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Let’s Talk Thyroid

January 26, 2011

By Sarah Heinzerling

January is National Thyroid Awareness Month.  This butterfly shaped gland located in front of your windpipe and below your larynx and is essentially responsible for every metabolic process in the body.  Its job is to release hormones into the bloodstream to convert oxygen and calories into energy.  The release of the thyroid’s hormones, known as T4 and T3, are regulated by the pituitary gland.  If the thyroid is excreting more hormones necessary for metabolic processes the pituitary gland decreases its Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH).  Conversely if there is a need for an increase in metabolic process the pituitary gland releases more TSH telling the thyroid to release more T4 and T3 into the blood stream to meet the need.

Common thyroid dysfunctions fall into two categories, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) or overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).  In hypothyroidism the thyroid is not releasing the required hormones to adequately maintain metabolic processes in the body resulting in symptoms such as weight gain, fatigue, and excessive sleeping.  Reasons for an underactive thyroid can be Hashimotos’ Thyroiditis, removal of thyroid gland, exposure to excessive amounts of iodide and certain medications.  In hyperthyroidism symptoms can be weight loss despite increased appetite, increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and trembling hands.  Reasons for an overactive thyroid could be Grave’s Disease, nodules that develop in the gland, inflammation of the thyroid, and, in rare occasions, a malfunctioning of the pituitary gland.  If either hypo- or hyperthyroidism is left untreated a person can develop higher risk of heart disease, stroke, brittle bones and a rare but very serious and potentially lethal condition known as myxedema coma that would require immediate attention by a physician.

Potentially 13 million Americans may have a thyroid problem and it is estimated that half of them don’t even know it.  It is recommended everyone over the age of 35 be screened for TSH levels every 5 years.  If you have risk factors, recommended screens may be sooner and more frequent.  Some risk factors include family history of thyroid disorder, premature grey hair, and diabetes.  Both men and women are of higher risk as they age, though women are more likely than men to develop thyroid problems.

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