Thyroid Awareness Month: What you need to know about thyroid health

Jan 6, 2020


January is Thyroid Awareness Month—but how many of us know what the thyroid is—and what it does? Your thyroid is important for regulating your metabolism, body temperature and other core physical functions.

Think of your thyroid like the engine of a car. The engine produces a certain amount of energy to control the car’s speed. In the same way, your thyroid produces hormones to keep your body functioning at a certain rate.

Why do we need Thyroid Awareness Month?

As many as 20 million Americans have a thyroid disorder. And more than half of them don’t know it. Although the causes of thyroid problems are not known, if people don’t get treatment, they can have an increased risk of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and infertility.

What is the thyroid?

The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland found in the lower neck. The gland produces the hormones T3 and T4. These hormones help to regulate metabolism, manage body temperature and control heart rate. If your thyroid is overproducing or underproducing these hormones, it can cause significant health concerns.

Hyperthyroidism: When the thyroid works too hard

In some people, the thyroid overproduces T4. This overproduction is called hyperthyroidism. It affects about 1% of the population and is five to 10 times more common in women than men.

Hyperthyroidism can cause jitters, irritability, anxiousness, difficulty sleeping and unexplained weight loss. The condition is sometimes caused by an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease or by the hormonal changes that women experience postpartum.

Hypothyroidism: When the thyroid works too little

Hypothyroidism is more common than hyperthyroidism. The condition occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough of the thyroid hormone, resulting in a slowing down of the body’s functions.

Some signs to watch for include fatigue, forgetfulness, lethargy, drowsiness and unexplained weight gain. Hypothyroidism is also associated with goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland.

Diagnosis and treatment options

Your primary care physician may be able to diagnose and treat a thyroid disorder. Otherwise, they may refer you to an endocrinologist.

One of the most common diagnostic tests for thyroid disorders is a TSH blood test. Low levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH, is the most reliable indicator of hyperthyroidism. Too much TSH in the bloodstream is the clearest sign of hypothyroidism.

Treatment for any thyroid disorder typically includes medication to help regulate hormone production. Doctors will also provide recommendations for successfully managing your symptoms. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

Why would my doctor order testing?

Thyroid disorders do have a genetic component. If someone in your immediate family has a thyroid condition, your doctor may recommend a TSH test. If you are experiencing any unexplained changes in energy, a healthcare provider may also want to check that the thyroid is functioning correctly.

Though thyroid diseases are not preventable, they are treatable. Speak with your doctor to learn more about diagnosis, testing and treatment.