The Small Gland That Has a Big Impact on Overall Health

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It may be small, but the thyroid has a big effect on how the rest of your body functions.

Your thyroid may not be something you typically think about it, but its function is sure to catch your attention if it’s not working the way it should. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck. It makes hormones that control the way your body uses energy.

We checked in with Craig Smith, MD, chief of Endocrinology at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center, to learn more about this small but important gland.

What is the thyroid and how does it impact our overall health?

The thyroid gland is an endocrine gland that produces hormones that travel through the blood and impact the health of all the tissues in the body. Its work can impact how you look, how you feel, and the overall function of almost every other part of your body, from your brain, heart, and lungs to your skin, hair, and muscles. If it is not working as it is supposed to, such as making too much hormone or too little, it can impact overall health.

What are some problems that affect the thyroid and how are they detected?

There is no standard screening for thyroid imbalance problems. Testing is symptom-driven. Problems are typically detected during a physical exam or blood tests, which might be scheduled to get to the root of symptoms that are bothering a person. People with a strong family history should talk with their doctor. In general, problems include:

Hypothyroidism, also known as underactive or low thyroid, which is when the gland is not producing enough of the thyroid hormone. Symptoms can include fatigue, weight gain, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, depression, an intolerance to cold, muscle cramps, trouble concentrating, and joint pain.

Hyperthyroidism, also known as overactive thyroid, is when the thyroid is making too much of the hormone. Symptoms can include rapid heartbeat, tremors, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, weight loss, muscle weakness, and, for women of child-bearing age, lighter and less frequent periods.

There could also be a thyroid nodule, which is a growth or lump. This is very common — at least 20 to 30 percent of adults have them. Most nodules are benign, with less than 10 percent being cancer. Most of the time treatment of nodules isn’t needed.

But thyroid cancer is also a possibility. It is the 12th most common cancer in the U.S. More than 50,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. Diagnosis is confirmed by needle biopsy of a nodule. Nearly 3 out of 4 cases are found in women. Thyroid cancer is very treatable, typically by surgery. The death rate from thyroid cancer is very low. Five-year survival is greater than 98 percent.

Who is at risk for thyroid problems?

Thyroid problems affect people of all ages, from children to the elderly. Issues are much more common in women. People with a family history of thyroid issues are at risk themselves. Those who have had radiation treatments to the head and neck area in childhood are at increased risk.

What can you do to keep your thyroid healthy — or if you’re worried there might be a problem?

An iodine-sufficient diet is important, which most people with a balanced diet will have. Good iodine food sources include seafood, shellfish, dairy products, iodized salt, or sea salt. You may consider taking an iodine supplement through a multivitamin. See your doctor if you feel a lump or have symptoms that concern you. Medications are available to treat both underactive and overactive thyroid conditions.

Any closing thoughts?

I think the most important thing for people to know is that it is a tremendously important gland that has a great impact on health. If there is concern about the thyroid, blood tests can indicate if it is working properly. Examination of the thyroid also sometimes leads to the discovery of a problem. But just because a person feels tired or is struggling with their weight, or is having a problem with their mood, it does not mean they are having a problem with their thyroid.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Glad to see some light shown on this silent common disease. Hope there is some credible herbal remedy out there, which can at least balance the thyroid level.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you. I have Graves’ disease (Hyperthyroidism) I was so scared of losing my life. I still wonder why Dr (s) in emergency didn’t consider this until my body couldn’t take it any more. Very useful information. You might not know until you get there. Thank you.

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for writing a post about the thyroid gland. It is important to ask your primary care physician to do a neck check of your thyroid the next time you see him/her. Your physician feels your thyroid gland as you swallow; it’s as simple as that. A nodule can be discovered and checked before it becomes a problem.

    Metastatic thyroid cancer survivor

  4. Avatar

    Good article.

    Note: This is a suggestion on a possible future article similar to the above topic. An article on adrenal glands and the impact on our health. Thank you for your consideration.

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