Thyroid disorders are more common than you might think, nearly 20 million Americans are affected by thyroid disease.
Your thyroid is probably something you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. You’re likely aware that you have one, but probably don’t know much more about it than that. Unless, of course, your thyroid is out of whack – then you’ll start to learn about it in a hurry.
Part of the endocrine system, your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the base of your neck just below your Adam’s apple. Even though the thyroid is rather small, it plays a huge role in your body.
It produces two main hormones called T3 and T4, which travel through your blood to all parts of your body, influencing the function of your body’s most important organs, including your heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin.
The hormones your thyroid produces control the rate of many activities in your body, including how fast your heart beats and how fast you burn calories, which is known as your metabolism. When your thyroid is working properly, it will create the right amount of hormones needed to keep your metabolism working at a steady rate, not too fast and not too slow.
Your thyroid is controlled by the pituitary gland, which is a gland about the size of a pea located at the base of your brain. The pituitary gland checks the number of thyroid hormones in your blood and then tells your thyroid to make more or less.
In order to produce its hormones, the thyroid uses iodine, which comes from the food you eat. Iodine mainly comes from seafood and dairy products, but it is also added to table salt.
Typically, your thyroid is constantly producing just the right amount of hormones to keep your body running normally. However, sometimes outside forces such as disease, damage to the thyroid or medications can impact your thyroid’s function.
When the thyroid isn’t producing enough of its hormones, a condition called hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid, all of your body’s functions slow down. Symptoms of this include fatigue, feeling cold when others are comfortable or warm, a slow heart rate, dry skin, constipation, weight gain even though your diet and fitness regimen haven’t changed, and, in children, growing very slowly.
In some cases, your thyroid can produce too much of its hormones, which is called hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid. Symptoms of this condition include feeling nervous and irritable, having trouble concentrating, feeling too warm when others don’t feel warm, a fast heart rate, diarrhea, trouble sleeping, and losing weight without trying.
Sometimes, a lump or swelling can occur in a thyroid gland, which is called a nodule. Nodules can sometimes have no effect on how the gland works or sometimes it can lead to having too much thyroid hormone in your system. Nodules can be benign, or non-cancerous, but some can be cancerous.
The thyroid gland can also become enlarged, called a goiter. This can be caused by iodine deficiency or other health conditions. When this happens, it can create too much or not enough thyroid hormones. However, in some cases, it doesn’t impact the amount of hormone the thyroid produces.
Should a serious health concern lead your doctor to recommend having your thyroid removed, you can live without it. If this is the case, you would have to take a thyroid hormone pill every day.
Crozer-Keystone endocrinologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes and disorders of the thyroid, metabolism and endocrine system. The endocrine system consists of the pituitary gland, hypothalamus, pancreas, adrenal cortex, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands and gonads.