Ever stopped to think about your thyroid? Unless you have had a very good reason to, the answer is ‘probably not.’
I didn’t either, until I was forced to.
All through college I suffered from a whole host of bodily problems that I chalked up to stress. Fatigue, digestive and stomach issues, menstrual issues, ungodly mood swings, and I was sick quite a bit on top of all that. Being on a college campus and biting off more than I could chew between an overly full class schedule and 3 jobs would drive anybody’s body to extremes. I always thought I was just pushing myself too hard, and this was my body’s way of retaliating. I’d just have to deal.
It was the fact that all these symptoms kept reoccurring after I had graduated college. Even 2 years after I had graduated. At the strong urging of my father, I got blood drawn for a thyroid test (after doing many other blood tests before that). Low and behold, it turned out positive for hypothyroidism. It explained all of my symptoms.
According to the American Thyroid Association (ATA), an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. Oftentimes, the symptoms may be mild or slightly annoying, but not so much as to converse with a doctor about it. Some people may write it off as being too stressed, or not getting enough sleep, or being dehydrated. There are so many possible symptoms with a thyroid disorder, it’s hard to narrow down the culprit. Thyroid disease can come in many shapes and forms and affect people in different ways. The ATA has discovered that:
- More than 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime.
- Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.
- Women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.
- One in 8 women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
- Most thyroid cancers respond to treatment, although a small percentage can be very aggressive.
- The causes of thyroid problems are largely unknown.
- Undiagnosed thyroid disease may put patients at risk for certain serious conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and infertility.
- Pregnant women with undiagnosed or inadequately treated hypothyroidism have an increased risk of miscarriage, preterm delivery, and severe developmental problems in their children.
- Most thyroid diseases are life-long conditions that can be managed with medical attention.
What exactly is the thyroid?
WebMD and Women’s Health describe the thyroid as a butterfly-shaped gland that sits low on the front of the neck. Your thyroid lies below your Adam’s apple, along the front of the windpipe. The thyroid has two side lobes, connected by a bridge in the middle. When the thyroid is its normal size, you can’t feel it.
Brownish-red in color, the thyroid is rich with blood vessels. Nerves important for voice quality also pass through the thyroid.
The thyroid secretes several hormones, collectively called thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones act throughout the body, influencing metabolism, growth and development, and body temperature. During infancy and childhood, adequate thyroid hormone is crucial for brain development.
So, it’s kind of an important little guy. Because it affects the entire body, disorders of the thyroid, no matter how slight, can be detrimental. The most common thyroid problems involve abnormal production of thyroid hormones, resulting in hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
According to the ATA:
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland produces too little thyroid hormone. Symptoms may include feeling run down, slow, depressed, sluggish, cold, tired, having dry skin and hair, constipation, muscle cramps, or weight gain. Women may have a heavier menstrual flow. Some people have a swelling in the front of the neck due to thyroid enlargement (a goiter).
In the United States, most cases of hypothyroidism are caused by a condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, in which an individual’s immune system attacks and destroys the thyroid. Worldwide, the most common cause of hypothyroidism is lack of iodine in the diet. Hypothyroidism can also be caused by treatment of hyperthyroidism or by certain medications, and it may be present from birth. The thyroid may temporarily become under-active after pregnancy or if it is inflamed due to a viral infection. Finally, the pituitary gland may be failing to signal properly to the thyroid.
Hyperthyroidism refers to any condition in which the body has too much thyroid hormone. Symptoms may include weight loss, nervousness, irritability, increased perspiration, a racing heart, hand tremors, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, increased bowel movements, fine brittle hair, and muscular weakness—especially in the upper arms and thighs. In Graves’ disease, a bulging of one or both eyes may occur.
The most common cause is Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is a type of hyperthyroidism; it is an autoimmune disorder that is genetic and estimated to affect one percent of the population. Another cause is one or more overactive nodules or lumps in the thyroid. Finally, you may temporarily have hyperthyroid symptoms if you have thyroiditis, which causes the gland to leak thyroid hormone, or if you take too much thyroid hormone in tablet form.
It’s not to say if you’re experiencing these symptoms that you necessarily have a thyroid condition. It took me about 6 years to figure mine out. Although I still have issues from time to time, the medication to regulate my thyroid has been a god-send. Many of my most extreme symptoms are subdued, if not disappeared altogether. Although it affects a small percentage of the population, thyroid disorders can come knocking at any time. Thinking about your thyroid, if only occasionally, may be something to take in to consideration.