroid is underactive and fails to release the adequate amount of hormones that the body needs.
- Weight gain or increased difficulty losing weight
- Brittle hair and nails and dry skin
- Cold intolerance (you can’t tolerate cold temperatures like others)
- Muscle cramps and frequent muscle and joint pain
- Abnormal menstrual cycles (heavier and longer)
- Memory loss and difficulty concentrating
Late symptoms, if untreated, include decreased taste and smell, hoarseness, puffy face, hands, and feet, slow speech, thickening of the skin, thinning of eyebrows, low body temperature, slow heart rate and decreased libido. In some cases, a woman might develop hypothyroidism after giving birth. According to the National Institutes of Health, the disease is most common in women and people over 50 years old (NIH, 2012).
Hashimoto’s disease, also called chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. Hashimoto’s disease is a form of chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland. It is also considered an autoimmune disorder.
Normally, the immune system protects the body against foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria that can cause illness. However, with autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks the body’s own cells and organs, thinking that they are foreign. With Hashimoto’s disease, the immune system attacks the thyroid, causing inflammation and interfering with its ability to produce thyroid hormones. Symptoms more specific to Hashimoto’s disease are a goiter and a feeling of fullness in the throat.
Unfortunately, hypothyroidism cannot be cured. However, congenital (born with it) and acquired (develops later in life) hypothyroidism may be treated by replacing the hormones that your thyroid can’t make on its own. Treatment includes different medications intended to replace the hormones that are normally produced by your thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism requires monitoring, taking your medication as prescribed, and regular visits with your doctor.