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January 09, 2023

Here’s what your thyroid actually does

Adult Health Thyroid

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In the front of your neck — just below the voice box — is a tiny organ with an outsized impact on your body. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that produces hormones which control how quickly energy is used by your body. Metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and bone health are all affected by this important gland.

How does the thyroid work?

At the bottom of your brain, there is a small organ called the pituitary gland. It produces a hormone called TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) that tells the thyroid how many hormones it must produce to keep your body’s metabolism in balance.

Your thyroid produces thyroxine (T4), a generally inactive hormone, and triiodothyronine (T3), a hormone that is highly active. About 80 percent of the hormones made and secreted into your bloodstream are T4, but these can be converted into T3 by enzymes in other tissues such as the kidneys or liver. The thyroid gland also contains hormone-producing cells called c-cells which regulate calcium and phosphate levels in your blood.

T3 levels influence your body’s metabolism. The more T3 that is in your blood, the faster your cells work. That’s why it is so important that your thyroid produces the correct number of hormones needed for your body to function properly.

Thyroid disorders

Producing too much or too little T3 is what causes common thyroid disorders. More than 12 percent of the U.S. population develop thyroid disorders within their lifetime.

Hyperthyroidism is when your thyroid gland is overactive and produces too many thyroid hormones. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is Grave’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder. Other causes include an inflamed thyroid (known as thyroiditis), growths on the thyroid (known as nodules), and consuming too much iodine. Although the symptoms of hyperthyroidism vary, they often include nervousness, weakness, fatigue, difficulty with heat, trouble sleeping, weight loss, and rapid heartbeats.

The opposite is true of hypothyroidism, which is when your thyroid is underactive and does not produce enough hormones. The most common of this condition is an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease. Symptoms for hypothyroidism also include fatigue, but otherwise may include weight gain, puffy face, difficulty tolerating cold, slowed heart rate, depression, or dry skin and hair.

Women over the age of 60, or those with a family history of thyroid problems, are at higher risk for these conditions.

If you are experiencing symptoms of a thyroid illness, your physician will schedule imaging and blood tests. These tests may measure the amount of TSH activity, T3 and T4 levels, TSI (thyroid-stimulating immunoglobin) or antibodies. Your doctor may also order a CT scan or nuclear thyroid scan to create a detailed picture of your thyroid.

Thyroid conditions are common, and treatable when identified early. So, if you feel like you may be suffering from an over- or underactive thyroid, make sure to schedule a visit with your health care provider.

There's one more thyroid condition to be aware of: thyroid cancer. Symptoms include a lump or swelling on the side of the neck, trouble breathing or swallowing, or hoarseness. If you notice any of these symptoms, it's important to talk to your doctor.

Given the critical function this organ plays, it’s important to have anything evaluated and, if needed, treated as soon as possible.

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