Most people probably don’t spend too much time thinking about their thyroid. But although it is relatively small, the thyroid gland plays a huge role in our body, influencing the function of many of the body’s most important organs, including the heart, brain, liver, and skin. In fact, the thyroid is so critical to the overall performance of our bodies, it’s considered “the master gland of metabolism.” Ensuring that the thyroid is healthy and functioning properly is vitally important to the body’s well-being. That’s why January has been designated Thyroid Awareness Month by The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) and the American College of Endocrinology (ACE).
Think of the thyroid as your body’s engine
Your thyroid gland sets the pace at which your body operates. An engine produces the required amount of energy for a car to move at a certain speed. In the same way, your thyroid gland manufactures enough thyroid hormone to prompt your cells to perform a function at a certain rate. Just as a car can’t produce energy without gas, your thyroid needs fuel to produce thyroid hormone. This fuel is iodine, which comes from your diet and is found in iodized table salt, seafood, bread and milk.
Hypothyroidism is an often overlooked health problem in which the thyroid produces less hormone than the body needs, impacting virtually all organ systems in the body. It is one of the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed and prevalent medical conditions in the U.S.: studies estimate that more than 10 percent of the general population suffer from the disease. Yet hypothyroidism frequently goes undiagnosed.
Your thyroid could also produce too much hormone sending your systems into overdrive, a condition known as hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid. These two conditions are most often features of an underlying thyroid disease.
The early effects of hypothyroidism are often mild, appear gradually and aren’t concentrated in a single area of the body, so it’s easy to disregard them or attribute them to other causes. Also, two people with the disease may have entirely different symptoms, and one person’s can develop quickly, while the other person’s symptoms may take years to emerge. Some people with hypothyroidism have no symptoms at all. And as we age, diminished or faulty hormone production is common, so it’s understandable that older patients in particular often go undiagnosed. Plus the body has the ability to compensate somewhat over the short term by increasing the stimulation to the thyroid to produce more hormone.
Some common symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- Constant fatigue
- Weight gain and fluid retention
- Dry, brittle hair and nails
- Dry, itchy skin
- Muscle or joint pain or stiffness
- Sensitivity to cold
- Menstrual cycle changes
- Slow pulse
- High cholesterol
- Increased sensitivity to medication
Although symptoms can vary dramatically from person to person and not every symptom means that you have an underactive thyroid, if you have been suffering from health issues and your physician has yet to determine what the underlying cause is, ask to have your thyroid function checked.