Thyroid Health Awareness Month - Understanding, Detecting, and Nurturing Thyroid Wellness

Thyroid Health Awareness Month - Understanding, Detecting, and Nurturing Thyroid Wellness

Thyroid Health Awareness Month - Understanding, Detecting, and Nurturing Thyroid Wellness 

January is Thyroid Health Awareness Month. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck that has a huge impact on our overall health. As the master gland of metabolism, the thyroid controls how quickly the body uses energy, makes proteins, and controls sensitivity to other hormones. 

An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, yet more than half remain undiagnosed[1]. Thyroid Health Awareness Month aims to shine a spotlight on this small but mighty gland and help more people understand thyroid health. 

What is the Thyroid? 

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck below the Adam's apple[2]. Although relatively small, the thyroid gland plays a huge role in overall health and well-being. Despite its small size, issues with the thyroid can have wide-ranging effects due to the hormones it produces. 

The thyroid produces two main hormones that circulate throughout the body[2][3]

  • Triiodothyronine (T3): Works to regulate metabolism 
  • Thyroxine (T4): critical for growth and development of key organs 

These thyroid hormones act throughout the body, influencing heart, muscle, and other tissue functions. They also work in conjunction with specialized proteins and hormones to regulate our mood, fertility, digestion, mental focus, and energy levels[2][3]. When the balance of these hormones falls out of the normal setpoint range, it causes big problems in the body. Low levels of thyroid hormones lead to a condition called hypothyroidism, while elevated levels result in hyperthyroidism. 

Thyroid Function and Health 

A healthy thyroid optimizes the body's systems to work smoothly at just the right pace. Ensuring properly functioning thyroid activity is key for overall wellness[2]

The thyroid works like the gas pedal in a car. It helps determine how quickly our cells utilize energy at rest and during activity. Too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) accelerates

cellular activity causing symptoms like rapid heartbeat, anxiety, and unintentional weight loss. On the flip side, too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) slows things down and can lead to weight gain, fatigue, and feeling cold all the time. 

In order to produce proper amounts of hormones, the thyroid requires adequate levels of iodine and proper stimulation from the pituitary gland and hypothalamus[2][3][4]. Like any gland or organ, the thyroid is also vulnerable to disease, damage, and disorders that can interrupt the production of hormones and cause dysfunction. 

Some signs and symptoms of potential thyroid issues include[3][4][5]

  • Sudden weight changes or difficulty losing weight 
  • Changes in heart rate & blood pressure 
  • Fatigue, low energy, or feeling cold 
  • Changes in bowel patterns 
  • Skin changes or dry skin/hair 
  • Swelling or enlargement in the neck 
  • Changes in mood or cognitive function 

Because thyroid hormones have far-reaching effects and symptoms can be vague, thyroid disorders often go undiagnosed. Thyroid Health Awareness Month aims to educate people about the importance of the thyroid for full-body health. 

Thyroid hormone affects virtually every organ system, including the heart, central nervous system, autonomic nervous system, bone, gastrointestinal system, , metabolism, digestive system female reproductive system, and mental health

Common Thyroid Disorders 

There are several common thyroid conditions that affect many people to varying degrees. The most prevalent thyroid disorders include[3][4][5]

Hypothyroidism 

This occurs when the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone. The rate of cellular activity slows down when there is not enough thyroid hormone available to stimulate activity. 

Hypothyroidism is more common in women over the age of 60 but can affect anyone at any age. Autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto's disease represent the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. With Hashimoto’s, the body mistakenly attacks thyroid tissue damaging the gland’s ability to produce sufficient hormones. 

Hypothyroidism can cause a wide array of symptoms: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Weakness 
  • Weight gain 
  • Feeling cold 
  • Muscle aches
  • Dry skin and hair 
  • Fertility problems 

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can contribute to serious health issues like heart disease, peripheral nerve damage, and birth defects during pregnancy[3][4][5][6]. Fortunately, diagnosis is usually straightforward with blood tests and treatment involves taking a prescription oral thyroid hormone medication. With proper treatment, symptoms are reversible.

Hyperthyroidism 

This condition results from excessive production of thyroid hormone leading to an accelerated rate of cellular activity. The thyroid is essentially stuck in overdrive. 

