Meet your thyroid: Little gland, big impact

September 8, 2016 Providence Health Team

Just two inches long, the thyroid affects your entire body, from your brain cells to your toenails. This butterfly-shaped gland in front of your larynx and its hormones regulates your metabolism—the body’s use of energy to function. 

But the thyroid also can bring problems for many people:

  • About 20 million Americans have some type of thyroid disease.
  • Roughly only 40 percent of them know they’re affected.
  • About 12 percent of the population will develop thyroid problems.
  • Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have them.

A thyroid condition can hide behind the absence of symptoms, setting you up for serious complications. Fortunately, screening tests can detect problems. Then, medication and diet can help put a stop to harmful effects.

Hard at work

Every year, a healthy thyroid makes about a teaspoon of hormone, 20 percent triiodothyronine (T3) and the rest thyroxine (T4). T4 converts most of itself into T3. These chemicals do their job thanks to the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), released by the brain’s pituitary gland.

When trouble starts

If your thyroid makes too much hormone, you have hyperthyroidism. More common is hypothyroidism, when the gland doesn’t make enough hormone. Your body tries to produce it by releasing more TSH. But that just makes it hard for your cells to accept nutrients, and then you can’t excrete waste as well. All of this slows down many of your body’s functions, eventually leading to these symptoms:

  • Constipation
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Fatigue
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Brittle nails
  • Irregular menstrual period
  • Decreased sex drive
  • An enlarged thyroid

Maybe you experience only a few, or none, of these symptoms. You could have hypothyroidism, or you could have some other health condition. How do you know for sure?

Get checked out

For the most accurate reading of your thyroid, start with a blood test for TSH. An above-normal number will indicate hypothyroidism. But a normal number could show this, too. So also test your T4 and T3. The results will tell you how well your body can convert the former into the latter.

If your blood test shows elevated TPO (thyroid peroxidase) antibodies, you may have Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder, the most common cause of hypothyroidism. Michael Shannon, M.D., a Providence endocrinologist, says, “The exact precipitating event is unknown, but the immune system will attack, and over several years destroy the thyroid gland,” unless you take medication.

Don’t stop with a blood test. Your doctor should do a complete history, including asking about the health of family members. “Thyroid disease is notoriously prone to run in families, especially among women,” says Dr. Shannon. You’re also at risk if you have other autoimmune diseases; or if you’ve been pregnant or have given birth in the past six months.

Make sure your doctor also does a full physical exam, and feels your thyroid, searching for symptoms. “This may reveal a goiter or thyroid nodules, or other subtle physical findings seen in people with hypothyroidism,” says Dr. Shannon.

A matter of medication

If you’re hypothyroid and not making enough thyroid hormones, “the only way to replace them is with thyroid medicine,” he continues. “Most people achieve optimal results with generic synthetic levothyroxine, because it’s so predictable (and affordable). Other people prefer an alternative approach, taking hormones made of desiccated pork.” It’s up to you and your doctor.

The diet’s role

“For most Americans, any reasonable diet is compatible with thyroid health,” says Dr. Shannon. “Outside the U.S., iodine deficiency is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. But since the introduction of iodized salt, this is a rare cause of hypothyroidism in our country.”

Don’t delay

If you’re hypothyroid, get treated as soon as possible, especially if you’re pregnant, or you could possibly miscarry. If you ignore your thyroid condition, or don’t even know you’ve got it, you may face other complications that could be brewing, such as a goiter (enlarged thyroid gland) or heart problems.

You may be fortunate and not have any thyroid problems. That doesn’t mean you never will. Keep getting regular physical exams, to stay on top of your thyroid health—so your thyroid can keep all of you as healthy as possible.

Want to know more about your thyroid health? Talk to your Providence provider.  You can find one here

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