Woman holding her neck

Understanding the Thyroid and Associated Health Conditions 

Did you know that the small gland in your neck — the thyroid — is one of the most important glands in the body? The thyroid produces an important hormone that regulates consistent cellular activity and your metabolism. But sometimes the thyroid gland can cause problems, including producing too little or too much hormone, the formation of nodules or lumps, increased growth of the thyroid itself and even cancer. Because of its vital role in the body, it’s important to understand how the thyroid works, common problems that can happen and how to take care of it. 

HOW IT WORKS 

Your thyroid is a small gland, normally weighing less than one ounce, located in the front of the neck. It is made up of two lobes, or halves, that lie along your windpipe and are joined by a narrow band of thyroid tissue, known as the isthmus.  

The function of the thyroid gland is to take iodine and convert it into thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid cells are the only cells in the body that can absorb iodine. These cells combine iodine and the amino acid tyrosine to make T3 and T4, which are then released into the bloodstream and are transported throughout the body to control your metabolism. 

Sometimes, your thyroid gland might produce too much or too little T3 and T4, which can lead to issues. 

COMMON THYROID PROBLEMS 

Sluggish thyroid 

This is also known as hypothyroidism and occurs when the thyroid produces too little thyroid hormones. This disease is 10 times more common in women than men. Mild hypothyroidism often can go unrecognized, but as the condition progresses, symptoms can include increased tiredness, sluggishness, depression, weight gain and constipation. There can also be other symptoms, such as achiness, brittle hair and itchy skin. Treatment can include taking thyroid hormone, which the body no longer produces properly. 

Overactive thyroid 

An overactive thyroid, also known as hyperthyroidism, is caused when the thyroid produces too many hormones. The symptoms of an overactive thyroid vary, but can include weight loss, nervousness, irritability, a faster heart rate, difficulty sleeping, trembling, weakness and other problems. This type of thyroid disease affects women five-10 times more often than men. A common cause of an overactive thyroid is Grave’s disease, which can run in families. Hyperthyroidism can also be caused by one or more nodules on the thyroid. Treatment choices for an overactive thyroid include surgery, radioactive iodine therapy and medication. 

Thyroid cancer 

Thyroid nodules, or lumps, are quite common. Though most are benign, sometimes, nodules on the thyroid can develop into cancer. Some of the warning signs of thyroid cancer are problems with swallowing, hoarseness, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, pain in the neck or throat and difficulty breathing.  

TAKING CARE OF YOUR THYROID 

If you suspect that your thyroid may be causing health issues, you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible. In addition to medical procedures, a doctor might suggest other lifestyle changes.  

Get plenty of iodine 

Iodine is essential for thyroid health. Without iodine, your body simply cannot make thyroid hormones, and issues then follow. Iodine deficiency is very common, though you can increase your intake of it by consuming iodine rich foods, such as seafood, fortified dairy products and iodized salt. 

Eat a balanced diet 

Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole-grain foods to improve your overall health. Protein should come from lean sources, such as fish or beans. Cut down on “bad” fats and simple carbohydrates. Certain dietary fats contribute to heart disease and some forms of cancer. Reduce saturated fats, which come mainly from animal products, such as meat, cheese, and trans fats, which take the form of hydrogenated oils in processed foods. 

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, be sure to consult with your doctor. The thyroid is an important gland in the body, and it is critical to take care of it.  

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Photo credit: Deucefleur

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