Like hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism is also more prevalent in women. Common causes include Graves Disease, thyroid nodules, and inflammation of the thyroid. Certain medications, supplements, and rare tumors may also contribute to high thyroid levels. 

Common symptoms include[3][4][6]

  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Rapid heart rate, heart palpitations 
  • Anxiety, irritability 
  • Tremor in hands 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Fatigue 

If left untreated, hyperthyroidism stresses the heart and other body systems increasing the risk for atrial fibrillation, osteoporosis, and heart failure. Seeking timely treatment is important. 

Radioactive iodine therapy, anti-thyroid medications, surgery, or complementary approaches may help regulate thyroid hormone output and manage symptoms. Addressing the underlying cause also helps restore balance and function. 

Goiter 

A goiter refers to an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland which can occur with both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism[6][9]. Certain nutrient deficiencies and imbalances prompt the thyroid to grow and expand as it tries to do its job with insufficient resources. As the thyroid swells with this tissue growth, it can form a visible lump at the front of the neck known as a goiter. 

In areas of the world with endemic iodine deficiency, lack of adequate dietary iodine remains the most common cause of thyroid enlargement and goiter[9]. Hashimoto’s disease now represents the leading cause of goiters in the United States[9].

Goiter may not cause symptoms beyond the visible lump just below the Adam’s apple. But patients sometimes report: 

  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing 
  • Coughing or wheezing 
  • Hoarseness 

If a goiter grows large enough it can obstruct airflow or swallowing necessitating treatment. Blood tests help determine thyroid levels and ultrasound exams help characterize the size, shape, and position of the thyroid gland. 

Goiter treatment depends on the underlying cause and may include thyroid hormone replacements, supplements, surgery, or radioactive iodine therapy if very large. Catching goiter early provides more treatment options. 

Thyroid Nodules 

Your thyroid gland is comprised of two lobes connected with a narrow band of thyroid tissue called the isthmus. Thyroid nodules involve abnormal growths or lumps within the thyroid gland. About 1 in 20 people have palpable (able to be felt) thyroid nodules[10]

The cause is not always clear but hormonal factors, autoimmunity (Hashimoto’s disease), inflammation, and dietary deficiencies like iodine can influence development. Up to 90% of all thyroid nodules are benign growths that don’t progress or cause problems[10]. They often come and go. About 5% prove cancerous. 

Sometimes thyroid nodules produce too much thyroid hormone leading to hyperthyroidism. Large nodules may obstruct breathing and swallowing or cause pain depending on location and size. 

If a thyroid lump grows or persists, further evaluation is warranted to rule out cancer risk and impacts on thyroid function. Ultrasound and biopsy help characterize thyroid nodules[10]. Treatment depends on findings but may involve just monitoring with follow-up exams, thyroid suppression therapy, radioactive iodine, or surgery. Diagnosing and addressing nodules early provides the most options. 

What Impacts Thyroid Health? 

Like all aspects of health, thyroid function hinges on a variety of modifiable and non-modifiable factors. Understanding the influences on thyroid health empowers you to make choices that foster better function. 

Here are some of the main things that can impact thyroid health[5][6][7][8]: Nutrition & Supplements

  • Iodine: As essential building blocks for thyroid hormone synthesis, ensuring sufficient iodine intake proves critical. While easily preventable, iodine deficiency persists globally and commonly leads to hypothyroidism and goiter. 
  • Selenium: This important mineral gets incorporated into thyroid hormone pathways to optimize activation and metabolism. Selenium deficiency relates to impaired thyroid hormone production. 
  • Zinc, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and vitamin D: Deficiencies in these nutrients disrupt thyroid hormone pathways causing dysfunction. Repletion through food sources and targeted supplementation counters negative effects. 
  • Fiber-rich foods: A high-fiber diet benefits thyroid health by binding toxins, regulating blood sugar, promoting elimination, and supplying vital nutrients. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found abundantly in fatty fish like salmon plus chia and flax seeds, omega-3 fats hold anti-inflammatory properties that protect the thyroid gland. ● Probiotics & bone broth: Repopulating your digestive tract with beneficial bacteria provides immune support to help protect thyroid tissue from inflammation. Also healing for gut lining disorders that affect nutrient absorption is required for optimal thyroid function. 

