January is Thyroid Awareness Month

By Jennifer Carland, RD, CDN

Thyroid disorders effect nearly 200 million people worldwide. The thyroid is a small endocrine gland that is located at the base of the neck. Many people do not realize how important the thyroid gland is to normal body function, but it makes vital hormones that are secreted into the blood and then carried to the tissues in the body. Without appropriate thyroid hormone levels, one would have difficulty digesting and metabolizing food, keeping warm, and regulating normal brain, heart, and muscle function. Although there are several different thyroid disorders, it is common for the thyroid to be either overactive or underactive.

Hyperthyroidism – Overactive Thyroid

Cause: The thyroid grows which leads to overproduction of the thyroid hormones. This generally runs in families.

Symptoms: Functions of the body tend to speed up.

  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Increased perspiration
  • Heart racing
  • Hand tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Thinning of the skin
  • Fine, brittle hair
  • Weakness in the muscles
  • More frequent bowel movements
  • Weight loss despite a good appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Graves’ Disease is a common autoimmune condition of hyperthyroidism, which can be associated with inflammation and swelling of the eye area, as well as bulging of the eye.

Treatment: The doctor may prescribe anti-thyroid medications, beta-blockers, iodine radiation or perform surgery. Often, treatment of hyperthyroidism eventually leads to hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism – Underactive Thyroid

Cause: The thyroid gland can’t make enough thyroid hormone to keep the body running normally. Common causes are autoimmune disease, surgical removal of the thyroid, radiation treatment, and too little iodine in the diet. Iodine is an essential mineral needed for the production of thyroid hormones. Therefore, iodine deficiency may lead to enlargement of the thyroid (goiter) or hypothyroidism. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iodine in adult men and women is 150 micrograms per day. Common sources of dietary iodine include cheese, milk, eggs, yogurt, ice cream, iodized table salt, saltwater fish, shellfish, soy milk and soy sauce.

Symptoms: The body’s processes start slowing down.

  • Feeling cold
  • Dry skin
  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression
  • Constipation

Treatment: Although there is no cure, hypothyroidism can be controlled by replacing the hormones that the thyroid can no longer make on its own.

It is important to understand that disorders of the thyroid don’t have age limits. There is an increased prevalence of thyroid problems in older adults, especially hypothyroidism. Older individuals with thyroid disorders require special attention, careful treatment, and regular follow-up with their physician. Next time you see your doctor, have your thyroid checked!