The thyroid may be a small organ, but it affects your mind and body function in big ways. January is Thyroid Awareness Month—an opportunity to spread the word about thyroid health. It’s also a time to encourage thyroid disease prevention, early detection, treatment, funding, and research.
It’s estimated that over 20 million people in the United States are living with thyroid disease. Problem is: more than half of them don’t know it. Most symptoms of thyroid disease are wide-ranging, not specific, and happen gradually over time. But knowing about the symptoms can help you spot them early.
Your thyroid is your body’s gas pedal, says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a board-certified internist and author of From Fatigued to Fantastic. It regulates your body’s function, he adds.
Here’s more about your thyroid and how to keep it healthy.
Why is Thyroid Awareness Month important?
Thyroid Awareness Month is important for the following reasons
- It reminds us of the thyroid’s importance: The thyroid is a small and usually invisible gland, yet it affects all body cells. Thyroid Awareness Month reminds us to care for the thyroid.
- It encourages screening and testing: There are simple blood tests to help you check for thyroid disease before you experience symptoms (screening) or diagnose thyroid conditions when they occur (testing). Thyroid Awareness Month reminds us to get available care.
- It promotes early treatment: Knowing the symptoms of thyroid disease empowers you to get treatment early, which can relieve your symptoms and improve your well-being.
What’s the thyroid?
The thyroid is a small, butterfly shaped organ found in the middle of your lower neck. It produces thyroid hormones which influence all the cells, tissues, and organs in your body. That influence regulates processes in your body such as:
- Metabolism—how your body burns, stores, and uses energy
- Heart function—how fast your heart beats
- Body temperature–how cold or hot you feel
- Digestion–how well your body processes food
- Skin and bone maintenance
- Brain development
- Muscle function
There are several types of thyroid disease, but the main thyroid disorders include:
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, is a treatable condition where your thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones. Without adequate thyroid hormones, your body’s metabolism slows down. Hypothyroidism is the most common type of thyroid disease in the United States, affecting about 5% of people above 12 years.
Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, is a treatable condition where the thyroid hormone levels are higher than your body’s needs. It’s like your thyroid’s gas pedal is stuck in high rev mode. The elevated thyroid hormones increase your body’s metabolism. Hyperthyroidism affects about 1% of people above 12 years in the United States.
Thyroiditis is the general term for inflammation of the thyroid – a condition where the thyroid can become red, swollen and sometimes painful. Several factors can make your thyroid inflamed, including viruses, bacteria, drugs like lithium and amiodarone, radiation and autoimmune disease. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is the commonest form, affecting 1 to 2% of people in the United States
A goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland and is not a disorder in itself but a marker that something is going on. Possible causes of goiter are inadequate iodine in diet, poor thyroid function and taking certain medications such as lithium. However, some goiters have no identified cause. Goiters affect about 5% of people in the United States.
Thyroid cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of the cells in your thyroid. Each year, about 45,000 people-12,00 men and 33,000 women- in the United States are diagnosed with thyroid cancer, but most are successfully treated. Still, about 2050 people die of thyroid cancer each year.
Symptoms of thyroid disease
Thyroid hormones influence every part of your body function. Thus, thyroid disease can cause many symptoms, including:
- Changes in energy levels: The main function of the thyroid hormones is managing energy use. If they are too high or too low, you may experience symptoms like tiredness, restlessness, and drowsiness.
- Changes in mood and mental health—such as anxiety, depression, and difficulty in concentration.
- Unexplained weight changes— If you gain or lose weight unexpectedly.
- Digestion problems—Frequent stooling or constipation that lingers for weeks.
- Menstrual cycle changes—A sudden change in menstrual flow, or timing.
- More temperature sensitivity—being unable to tolerate cold or heat.
- Skin, hair, and nail changes- Changes like dry skin, moist skin, brittle nails or your hair falling out these may be a sign of thyroid disease.
How to promote your thyroid health and increase awareness
- Eat a balanced, healthy diet rich in iodine: Your body needs iodine to make thyroid hormones. You can get iodine from fish, shrimp, dairy and iodine-fortified products such as salt. If you eat a balanced diet and use table salt even sparingly, you should be getting all the iodine you need.
- Perform thyroid self checks: Drink a glass of water in front of a mirror, examining your neck as you swallow. Any swelling or bulge, may be signs of an enlarged thyroid and you should seek medical attention.
- Encourage people with symptoms to test: Thyroid disease can be diagnosed with simple blood tests. Encourage people with possible symptoms to get tested.
- Make a donation: Thyroid awareness, treatment, and research requires funding. Every donation you make can help change several people’s lives. You can save lives by donating toward our thyroid awareness efforts.
- Concerned about your thyroid? Think you may be having symptoms or have a family history of thyroid or other types of cancer? Worried your diet doesn’t give you enough iodine? Your primary care provider is the perfect person with whom to share your concerns and your medical and dietary history.
Creating thyroid awareness is everyone’s business. By doing self checks, screenings and testing, you can catch thyroid disease early, get treated and continue living a healthy life.
- American Thyroid Association. General Information/Press Room.
- Informed Health. How does the thyroid gland work?
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hypothyroidism (Underactive thyroid).
- National Institute of Diabetes ad Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hyperthyroidism (Overactive thyroid).
- American Thyroid Association. What causes thyroiditis?
- American Thyroid Association. Hashimoto Thyroiditis.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. Goiter
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thyroid cancer.
- Thyroid signs and symptoms
- American Academy of Dermatology Association. Thyroid disease:A checklist of skin, hair, and nail changes.
- Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Iodine, the nutrition source.
- American Association of Clinical Endocrinology. How to check your thyroid.