January is Thyroid Awareness Month

Although it’s small and housed in a pretty inconspicuous spot in the body, I know first-hand what the mighty thyroid does for the body. My sister was diagnosed with a thyroid nodule during the summer of 2011 and had a complete thyroidectomy in September 2011. Before her thyroid issues, I had no idea what the thyroid even did, where it was, or how it functioned. Needless to say, I quickly became well-versed in the workings of the thyroid when I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis around the same time.

Thyroid Awareness Month

What is a thyroid?

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck just below your Adam’s apple. It’s a relatively small gland, but the thyroid plays a huge role in your body. Your thyroid influences the function of your heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and skin, so making sure that your thyroid is functioning properly is very important to your body’s well-being.

How does your thyroid work?

An easy way to think of your thyroid is to compare it to a car engine. Your thyroid sets the pace for your body’s functions. An engine provides the energy required to move at a certain speed. In a similar way, your thyroid manufactures enough thyroid hormone to let your cells perform at a certain rate.

In the same way that an engine needs gasoline, your thyroid also needs fuel to produce enough thyroid hormone. That fuel is iodine. It’s found in iodized salt, seafood, bread, and milk, so most people get plenty of it from their diet. Your thyroid extracts the iodine it needs from your bloodstream and uses it to make two kinds of thyroid hormone: T3 and T4.

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Your car engine produces energy, and by hitting the accelerator, you can tell it how to fast to go. The thyroid also needs direction, and it gets it from the pituitary gland in the brain. Your pituitary gland controls the function of your thyroid and tells it how much thyroid hormone to make. Those messages come in the form of the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).

TSH levels in your blood rise and fall based on whether enough thyroid hormone is produced to meet your body’s needs. Higher TSH levels tell the thyroid to produce more hormone, and low TSH levels prompt the thyroid to slow down.

What could go wrong?

When outside influences like disease, damage to the thyroid, or certain medications break down the communication between the pituitary gland and your thyroid, your thyroid might not produce the proper amount of hormone.

For example, I have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease that damages the thyroid and causes hypothyroidism. Because of that damage, my thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormone. This slows down my body’s functions, and my pituitary gland produces too much TSH to compensate.

Other issues that might occur include the opposite, where the thyroid is producing too much thyroid hormone. This is called hyperthyroidism.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms that your thyroid isn’t functioning appropriately depend on what is happening with your thyroid.

A few symptoms of hypothyroidism

  • Fatigue
  • Drowsiness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Dry, brittle hair and nails
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Puffy face
  • Constipation
  • Weight gain and fluid retention
  • Increased frequency of miscarriages

A few symptoms of hyperthyroidism

  • Fast heart rate
  • Anxiety
  • Trembling hands
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of scalp hair
  • Intolerance of warm temperatures
  • Accelerated loss of calcium
  • Smooth skin
  • Prominent “stare” of the eyes

How do I get my thyroid tested?

If you suspect your thyroid might not be working properly, it’s important to communicate with your doctor. S/he will be able to order a blood test to monitor your TSH, T3, and T4 levels in order to find out if your thyroid is functioning the way it should.

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Medical IDs for thyroid disease

Because hormone therapy for thyroid disease can change over time, it’s a good idea to carry a wallet card or update your MyID health profile. Since some medications can have different side effects if you have thyroid disease or are on thyroid hormone replacement, letting first responders know of your medications and health issues can mean all the difference during an emergency.

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ICE: 555-555-5555

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