The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that sits on the front of the neck just below the voice box, is an organ that affects many different areas of the body. When functioning normally, it regulates other organs by producing T3 and T4 hormones. If it is unable to function normally, an assortment of health problems may arise.
Dr. Sydney Westphal, an endocrinologist from Mayo Clinic, explains that if the function of the thyroid is off, a person may have issues with their metabolism, hair, skin, heart, GI tract and reproductive system. She tells her patients, “the thyroid can change things all the way from the top of your head on down to your toenails.” Dr. Westphal goes on to say that it is essential that a person get their thyroid checked, as the issues may worsen as time goes on.
The effects of a thyroid problem are different based on if the thyroid is underactive (hypothyroidism) or overactive (hyperthyroidism).
If a person develops hypothyroidism, meaning the thyroid is underactive, it seems to slow down other organs in the body. For instance, the heart slows, which may develop into a rare but life-threatening autoimmune disorder known as myxedema coma. With this disorder, a person’s mental status is altered, the body temperature is lowered, and the heart rate is exponentially slowed down.
Hypothyroidism also slows down a person’s metabolism. This makes it easier for a person to gain weight and harder for them to lose it. Furthermore, it slows the GI tract, makes a person unable to regulate body temperature, and may affect mood to the point of depression.
Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, speeds up many organs in the body. This disorder leads to bone density loss and a faster heartbeat. A faster heartbeat leads to arrhythmias and may progress into heart failure.
People with hyperthyroidism have a quick metabolism, which makes them lose weight even if they are eating more than they used to. It also speeds up the GI tract, as well as causing issues with heat intolerance or excessive sweating. Hyperthyroidism even causes problems with anxiety, irritability, trouble sleeping, or the sensation of always being
Dr. Westphal clarifies that there are a few reasons why thyroid issues develop. For one, women are far more likely to have a thyroid problem, especially as they get older. In the United States, the most common reason is from an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s, which destroys thyroid tissue. It also tends to run in families. If people have had surgery on their thyroid, had radioactive iodine treatment near their neck, neck radiation, or a tumor in their pituitary, they are also at an increased risk for developing a thyroid issue.
Dr. Westphal recommends asking for a neck examination during your annual routine check-up. She also suggests that you be aware of all the different symptoms that can be associated with the thyroid so that you might recognize when to get it checked. If you have predisposing issues, such as Type I Diabetes, a history of radiation, or a family history of thyroid problems, make sure your primary care doctor is aware so that he or she can also pay attention to your thyroid and get you on the proper treatment.
Although the symptoms of a thyroid problem seem overwhelming, it can be relatively simple to treat. Along with taking the proper medication, eating a good diet, getting enough exercise and adequate sleep are key for sustaining a completely healthy lifestyle