January is National Thyroid Awareness Month
Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H, Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the base of the neck, directly below the Adam’s apple. The thyroid produces two types of thyroid hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid hormones help keep your body functioning at the correct pace and are essential to your well-being.
In order for the thyroid to determine how much T3 and T4 to produce, the pituitary gland (a gland located at the base of the brain) produces a hormone called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). The amount of TSH in the blood is what determines how much T3 or T4 the thyroid will make. Usually, the levels of T3, T4, and TSH are well-balanced in the body.
Sometimes, the thyroid quits working properly and the levels of TSH, T3, and T4 are no longer balanced. This could be due to disease, medications, or damage to the thyroid. When the thyroid produces too much T3 and T4 thyroid hormones, it’s called hyperthyroidism. In hyperthyroidism, the levels of TSH in the blood will be too low because the pituitary gland will quit producing TSH to try and get the thyroid to quit producing T3 and T4. When the thyroid doesn’t produce enough T3 and T4 thyroid hormones, it’s called hypothyroidism. In hypothyroidism, TSH levels are high because the pituitary gland releases more TSH to try and get the thyroid to produce more thyroid hormones.
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) occurs in one percent of the U.S. population. Women are affected five to ten times more often than men. The symptoms of hyperthyroidism can include:
- Fast heart rate (usually over 100 beats per minute)
- Feeling anxious or irritable
- Weight loss
- Trembling hands
- Loss of head hair
- Fingernails separating from nail bed
- Intolerance to warm temperatures and increased sweating
- Muscle weakness – especially in upper arms and thighs
- Loose and frequent bowel movements
- Protrusion of the eyes, with or without blurred vision
Hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) is the most common thyroid problem. The symptoms of hypothyroidism can include:
- Constant fatigue
- Difficulty learning
- Puffy face
- Dry, brittle hair and nails
- Dry, itchy skin
- Sore muscles
- Weight gain
- Heavy or irregular menstrual cycle
If you have symptoms of thyroid disease, your doctor can order a blood test to check TSH levels. TSH levels that are too low or too high can indicate a problem with the thyroid and further testing will be done to confirm the diagnosis and cause. Treatments for thyroid disorder will depend on the type of thyroid disorder (hypo or hyperthyroidism) and the cause.
For more information, visit:
- American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists: http://www.thyroidawareness.com/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/hanford/htdsweb/guide/thyroid.htm
- Office on Women’s Health: https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/thyroid-disease
- American Thyroid Association: http://www.thyroid.org/