By Jacqueline L. Scheier, D.O.
More than 30 million people in the United States have a thyroid disorder, and roughly half of them don’t even know they have a problem. Women are at particular risk especially as they age – experts say women over the age of 35 have a 30 percent chance of developing hypothyroidism.
The reason so many people with thyroid disorders suffer needlessly is that many of the symptoms seem like something else – stress, fatigue, another illness, or the normal aches and pains of aging. However, with thyroid disorders approaching epidemic proportions, knowing what to look out for can help you identify a problem and get the help that will safeguard your health.
What Does a Healthy Thyroid Do?
Your thyroid has an important job to do, serving as the control center for your body’s metabolism. It’s a butterfly-shaped organ at the front of your throat that produces several hormones that travel throughout your body. These hormones control functions such as your heart rate, breathing, body temperature, weight, cholesterol levels, and the central nervous system.
Your body needs the right amount of these hormones to function properly. Being out of balance, having too much or too little of the key thyroid hormones, causes problems. Thyroid hormone levels are controlled by a feedback given to the thyroid by two glands in your brain called the hypothalamus and the pituitary. These glands monitor levels of thyroid hormones in the blood and tell your thyroid to make more or less of them.
Since the hormones that your thyroid produces touch virtually every organ in your body, you likely won’t feel well if something is wrong. Your symptoms may start slow and build, which is why many people are able to tolerate thyroid disorders for a long time before needing help.
Hypothyroidism and Hyperthyroidism
Hypothyroidism accounts for the majority of problems people experience with their thyroid. Sometimes called underactive thyroid, this condition happens when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough of the thyroid hormones called T3 and T4. Your body and your metabolism start to slow down and you’ll experience:
- Weight gain
- Depression and mood disturbances
- Dry skin, dry hair and brittle nails
- Slowing of your bowels or constipation
- Muscle cramps
- Reduced menstrual flow
The most common cause of hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s disease.
Treating an underactive thyroid involves taking a synthetic thyroid hormone to supplement the natural thyroid hormones your body is missing. Your doctor will administer regular blood tests to measure your levels and adjust the medication as needed.
Hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, is the opposite problem. Your thyroid produces too much of the key thyroid hormones. This speeds up your metabolic processes, leading to:
- Weight loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hot and sweating
- Problems falling asleep
- Anxiety, nervousness and irritability
- Racing heart and palpitations
- Changes in bowel habits and loose stools
Grave’s disease, also an autoimmune disease, is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.
There are several ways to treat an overactive thyroid, including radioactive iodine to shrink the thyroid or medications to prevent the thyroid from producing hormones. Surgery is also an option if you are unable to take medications.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of an overactive or underactive thyroid, talk to your doctor. Identifying the problem involves a simple blood test to measure your thyroid hormone levels.
About the Author
Specializing in family medicine, Dr. Scheier strives to work with patients in obtaining their short-term and long-term health goals. She works to gain their trust through open and honest conversation in assisting them to achieve these goals. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Scheier, please call 484-446-3660.