How to spot and treat thyroid disease

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • More than 12% of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition in their lifetime. January is Thyroid Awareness Month, which means it’s a good time to learn all about thyroid disease.

  • Symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, weight gain and depression, while symptoms of hyperthyroidism include anxiety and hyperactivity.

  • Treatment for thyroid disease can range from medications to surgery.

It’s likely that at least one person in your life has a thyroid problem. According to the American Thyroid Association, more than 12% of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition at some point in their lifetime. As many of 60% of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition, which means they could be suffering from the effects and have no idea there could be a simple fix to their problem.

Could you have thyroid disease? Maybe. It’s best to let your doctor decide whether you should be tested. January is Thyroid Awareness Month, so before you decide you have a thyroid condition without doing your homework, let’s dig into the basics of the thyroid, what symptoms might indicate thyroid disease, and what you can do about it.

What is the thyroid and what does it do?

Your thyroid sits at the front of your neck. It’s an endocrine gland shaped like a butterfly that makes thyroid hormones called triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) that control the body’s metabolism, increase heart rate and affect how fast food and sugar move through the body. When these hormone levels are off, you may have a thyroid condition and need treatment.

What are the types of thyroid disease?

Thyroid disease is a general term for a condition that keeps your body from making the right amount of hormones. There are two main types of thyroid disease: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is when your body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones. This condition can lower your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how many calories you burn when you’re at rest. There are several different conditions that can cause hypothyroidism, including:

  • Thyroiditis, when your thyroid gland swells and lowers the amount of hormones your thyroid produces
  • Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s cells attack and damage the thyroid
  • Not enough iodine, which is used by the thyroid to produce hormones
  • A thyroid gland that doesn’t work, a condition that occurs in about 1 in 4,000 newborns
  • Postpartum thyroiditis, a condition that occurs in 5-9% of women after childbirth and is usually temporary

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism is when your body makes more thyroid hormone than it needs. This can increase your basic metabolic rate (BMR) and possibly make it harder to gain weight. Some of the most common causes of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Graves’ disease, which causes the entire thyroid gland to be overactive and produce too much thyroid hormone
  • Thyroiditis, in which the thyroid releases hormones that were stored there
  • Overactive nodules within the thyroid
  • Excessive iodine in the body, which causes it to make more thyroid hormones than it needs

Signs and symptoms of hypo- and hyperthyroidism

Hypothyroidism may not cause many symptoms in the early stages, but over time, it can lead to:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Memory problems
  • Muscle aches
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Weight gain

Hyperthyroidism can cause a few of the opposite effects:

  • Nervousness and irritability
  • Sudden, unexplained weight loss
  • Hyperactivity
  • Muscle weakness
  • Itchiness
  • Mood swings
  • Sensitivity to heat

Treatment for thyroid disease

If you have a thyroid condition, it’s important to get the proper treatment. There are many approved ways to treat thyroid conditions, including:

  • Thyroid medication: Helps balance thyroid hormone levels
  • Beta-blockers: Slows heart rate and lessens effects of too much thyroid hormone
  • Radioiodine: Destroys the cells that make thyroid hormones
  • Surgery: Removes all or part of the thyroid gland

The best advice for thyroid treatment is to talk to your provider, so they can find the right option for you. In general, living a healthy lifestyle is good for you and could help your thyroid. But it’s important to combine your healthy lifestyle with other appropriate treatments.

How does iodine relate to thyroid disease?

The only known function of iodine in the body is to help the thyroid gland make T3 and T4 hormones. And since the body doesn’t produce iodine, it must come from your diet. If you don’t eat enough iodine, you usually don’t make enough thyroid hormone. This can lead to a thyroid condition, such as hypothyroidism.

In the U.S., you usually don’t have to worry about not getting enough iodine — foods like iodized salt, dairy products and even multivitamins help you get enough from a balanced diet. Iodine deficiency can be a problem in other areas of the world, though.

More iodine isn’t always the answer. Some studies have found that not getting enough iodine or getting too much iodine is linked to a higher risk of having a thyroid disorder. Too much iodine can also mess with thyroid hormone levels, especially for people who already have a thyroid condition.

If you eat a balanced diet, you should be getting an appropriate amount of iodine. Your provider can usually check your iodine levels with a urine or blood test.

More research is needed on diet and the thyroid

The thyroid gland does a lot to regulate the body. While research shows that iodine intake can impact the thyroid, there’s not a lot of data about how other foods and diets impact thyroid function. It’s important to eat a nutritional, well-balanced diet. And to work with your doctor or nutrition expert on foods you can and should eat based on how they affect your body.

If you suspect that you may have an issue with your thyroid or want to rule it out as a possible culprit for certain health issues, visit your primary care provider to have your thyroid checked. Simple blood tests can determine whether or not an issue is present. And starting the year off knowing all of your health numbers is a great way to ensure the healthiest year yet.

Find a doctor

If you think you might have a thyroid condition, our endocrinology experts can help. You can find a provider using our provider directory.

Download the Providence App

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Does metabolism slow down for women as they age?

What women need to know about hormones and mental health

Treating thyroid cancer

 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

 

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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