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Get to Know Your Thyroid

woman being examined by a doctor

As we look forward to a New Year and, for some, making resolutions about health and wellness, it is important to know how our bodies’ glands play a role in achieving our goals.

Question: What gland plays a major role in each of the following?

  • Heart rate
  • Central and peripheral nervous system
  • Body weight
  • Muscle strength
  • Bone health
  • Menstrual cycles
  • Body temperatures
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Bowel habits
  • Hair, nails, and skin health

If you guessed thyroid, you are correct. Your thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of your neck, below the laryngeal prominence that wraps around the front of your larynx (or voice box). It is a crucial component to the function of many systems and organs—including the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and skin—as it releases a steady amount of a hormone into the bloodstream.

The thyroid gland uses iodine from the foods you eat to make two main hormones—triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).

January is National Thyroid Awareness Month. It is important to know about this gland because about 60 percent of those with a thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.

Did you know?

  • Women are 5–8 times more likely than men to experience thyroid problems.
  • One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder in her lifetime.
  • The cause of thyroid problems is largely unknown.
  • Cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and infertility are serious conditions that can occur if thyroid disease goes undiagnosed.
  • It is important for pregnant women to be diagnosed and treated adequately. If not, risks include miscarriage, preterm delivery, and severe developmental problems in their children.
  • Most thyroid diseases are lifelong and can be managed with proper medical attention.
  • Thyroid nodules are very common and are present in 60 percent to 70 percent of middle-aged women.
  • Most thyroid cancers respond to treatment, but a small percentage can be very aggressive.

Early warning signs

Following are early warning signs of possible thyroid problems:

  • Overactive thyroid—racing heart rate, palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, weight loss with increased appetite, excessive sweating, heat intolerance, muscle weakness, diarrhea, tremors.
  • Underactive thyroid—fatigue, sluggishness (mental and physical), cold intolerance, constipation, hair loss, weight gain, depression.
  • GoitersA goiter happens when your thyroid gland swells up. Sometimes, it makes a noticeable bulge in your neck; other times, it can make you cough or make your voice sound hoarse. A goiter can be caused by other thyroid conditions or by a lack of iodine—an element your thyroid needs to work properly. Most of us get plenty of iodine because it’s added to table salt in the United States.

Signs of possible thyroid nodules and/or cancer include an unusual lump or swelling in the neck, a new cough, hoarseness, swollen glands, and difficulty swallowing.

Screenings for thyroid dysfunction

Be honest and upfront about your symptoms. Do not feel embarrassed talking to your health care provider about what you are experiencing. Write down your questions and concerns and bring them to your appointment.

If possible, bring a family member or close friend. Sometimes it helps to have two sets of ears when hearing from your doctor. Take notes so you can look them over later.

Because signs and symptoms are not specific and can be caused by many other common conditions, your doctor is likely to perform a thorough physical examination and take a complete medical history and may order a blood test.

Maintaining a healthy thyroid

One of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy thyroid is eat a well-balanced diet. Some physicians recommend a Mediterranean diet. Aim for four to five servings of vegetables and three to four servings of fruit each day, along with lean proteins and fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, anchovies, and mackerel. It’s fine to consume other healthy fats, too, like extra-virgin olive oil, expeller-pressed organic canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, nuts, nut butters, and avocados.

As we begin a new year, consider a health screening resolution—for thyroid health and your overall health and wellness. You are worth it!

Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, MSN, Aging and Disability ServicesContributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, BSN, is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, a division of the Seattle Human Services Department that serves as the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle and King County. Mary Pat thanks Jose M. Garcia, MD, PhD, a professor with UW Medicine Gerontology & Geriatric Medicine and director of the Clinical Research Unit at VA Puget Sound Health Care System, for his input on this article.