The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that weighs only about an ounce; yet this tiny piece of anatomy affects just about everything in your body, from your heart and lungs to your metabolism and emotional well-being. It makes sense then that any sort of thyroid disorder can wreak havoc on your body.
Unfortunately, thyroid dysfunction can be difficult to diagnose. Approximately 20 million Americans currently suffer from a thyroid disorder, and of those, as many as 60 percent are completely unaware of their condition, according to the American Thyroid Association.
“Symptoms of thyroid diseases are so wide-ranging — affecting your mood, energy, body temperature, weight, heart, and more — that it may be difficult to get the correct diagnosis right away,” says Jeffrey R. Garber, MD, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
What Is Thyroid Disorder?
The thyroid is an endocrine gland that produces hormones, which help regulate the body’s growth and metabolism, keeping the brain, heart, muscles and other organs functioning properly.
When there is an imbalance of thyroid hormones — either too much or too little — it can affect nearly all of your physiological functions, including your digestive system, metabolism and cardiovascular system.
While experts still can’t pinpoint exactly what causes thyroid problems to develop in the first place, there are certain risk factors. Often, heredity plays a part, and women are up to eight times more likely than men to experience thyroid imbalances. Women experiencing menopause or “perimenopause,” the years leading up to menopause, are especially vulnerable, and doctors hypothesize that female hormones, such as estrogen, can alter the levels of thyroid hormones in the blood.
Left untreated, thyroid dysfunction may lead to long-term health problems, including heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage and other pregnancy-related issues.
Common Types of Thyroid Disorders
There are two main types of thyroid disorders: hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid gland produces increased levels of thyroid hormones, causing your metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories for cellular function) to speed up. Increased metabolism tends to result in weight loss, although less commonly, individuals can actually gain wait due to a revved-up appetite.
Symptoms of an overactive thyroid include:
- Weight loss (or occasionally, weight gain)
- Nervousness or anxiety
- Increased bowel movements
- Muscle weakness
The most common cause of an overactive thyroid is Graves’ disease, an immune disorder that occurs when the thyroid gland produces excessive hormones. Hyperthyroidism can also be caused by thyroid nodules, which are growths in the thyroid gland that cause the overproduction of hormones.
Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, occurs when the thyroid cannot produce enough thyroid hormones, causing the metabolism to slow down and the body to retain water, salt and fat.
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid include:
- Weight gain
- Dry skin and hair
- Muscle cramps
- Getting cold easily
Hypothyroidism can also be caused by Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland and interferes with the production of thyroid hormones. This inflammation may also result in a goiter, or swelling of the thyroid gland. Other causes of hypothyroidism include iodine deficiency and problems associated with the pituitary gland.
Treatments for Thyroid Disorders
Depending on the severity of the condition, overactive thyroid sufferers may be prescribed antithyroid drugs, such as methimazole or propylthiouracil, that block the gland’s ability to produce more hormones. For an underactive thyroid, a synthetic thyroid hormone known as “levothyroxine” may be prescribed.
Radioactive iodine is another treatment option. It can be taken by mouth and damages the cells that make the thyroid hormone. In most cases, this treatment eradicates the thyroid, and patients must go on a thyroid hormone drug regimen to maintain normal levels.
In severe cases, doctors may recommend that the thyroid gland be surgically removed through a procedure known as a “thyroidectomy.” Patients may be advised to follow up the surgery by taking a thyroid hormone replacement to regulate hormone levels, as well as taking calcium and vitamin supplements.
If you suspect that you or a loved one has a thyroid imbalance, ask your doctor about a thyroid screening. The American Thyroid Association recommends adults go for testing every five years, starting at age 35. Doctors may also suggest a thyroid scan to check for precancerous nodules.