The Thyroid: Small but Mighty
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You’ve probably heard of the small gland located in the middle of your lower neck—the thyroid—but did you know this mighty gland influences and affects virtually every cell, tissue and organ in the body? Cooper Clinic Preventive Medicine Physician Carolyn Terry, MD, discusses the importance of your thyroid and why it should be checked regularly.
Among the main functions of the thyroid gland is regulation of the metabolism. To do this, the gland produces two types of hormones—triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4)—with T4 being the major hormone produced. When T4 is made, it is converted into T3 which is then secreted into the blood and carried into every tissue of the body.
The pituitary gland, located in the brain, works with the thyroid to produce another hormone—thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). The amount of T4 produced is regulated by the pituitary gland and TSH. Think of the thyroid and pituitary gland as a thermostat—as your house cools down, the heat will turn on when it gets to a certain temperature. Your thyroid acts in the same way. If the pituitary gland sees a low level of T4, it will produce more TSH to signal the thyroid to create more T4. Once the pituitary gland senses enough T4, it will “shut off” and stop producing TSH. The amount of TSH sent into the bloodstream depends on how much T4 the thyroid produces, just like the temperature of your house depends on the thermostat setting.
More than 12% of the United States population will develop a thyroid condition in their lifetime, according to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), with thyroid issues most commonly occurring in women and those 60 and older. “Your risk for thyroid disorders, specifically hypothyroidism, increases as you age,” says Dr. Terry. Two main thyroid disorders include:
- Hypothyroidism: Occurs when your thyroid gland cannot produce enough hormones to function properly—it is underactive.
- Hyperthyroidism: Occurs when your thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormones—it is overactive.
“I think of these common thyroid disorders as having an impact on the “speed” of metabolic processes,” says Dr. Terry. “If you are experiencing hypothyroidism, the metabolic processes in the body are slowed. You may feel fatigued, gain weight, experience depression, constipation, lose hair and struggle with infertility. On the other hand, hyperthyroidism speeds metabolic processes, causing your body to feel revved up. You may be sensitive to heat, experience a faster heartbeat than normal, diarrhea, have an increased appetite and see unexplained weight loss.” Hypothyroidism is more common than hyperthyroidism.
Worldwide, the most common cause of hypothyroidism is iodine deficiency. However, in the United States, the most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Other known causes are inflammation of the thyroid gland, congenital hypothyroidism, and history of radiation exposure to the neck. “Medical studies have confirmed genetic susceptibility to hypothyroidism related to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis,” says Dr. Terry. “I always stress to my patients experiencing a thyroid disorder to share that information with family members so that they can monitor their thyroid health with their doctors.”
Thyroid hormone levels
Up to 60% of those with thyroid disorders are unaware of their condition. Dr. Terry says, “Many patients experience fatigue, weight gain or loss and other symptoms of thyroid disorders but they often think it has to do with working long hours or experiencing high levels of stress. I believe it is important to have an annual exam which includes thyroid function bloodwork.” This is why it is important to have an annual exam and have blood work done. Starting at the age of 25 for women and men 30, have your physician check your thyroid hormone levels annually to ensure they are where they need to be. This evaluation can be done through standard blood work but separate tests can be performed if your physician sees something abnormal on your initial screening. Undiagnosed thyroid disease may put you at a higher risk of developing more serious conditions such as abnormal cholesterol balance, osteoporosis and infertility.
“Early detection of thyroid disease is the key to optimal management of these conditions. Pursuing an annual preventive examination which includes lab work and review of the family history is my recommendation,” says Dr. Terry. “This doesn’t mean things such as eating a nutritious diet and exercising aren’t beneficial to your overall health—they are!” Following Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s 8 Steps to Get Cooperized™ can help you live a better quality and quantity of life. One of his eight guidelines is scheduling a regular, comprehensive physical exam which includes blood work that can help diagnose thyroid disorders.
Although most thyroid diseases cannot be cured, symptoms can be treated and managed. Hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism typically requires the individual to be on thyroid medication to maintain a normal thyroid state. But individuals with thyroid cancer can go through surgical intervention or radioactive treatments to eradicate the cancer.
If you have family history of a thyroid disorder, the sooner you have your hormone levels checked, the better. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a thyroid disorder, talk with your doctor about your thyroid levels.
For more information about Cooper Clinic preventive exams and other services, visit cooper-clinic.com or call 972.560.2667.