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What is the thyroid, and why should I pay attention to my thyroid health?

The thyroid is a gland located in the front of the neck. In all men, women, and children, it should release a careful balance of hormones that help to control metabolism and growth and can substantially impact overall health. If the thyroid is over-active or under-active, a wide range of symptoms can occur, including changes in energy levels, body weight, body temperature, and even things like skin and hair.

According to the American Thyroid Association, over 12% of the American population will develop a thyroid condition in their lifetime, but many may be unaware of their condition. Some people are born with a poorly developed or poorly functioning thyroid. Others develop thyroid disorders later in life due to autoimmune dysfunction, cancer, or damage to the thyroid from medications, radiation, or surgery. Thyroid conditions can also develop with no clear cause. These conditions can impact anyone, but they are most common in women. So what should you look out for?

Some signs and symptoms of hyperthyroid (too much thyroid gland activity) include:

  • Agitation, anxiety, or irritability
  • Feeling restless, fidgety, or hyperactive
  • Fast heartbeat, pounding heart, or palpitations
  • Sweating and sensitivity to heat
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • More frequent bowel movements
  • Irregular periods in women

Some signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism (not enough thyroid gland activity) include:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Slow heart rate
  • Feeling cold
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Irregular periods in women

Some signs of thyroid cancer can include:

  • Lumps or bumps on the front of the neck
  • Changes in the voice or hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Persistent cough without another cause

Anyone with concerning signs and symptoms should discuss them with their primary healthcare provider and consider blood tests of thyroid function.

Routine screening: if I don’t have any worrying signs or symptoms, should I still get a thyroid test?

In general, routinely testing the thyroid function of all adults is not standard. That’s because there’s no evidence that testing everyone has any benefit. However, for those with symptoms or with certain risk factors, testing may be beneficial and is encouraged. Risk factors can include having any of the following: an autoimmune disorder, a history of goiter, a family history of thyroid disease, previous radiation treatment, or taking medications that could affect the thyroid.

Is there anything I can do to protect or support my thyroid?

Many things that are good for your overall health are also good for your thyroid. For example, eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet that’s high in whole foods and low in processed foods is one helpful step. One particularly important nutrient for thyroid health is iodine, which is naturally found in most kinds of seafood and animal proteins. In the US, most of us get enough iodine from our diet, but you can also support your iodine intake by using iodized salt, which can be especially important for vegetarians and vegans.

Reviewed the Ovia Clinical Team

Source: General Information, Thyroid, American Thyroid Association. American Thyroid Association. Jan 2024.

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