According to the American Thyroid Association, approximately 20 million people in the United States have some form of thyroid disorder. What’s even more shocking is about 60% of them are unaware they are suffering from any thyroid problems. Since symptoms can be quite vague, how do you know if your thyroid is working properly? January is National Thyroid Awareness Month, so we’re going to put the spotlight on this incredible gland.
The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland that lies in front of your throat that directs how much and how fast calories are burned for energy. With such an important role throughout the entire body, any thyroid problems can disrupt metabolic functions and produce symptoms in areas like hair, skin, gut, and more.
Disorders of this gland can cause changes in the rate of metabolism, either faster or slower, especially if left untreated. Unplanned weight changes don’t always indicate a thyroid problem, but it’s something to have checked out by your healthcare provider if you’ve been experiencing symptoms of a thyroid disorder.
Since the thyroid controls metabolism, it regulates how much energy is used for autonomic bodily processes like digestion, heart rate, temperature regulation & more. A thyroid that runs too slow (Hypothyroidism) leads to slower metabolism, feeling sluggish, and weight gain. If the thyroid is running too fast, metabolism speeds up, burning more calories, resulting in weight loss. Although thyroid disorders can affect anyone, they more commonly affect women, especially post-menopausal women.
Anatomy of How the Thyroid Works
You know I love to geek out on the anatomy stuff, but it helps to get a better understanding of this complex gland. Think of your thyroid as a light switch that when on, you are burning energy, but when turned off, metabolism slows and energy is stored. The function of the thyroid depends on external signals to tell it when to fire up and when to slow down. The hypothalamus in the brain releases a hormone called TRH (thyrotropin-releasing hormone) which signals the pituitary gland to release TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone). TSH signals the thyroid to make more thyroid hormones (T3/T4) to increase metabolism and use energy. Once energy is used for body functions, the thyroid is signaled to stop making hormones. The TSH has an opposite effect on the thyroid gland. Measured in the blood, a high TSH means a low functioning thyroid and a low TSH indicates a high functioning thyroid, but these levels fluctuate all day long. A thyroid disorder occurs when this process is disrupted anywhere in the cycle.
The most common form of all thyroid disorders is a slower functioning thyroid. Symptoms include weight gain, slowed heart rate, slower digestion causing constipation, cold intolerance, and more.
Hashimoto’s Disease: Most common autoimmune hypothyroid disorder. Your own immune system attacks the thyroid. More common in older women.
Thyroid working too fast, increased metabolism burns more calories, increases heart rate (risk for heart attack/stroke), digestion too fast causing weight loss, diarrhea, sweating, hair loss, increased hunger, anxiety, tremors, and more.
Graves’ Disease: Most common autoimmune disorder causing hyperthyroidism. Often genetic link. More common in younger women.
Thyroid Tests & Treatments
To measure thyroid function blood tests usually look at the TSH, T3, T4, and TPO if an autoimmune disorder is suspected. An ultrasound of the gland is commonly ordered as well to look at the structure. If left untreated, thyroid disorders can throw off your entire metabolic system, which can increase your risk for serious health complications so it’s not something to ignore.
Although there is no cure, it can be well managed with an individualized treatment plan between you & your healthcare provider. Generally, if the thyroid is too slow, supplementing thyroid hormones with oral medications can help regulate levels, but this must be routinely monitored with bloodwork and dose adjustments as indicated. For a thyroid that’s too fast, it’s often slowed down or shut off completely and then treated with oral medications. Other medications can also be used to manage symptoms as well. Other treatments can also include iodine therapy, radiation, surgery, and others. Typically, thyroid medications are for life.
Thyroid problems are likely caused by a number of factors, but unfortunately, most of these are still unknown. Some influences can be linked to genetics, diet, other diseases, medications, high iodine intake, surgery/radiation to the area, and more. There are diets and home remedies that can help your thyroid, but it’s important that thyroid levels are monitored and treated by a healthcare professional. Since thyroid function fluctuates all day, it’s necessary to have close monitoring and adhere to a strict treatment plan with your healthcare provider.
If you found any of this information helpful or know someone who would, please send it to your friends & family to bring more awareness to thyroid disorders!
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.