What you need to know about your thyroid and common thyroid problems.
Your thyroid is the butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck. Part of the endocrine system, it is responsible for converting iodine from the food you eat into thyroid hormones, which play important roles in many bodily functions including metabolism, digestion, breathing, heartbeat, menstruation, cholesterol, and weight loss and/or gain.
In many cases, a deficiency of iodine in the diet can lead to an enlarged thyroid, or goiter. Developing a goiter is reasonably common and not always indication of thyroid problems. However, in places where people’s diets include plenty of iodine-rich foods including salt (including the USA), a goiter can suggest that the thyroid is not working properly. When the thyroid does not produce the hormones correctly, it can lead to complications such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
In general, it is most common for these issues to affect women over 40. Women going through pregnancy or menopause are also more likely to develop an enlarged thyroid, as are people with a family history of autoimmune disease, who are taking certain medications, or have been exposed to radiation near their neck and/or chest. Thankfully, many thyroid issues can be treated or managed once they are diagnosed by a physician.
Hypothyroidism refers to an underactive thyroid, which means it is not producing enough hormones. This results in the body slowing down its functions, especially metabolism. A slowed metabolism can, in turn, lead to weight gain and associated negative side effects, such as depression and lack of energy. Women over the age of 60 are more likely to suffer from hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is linked to other conditions that may increase thyroid hormone production, including autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s disease), thyroid surgery, radiation therapy, and certain medications. Common symptoms of an underactive thyroid include the following:
If untreated, hypothyroidism may cause other health problems such as obesity, infertility, or heart disease.
Hyperthyroidism refers to an overactive thyroid, which means it is producing too many hormones too quickly, which causes the body’s metabolism to go into overdrive. This can potentially lead to someone losing weight despite maintaining a healthy diet and appetite. Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include the following:
You may also notice that your thyroid is larger than normal and may even be protruding, creating a goiter, as an enlarged thyroid can sometimes appear like the base of your neck is swollen, just above your collarbones. While a goiter is generally not painful, the enlarged thyroid can make your throat feel uncomfortable, leading to discomfort when breathing, swallowing, or coughing.
If left untreated, hyperthyroidism can lead to other health problems such as Graves’ disease.
If you are experiencing any combination of the symptoms noted above, you should visit a physician who can perform a physical exam and discuss your medical history, as these are usually the first steps in diagnosing a thyroid condition. Your physician may also do a simple blood test to determine if you are experiencing hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
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