Thyroid disorders, including Grave’s disease, are important to recognize and treat
The thyroid is a small gland located in the middle-front of your neck. It is a bit smaller than a soda cracker and is shaped like a butterfly with open wings. The thyroid gland is a major regulator of your metabolism and other functions.
The thyroid gland is a member of your endocrine system. Your endocrine system is a group of glands that produce substances known as hormones. Hormones are released by endocrine glands into the bloodstream and can then travel around the body, having widespread and profound effects and controls on how your body functions.
Your thyroid needs iodine to work correctly. That is why table salt has iodine added to it (often mentioned on the label) to make sure we get enough of that vital nutrient essential for thyroid health.
In humans, the primary endocrine glands include:
- Pineal gland
- Pituitary Gland
- Adrenal glands
In humans, the part of the brain that regulates the endocrine system is called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls the thyroid gland via another gland called the pituitary.
The branch of science that studies the endocrine system is called endocrinology, and the type of physician who helps patients who have problems with their endocrine system is called an endocrinologist (an internal medicine doctor who has specialized in endocrinology).
Your thyroid gland, situated in the front-center and just above the base of your neck, produces two important hormones. These two hormones are called T3 and T4. The pituitary gland influences the thyroid and how much T3 and T4 are made.
- Regulates metabolism (how you get energy from the food you eat)
- Influences breathing patterns
- Influences the rate your heart beats
- Regulates body temperature
- Influences menstrual cycles in women
- Regulates cholesterol levels
- Regulates weight stability and control
- Influences gastrointestinal stability
Almost 15 percent of all people will develop thyroid problems in their lifetime. Women, statistically, have more thyroid problems than men.
- The thyroid can produce too little hormones (hypothyroidism).
- The thyroid can create too many hormones (hyperthyroidism).
- The thyroid can swell and enlarge (goiter).
- The thyroid can develop lumps and nodules.
Common thyroid problems
Hypothyroidism is when your thyroid does not make enough hormones. When this happens, people suffering from hypothyroidism can feel tired, sluggish and depressed. They can, without apparent reason, gain weight. Their skin and hair can also become dry and cold.
A common cause of hypothyroidism is a condition called Hashimoto’s disease or thyroiditis. Hashimoto’s is an auto-immune condition where the body becomes confused and the body’s immune system attacks its own thyroid gland. There are other causes of hypothyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism is the condition where the thyroid gland produces too much hormone. Excess thyroid hormones can cause affected individuals to feel anxious, irritable, weak and hyperactive.
Patients with this condition will also notice significant weight loss, rapid heartbeat, clammy and overly-perspiring moist skin, difficulty sleeping, hair loss, hand tremor, diarrhea, frequent bowl movements, decreased libido, thick enlarged neck, difficulty swallowing, brittle nails, bulging eyes, vision changes, thick bumpy skin on the shins and tops of feet, elevated blood pressure, irregular periods, and complain of feeling hot much of the time.
The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave’s disease. Television personality Wendy Williams was recently diagnosed with Grave’s disease. Although there are other (less common) causes of hyperthyroidism, Grave’s disease is an auto-immune condition where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland causing it to overproduce hormones.
The immune system actually makes antibodies that stimulate the thyroid into making excess hormones. As you can see from the very long and vague list of symptoms of hyperthyroidism, it can often be challenging to diagnose. A history, physical examination, and blood test can usually secure the diagnosis.
An enlargement of the thyroid is called a goiter. Goiters can make one’s neck look larger via a visible bulge in the neck. A goiter can also cause difficulty swallowing, produce a hoarse voice, or initiate an annoying cough. There are many causes of goiter, but one common cause is a lack of iodine. Goiter is rarely seen in the United States because, as mentioned earlier, iodine is added to most table salts.
Thyroid nodules are the result of abnormal growth of thyroid tissue. These growths on the thyroid gland can cause too much thyroid hormone to be made. Sometimes they can even be cancerous. They are often first noticed as an abnormal bump on the neck by the patient or a doctor on a routine examination.
As you can see, the thyroid is a master gland that has a wide range of influence on how well we are. The good news is that there are excellent treatments for most all thyroid disorders, including medications, supplements, and even surgery.
If you’re experiencing any of the thyroid symptoms listed above, talk to your physician. They can develop a strategy to pinpoint the problem and treat it effectively. Also be sure to check with your doctor to see how often you should have a regular medical examination. These examinations are excellent opportunities to screen for conditions such as thyroid disorders.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is president of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians.