Our bodies come with a lot of moving parts, and sometimes it’s the smallest ones that can have the biggest impact on our overall health.
Take the thyroid, for example. The small, butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck rarely gets as much attention, but it’s actually a hormonal powerhouse responsible for producing the master metabolism hormones that control every function in your body, including breathing, heart rate, digestion, reflexes, and body temperature. It also plays a key role in children’s growth and development.
In other words, when your thyroid isn’t happy, nobody’s happy.
Because thyroid problems can disrupt so many of the body’s systems—and because they’re far more likely to occur in women than men—healthcare doctors recommend learning about the thyroid and how to spot when it’s out of balance. If you have questions, remember that your PCP is a great source of information and would be happy to answer questions. Below are a few things you should know about your thyroid.
How Your Thyroid Works
This unassuming gland secretes three major hormones that interact with every other hormone in your body, from insulin to cortisol (the stress hormone) and sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. Because all these hormones are so closely linked together, a poorly functioning thyroid can contribute to a whole host of symptoms and diseases.
About 90 percent of the thyroid’s job is to produce T4, an inactive hormone that your liver converts to T3, the active form. T3 tells your cells to fire up your metabolism by burning fat, causing your body’s systems to speed up. If you have too little of it, you become sluggish and gain weight. Produce too much, and your body can burn itself out.
Common Thyroid Problems
Women’s healthcare doctors believe as many as 10 to 40 percent of people in the U.S. have suboptimal thyroid function, meaning it’s either overactive or underactive. These imbalances are often caused by autoimmune disorders in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the body’s own cells. The good news: They can be corrected with medication.
Hypothyroidism: An underactive thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones, leading to weight gain, lethargy, depression, hair loss and other symptoms. It’s by far the most common thyroid problem, affecting 1 in 20 Americans aged 12 or older. However, since the symptoms are so vague and overlap with so many other disorders, it’s easy for women’s healthcare doctors to miss the signs. Hypothyroidism is often linked to an iodine deficiency and can be treated with artificial thyroid hormones.
Hyperthyroidism: When the thyroid secretes too many hormones, it can cause restlessness, irritability, weight loss, menstrual irregularities and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. About 1 in 100 Americans has an overactive thyroid. Left untreated, it can cause heart problems and difficulty giving birth. Medications that reduce hormone levels can help bring the body back into balance.
Thyroid cancer: Although it’s much more rare than the thyroid disorders above, thyroid cancer is something your women’s healthcare doctor should check for if you experience unusual lumps, pain or swelling in the neck as well as persistent hoarseness or a cough that isn’t due to a cold. Women are three times more vulnerable to it than men, and two-thirds of cases occur between the ages of 20 and 55.
When the thyroid malfunctions, bringing your body back into balance is critical for your long-term health. If you suspect you might have a thyroid problem, consult your women’s healthcare doctor to learn more.