Thyroid 101: What It Is & Why You Should Care

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By now, you may have heard some of the health buzz surrounding your thyroid gland and the ways that it can potentially affect your health. This small gland — really, just the size and shape of a (little) butterfly — found in the base of your neck, plays a big role in your health, as well as how you feel on a daily basis. Here's how it works: your thyroid converts iodine (a substance found in foods items ranging from potatoes to dairy products) into two hormones: T3, which is triiodothyronine, and T4, known as thyroxine.
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So, why should you care? “The thyroid secretes these hormones, and then they go directly into the blood, which then affects the entire the body because [the hormones travel all over your system and work into every single cell,” says Betul Hatipoglu, MD, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. That's right — the thyroid affects everything in your body, head to toe.
The problem: the thyroid doesn’t always function perfectly, and thyroid issues are becoming more and more common. An estimated 20 million Americans have some type of thyroid disorder, and one in eight women will develop one in her lifetime, according to the American Thyroid Association. According to Hatipoglu, thyroid issues are very common during menopause, but they can pop up if even you’re thirty-something (especially if new to the Pill or pregnant, as an increase in estrogen can throw the thyroid out of whack). A family history of issues with the gland can raise a red flag on how it will behave for you. While the thyroid is most known for its role in metabolism — either making it work double time, leading to weight loss; or more commonly, slacking off and causing weight gain — having your favorite jeans feel a little snug isn’t the only sign of a malfunctioning thyroid.
Here's the good news. A simple blood test can detect high or low levels of thyroid-stimulating hormones (TSH) and lead to setting them straight, by getting a prescription from a doc to either speed them up or slow them down. Here are some symptoms of a thyroid gone wrong, how to test your TSH, and what to do if you have an imbalance.
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thyroid_hypo Hypothyroidism: When Your Thyroid Is An Underachiever
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Some of the major symptoms of an underactive thyroid is being tired and sluggish (even when you catch enough sleep and OD on caffeine), as well as forgetfulness, a feeling of ‘cloudiness,' gaining weight, losing hair, headaches, feeling colder than usual, excessive dry skin, pain in muscles and joints, and constipation. The problem? Many of these not-feeling-so-hot signals could happen to the best of us when we're having an off week (or month), which can make the presence of this condition hard to diagnose.
“A lot of symptoms, especially in hypothyroidism, are non-specific and could be caused by variety of different things. Especially in January or February if you live in the Northeast...things like feeling tired, slightly depressed, feeling cold and gaining weight are common,” says Alan P. Farwell, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of patient education at the American Thyroid Association. “If a few of these symptoms persist for more than a few weeks or seem to be getting worse, then you should go see your doctor to have your thyroid checked.”
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Hyperthyroidism: When Your Thyroid Does A Little Too Much
Common characteristics of a thyroid on overdrive include the following: feeling jittery and anxious constantly, stomach issues, losing a significant amount of weight (as in, enough that doesn’t seem healthy or normal even if you’re eating right and hitting the gym), having tons of energy followed by exhaustion (because you get wired and then overdo it), as well as difficulty sleeping, hot sweats, and a rapid heartbeat.
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“These types of symptoms make detecting hyperthyroidism a whole lot easier than hypothyroidism,” says Hatipoglu. Because, let’s face it, heart palpitations are surely going to get someone into the doctor faster than just feeling a little bit down. “Also, some of the cognitive symptoms are similar to those of someone with a manic disorder — first you are racing around, and then suddenly you have fleeting thoughts, decreased memory, and feel tired,” explains Farwell, who says to get a blood test to check thyroid hormone levels if any of the above symptoms persist. And on that note....
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How To Reset Your Thyroid
Before you and your doctor can create a plan of action, you'll first need to get that TSH blood test; your doctor may want to take a general overview of TSH or examine the individual hormones. “Typically, in a standard screening, looking at TSH can make it clear how the thyroid is functioning—but in more extreme cases, looking at T3 and T4 specifically will need to be done,” explains Farwell. If a blood test shows that thyroid hormone levels are way above normal, a doctor may prescribe Methimazole or Propylthiouracil, which can help slow down the production of TSH. On the flip side, Levothyroxine can help kick-start the production of TSH.
Some medical experts may push natural thyroid balancers such as iodine. However, the doctors interviewed for this story say that in the United States (unlike, say, developing nations), getting enough iodine from a normal diet to aid the thyroid in doing its thing is not an issue — and if not, the levels in a standard multivitamin is more than enough (around 150 micrograms). The reason it’s crucial to make sure you get iodine in some form? “The body doesn’t make it on its own, so obtaining the max amount from food is necessary and the first choice over a supplement, whenever possible,” says Hatipoglu. Look for iodized salt, cow's milk, seafood, and some vegetables — but as always, ask your doctor before cooking up a storm.
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