January is Thyroid Awareness Month, but how aware are you truly of your thyroid? If you’re anything like I was pre-Graves Disease, you probably don’t give it any thought. But this butterfly shaped gland is kind of a big deal. And whether or not you have a disease that affects your thyroid, it’s worth your while to know why this amazing organ is so important and what to look out for when things go wrong. Knowledge is power – so let’s learn more about our thyroids so that we can better protect our health!
What Does the Thyroid Do
This aorable, tiny endocrine gland sits at the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple. But don’t let its measly 20 grams fool you into thinking it’s unimportant; the hormones that your thyroid secretes are essential for all growth and metabolic processes. Seriously! This organ helps to regulate all body functions. All of them! It’s kind of a big deal.
Feel your gorgeous heart beating in your chest? Your thyroid is secreting hormones right now that tell it how fast or slow to beat. Love having regular bowel movements? (Yea, I went there). You guessed it – that tiny gland plays a role in how often they empty. It has a hand in everything from your metabolism, appetite, body temperature, muscle strength, brain, heart, reproductive and digestive functions… your thyroid secretes hormones that tell all of the cells in your body how fast or slow to function.
But it doesn’t do all of this alone! The Pituitary Gland, which hangs out at the bottom of your big, beautiful brain, sits in the drivers seat. Among it’s other functions, the pituitary gland secretes Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), which tells the thyroid how much or how little hormone to produce.
As you can see, this organ is kind of a big deal. Unfortunately,when your thyroid doesn’t function, neither do you… and dysfunction is more common than you may think.
Why You Should Care About Thyroid Diseases
Thyroid Disease affects more than 1 million Canadians, and approximately 200 million people worldwide. Women are 4 to 7 times more likely to develop a dysfunction. So, chances are, you or someone you know are affected.
Unfortunately, many people are not even aware that they have a dysfunction (source). Because these diseases typically develop gradually, it can be incredibly difficult to diagnose. The symptoms are far reaching and often associated with other illnesses as well… For this reason, if your family has a history of thyroid related diseases, it is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT that you share this information with your doctor. If you do develop an illness, that knowledge can lead to a speedier diagnosis and recovery.
Knowing how many are affected and how difficult it can be to receive a diagnosis, we can all benefit from a little more Thyroid Awareness.
How Diseases Affect the Thyroid
There are many types of thyroid related illnesses, including autoimmune diseases (like Graves Disease and Hashimotos), postpartum thyroiditis, nodules and cancers. While each disease has it’s own unique set of risks, complications and treatments, typically the main effect on the thyroid gland is hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Here’s a peek on how that can effect our health:
This is a conditioned that occurs when the thyroid gland becomes overactive and creates too much thyroid hormone. Think of it as your body driving in the fast lane, unable to decelerate. There are different possible causes, including Graves Disease, Thyroiditis, Thyroid Nodules and Postpartum Thyroiditis.
Symptoms may vary, as the entire body can be affected. But they include:
- Hot Flashes and Sweating
- Heat Sensitivity
- Weight loss and/or Difficulty Gaining Weight
- Muscle Weakness and Tremors
- Anxiety, Nervousness and Irritability
- Rapid Heartbeat (Tachycardia) – Often over 100 BPM
- Heart Palpitations and/or Irregular Heartbeat
- Dry Skin
- Brittle Hair and Nails
- Increase in Bowel Movements
- Light or Skipped Periods
- Fertility Issues
- Increased Appetite
- Shortness of Breath
- Difficulty Swallowing
If you don’t seek medical care, hyperthyroidism has some potential (sometimes life threatening) complications. These risk factors include goiter, heart problems, brittle bones, vision issues, mental health problems, skin issues and a potentially life-threatening Thyroid Storm. While I urge anyone with hyperthyroidism to take the best possible care of themselves through a lifestyle built on a foundation of self-love and good nutrition, it is so incredibly important that you continue to seek the care of a medical health professional.
A condition that occurs when the thyroid gland becomes under-active and creates too little hormone. It’s as if your body’s stuck in a never ending traffic jam, unable to accelerate. Causes can include congenital hypothyroidism, a diet low in iodine, Hashimotos and Postpartum Thyroiditis. Some treatments of hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer, including Radioactive Iodine and Thyroidectomy, can also lead to hypothyroidism.
Symptoms may vary and affect multiple organ systems. But they include:
- Slowed Heart Rate
- Dry, Pale Skin
- Muscle Weakness
- Aching, Stiff Muscles and Muscle Cramps
- Weight Gain and/or Difficulty Losing Weight
- Coarse, Dry, Thinning hair
- Hair loss
- Cold Intolerance
- Decreased Bowel Movements
- Memory loss and Difficulty Concentrating
- Abnormal, Heavier Menstrual Cycle
- Decreased libido
- Elevated Cholesterol
- Painful, Swollen Joints
If you don’t seek medical treatment for your hypothyroidism, there are potential (even life threatening) complications. This includes a goiter, heart problems, mental health issues, infertility and birth defects, peripheral neuropathy (damage to the peripheral nerves) and a life threatening condition called Myxedema. If you have hypothyroidism of any kind, I encourage you to take the best possible care of yourself by eating well, managing stress and making time for self-love and self-care… but it is also incredibly important that you continue to seek the care of a medical professional.
More Research Is Needed
The symptoms are generally treatable, but more research is needed. Many patients, like myself, live with incurable illnesses and may potentially develop other health issues. Autoimmune diseases like Hashimotos and Graves Disease, for example, create an increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases.
Since these diseases are often difficult to diagnose, further research is also an important tool in developing better means of diagnosis. Earlier diagnosis reduces the sometimes disturbing effects of the course of thyroid diseases and allows those suffering from the illness to recover faster.
You Can Help
Thankfully, we are not powerless! We can all help to increase funding for research, support for those struggling with these diseases and public awareness campaigns.
You can donate to associations like:
The Thyroid Foundation of Canada: Find them here
The American Thyroid Association: Find them here
These amazing associations serve as an educational resource whilst supporting research and the prevention, treatment and eventual cure of thyroid diseases and cancers.
And, this month, you can treat yourself to a ChronicAlly Box whilst supporting the American Thyroid Association! Booyah. They will be donating a portion of the proceeds from January’s sales to help further fund research and patient support. Totally a win win!
What are your experiences with Thyroid Diseases? Are you or a loved one affected? Tell me your story in the comments below.
Health and love and happy thyroids,
Thought of the day: Small things can often have an incredible impact.
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