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Small Gland, Big Job: Why Your Thyroid is So Important

September 11, 2018
Published in: Endocrinology, General

A doctor examining a patient's neck

Did you know you have a butterfly with a shield in your neck? That's right; your thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland with a name that comes from the Greek word for "shield." The thyroid gland sits at the base of your neck below your Adam's apple and weighs less than an ounce. This small but mighty gland controls your metabolism – the process of converting food into energy. Your thyroid is so important that you are unable to live without it unless you have medicine to replace its hormones.

The thyroid gland is part of the endocrine system – the system that includes all the glands in your body that regulate essential functions. Your thyroid produces several hormones that are crucial to your growth, development, and good health. The thyroid makes hormones called T3 and T4 that regulate everything from your breathing, heart rate, muscle strength, body temperature, and so much more. Think of your thyroid as the engine that keeps your body running.

Disorders of the Thyroid

Health concerns arise if your thyroid produces too much hormone (hyperthyroidism) or not enough hormone (hypothyroidism). Nearly 27 million people have thyroid conditions, and 13 million people are suspected to remain undiagnosed. Hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism are diagnosed through a physical exam by your doctor and through blood tests. It's important to see your doctor as soon as possible if you have concerns about your thyroid.

Hyperthyroidism

Man at a computer rubbing his tired eyesWhen the body produces too much of the thyroid hormone, it speeds up your metabolism. An accelerated metabolism may sound good, but it actually has an adverse effect on your body. However, hyperthyroidism can be tricky to diagnose because the symptoms mirror several other disorders. Symptoms include:

  • Sudden, unexplained weight loss even with an increased appetite
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Tremors in your hands or fingers
  • Fatigue
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Swollen thyroid
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Heat sensitivity
  • Sweating
  • Changes in menstruation
  • Thinning of the skin

Hypothyroidism

Woman standing on a bathroom scaleWhen the body doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone, it can cause issues like obesity, infertility, heart disease, joint pain, and even depression. Like hyperthyroidism, hypothyroid symptoms include fatigue and changes in menstruation. Additional symptoms are:

  • Cold sensitivity
  • Dry skin
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Muscle weakness
  • High cholesterol
  • Slow heart rate
  • Memory impairment
  • Joint stiffness
  • Swollen face
  • Hoarse voice
  • Constipation

In both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, age, gender, and family history are the main risk factors. Women between the ages of 40-60 years old have the highest risk of developing thyroid disorders. The chances increase even more if you have a family history of thyroid problems.

The thyroid is a small but mighty gland that keeps your body running smoothly. Conditions like hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism pose a serious threat to your health if left untreated. If you identify with any of the symptoms of these thyroid conditions, you must see your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Our team at the Augusta Health Endocrinology Clinic can answer any questions you may have.