January is National Thyroid Awareness Month and it’s an important reminder to pay attention to one of the most vital parts of our body. Tarandeep Kaur, MD, an endocrinologist with Dignity Health Medical Group – Stockton, shares the signs and symptoms to ensure your thyroid is properly functioning and your health is on track.
So, what exactly is the thyroid and how does it work? The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck that helps regulate your body’s systems, including your metabolism. It is under the control of the pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain. The pituitary gland produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH circulates via the bloodstream to the thyroid gland where it activates the thyroid to produce more thyroid hormones. The thyroid also regulates several bodily functions, such as your heartbeat and body temperature.
Most people don’t pay attention to their thyroid until it causes issues for the body. Typically, thyroid problems fall into two categories: functional and structural. Functional diseases are caused by an overproduction or underproduction of the thyroid hormone (TH). Whereas malignant and benign tumors, nodules and diffuse goiter (an enlargement of the thyroid gland) are considered structural diseases.
Functional Thyroid Diseases
When a thyroid is sluggish, it may not produce enough TH, otherwise known as hypothyroidism. Most of the causes of this condition affect the thyroid gland directly, impairing it's ability to make enough hormones.
Conversely, if the thyroid is too active, it will produces too much TH, known as hyperthyroidism. Many things can cause the thyroid to go haywire, including genetics, pregnancy, or an autoimmune problem. An overactive thyroid can be safely managed under the care of your physician once diagnosed. Hyperthyroidism accelerates body’s metabolism, which can cause a fast or irregular heartbeat, unintentional weight loss, anxiety, nervousness, mood changes, tremors, difficulty sleeping, hair loss, irregular menstrual cycles and bone loss resulting in osteoporosis.
Inflammation of the thyroid, called thyroiditis, can cause both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. The inflammation initially triggers an overactive thyroid and leak of TH. Over time, that inflammation can impair production of TH altogether.
Important Signs & Symptoms
It is important to recognize signs of thyroid issues in the body as the thyroid gland releases TH. Thyroid hormones control the body’s metabolism, affecting the body's ability to break down food and release energy for the functioning of vital organs. When it is not functioning, the thyroid gland can impact your entire body including your metabolism, heart rate, gut motility, bone health, fertility and mental health.
While anyone can experience hormonal thyroid problems, it’s much more common in women, especially as they age. There is an even greater risk if there is family history of thyroid nodules or thyroid cancer.
Fortunately, most issues with the thyroid can be managed, but it’s important to detect, diagnose and treat early. Some of the more common symptoms associated with thyroid problems include:
• Increased heart rate
• Consistent fatigue
• Weight gain
• Dry skin
• Changes in bowel movements and menstruation
Many people also have thyroid nodules that form within the thyroid but a vast majority of them (90 -95%) are not cancerous. However, thyroid cancer does not usually cause many symptoms. The most common first sign to be mindful of, is a swelling in the neck.
A majority of thyroid problems can be diagnosed and managed by your primary care doctor, who can also refer you to an endocrinologist if additional specialized care is needed. Consult with your primary care provider if you are experiencing any symptoms or signs. If appropriate for your condition, you can also schedule a virtual visit online and enjoy the flexibility and convenience of virtual consults from the safety and comfort of your home.