Happy January and Thyroid Awareness Month! New Year’s resolutions are usually weight oriented. So let’s talk about one of the many reasons people have challenges with weight gain. Thyroid tests are not routine for most doctors to order. The best way to tell if your thyroid is working correctly is to be aware of the signs and symptoms of thyroid disease. Thyroid diseases are relatively common, affecting up to 20 million Americans. Allow us to give you some basic facts about this important little gland.
The thyroid gland is a relatively small gland that is found in the neck right below our Adams Apple. To appreciate the importance of thyroid health, we must first understand hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that provide signals to the rest of our body to keep us alive and functioning well.
The thyroid gland produces two hormones that play major roles in our metabolism, behavior, growth, and development. These two thyroid hormones, triiodothyronine and tetraiodothyronine (known as T3 and T4), play principal roles in metabolism. Metabolism is the process your body uses to convert food into energy. T3 and T4 increase metabolism in the body by speeding up the breakdown of food (calories). In turn our body maintains consistent body temperature, increases our heart rate and respiration as needed, and keeps our brain and reflexes sharp. As can be expected from the critical role they play, overactive and underactive thyroid hormones produce noticeable symptoms.
Overactive thyroid glands produce symptoms of hyperthyroidism. This results in a speeding up of bodily functions. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include unintentional weight loss despite an increased appetite, rapid heart rate, sweating, nervousness, insomnia, anxiety, and irritability. People can also notice other physical changes such as brittle hair, skin thinning, and changes in their eyes (uncommon).
Underproduction of thyroid hormones, hypothyroidism, produces symptoms that are quite the opposite. We see fatigue, weight gain, muscle weakness, constipation, complaints of feeling cold, and other similar bodily changes.
In addition to pumping out hormones, the thyroid is a receiver of chemical messages from another gland (the pituitary). Signals from the pituitary direct the thyroid gland to make more T3 and T4, or to slow down production and release of these hormones. These changes are provided due to a different chemical messenger called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). TSH is produced by the pituitary gland, which is located at the base of the brain and plays a key role in thyroid health. Specialists called endocrinologists deal with pituitary problems. They are often consulted by primary care doctors for assistance in making certain proper balance is restored to the thyroid-pituitary system.
Once symptoms of high or low thyroid function are brought to the attention of a physician, simple screening tests will determine whether there are appropriate levels of these hormones, and if further action needs to be taken. Doctors will measure levels of T3, T4 and TSH. These are the blood tests that doctors order to evaluate and treat thyroid problems. If there are imbalances, your doctor will search for the underlying cause. For a quick overview of diagnostic tests and thyroid health, visit the Merck Manual Consumer Version by clicking the link.
Continue reading January 2022 Newsletter: Nutrition and Thyroid Health