Lifestyle Factors 

  • Sleep: Getting enough high-quality sleep proves essential for healthy thyroid function. Poor sleep diminishes T3 hormone levels plus impairs tissue sensitivity to thyroid hormone effects. 
  • Stress management: Chronic stress takes a toll on thyroid health by depleting nutrients, provoking inflammation, and taxing endocrine pathways. Relaxation practices like meditation, yoga, deep breathing and spending time in nature counterbalance stress to benefit thyroid function. 
  • Movement: Regular exercise works wonders for supporting thyroid health by lowering inflammation, balancing hormones, aiding weight management, and relieving stress. However, over-exercising stresses the body ratcheting up inflammation and cortisol levels with negative impacts. 
  • Environmental toxin exposure: Pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, molds, cigarette smoke, and other environmental pollutants contain thyroid-disrupting compounds. Limiting exposures protects the thyroid gland. 

Disease Risks 

  • Autoimmunity: Autoimmune disorders often target the thyroid. With conditions like Hashimoto’s disease and Graves’ disease the body attacks thyroid tissue leading to hypo- and hyperthyroidism respectively. Family history, nutrient deficiencies, gut infections, and stress raise autoimmune risk. 
  • Diabetes and insulin resistance: There’s a clear overlap in the underlying mechanisms of dysfunctional blood sugar regulation and impaired thyroid activity. Poor insulin

sensitivity disrupts thyroid hormone signaling cascades. High blood sugar also provokes inflammatory pathways that damage thyroid tissue. 

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD): Since thyroid hormones closely interact with various cardiovascular parameters, thyroid disorders significantly raise CVD risk. Addressing thyroid dysfunction represents a key element in comprehensive heart disease prevention. 

Optimizing Thyroid Health 

While some factors that influence thyroid health lie outside of our control, many prove wholly modifiable. Thyroid Health Awareness Month serves as a prime opportunity to be more proactive about protecting and supporting optimal thyroid function. Here’s how[11][12]

  • Get thyroid lab testing done if experiencing any potential symptoms 
  • Discuss family history of thyroid disease with your physician 
  • Prioritize sleep, stress relief, and regular movement into your routine ● Assess dietary adequacy of nutrients like iodine, selenium, and vitamin D ● Consider taking a high-quality multivitamin and omega-3 supplement ● Limit exposure to common thyroid disruptors in food, products, and environments ● Stay vigilant about blood sugar regulation and preventing insulin resistance ● Practice self-neck checks to feel for lumps indicating goiter or nodules 

Creating healthy lifestyle habits and raising self-awareness sets the stage for identifying thyroid issues early when they are most treatable. Here’s to a happy and healthy thyroid all year long! 

References: 

[1] “Patient Journey Thyroid - Diagnosis.” American Association of Clinical Endocrinology, 2024, www.aace.com/patient-journey/thyroid/diagnosis

[2] “How Does the Thyroid Gland Work?” Nih.gov, Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG), 19 Apr. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279388/

[3] “Thyroid Disease | Office on Women’s Health.” Womenshealth.gov, 2020, www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/thyroid-disease

[4] “Thyroid Diseases.” Medlineplus.gov, National Library of Medicine, 2023, medlineplus.gov/thyroiddiseases.html. 

[5] Babić Leko, Mirjana et al. “Environmental Factors Affecting Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone and Thyroid Hormone Levels.” International journal of molecular sciences vol. 22,12 6521. 17 Jun. 2021, doi:10.3390/ijms22126521 

[6] “Thyroid Problems.” Healthdirect.gov.au, Healthdirect Australia, 29 June 2023, www.healthdirect.gov.au/thyroid-problems.

[7] Dunn, John T. "Guarding our nation’s thyroid health." The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 87.2 (2002): 486-488. 

[8] Drees, Betty M., Brandon Barthel, and Rajib K. Bhattacharya. "Thyroid Disease: Perspectives and Health Impacts." Missouri Medicine 119.4 (2022): 341. 

[9] “Goiter | American Thyroid Association.” American Thyroid Association, 2016, www.thyroid.org/goiter/

[10] Pacini, Furio, and Leslie J. De. “Thyroid Nodules.” Nih.gov, MDText.com, Inc., July 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK285543/

[11] “Healthy Eating for a Healthy Thyroid.” Harvard Health, 7 Dec. 2017, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/healthy-eating-for-a-healthy-thyroid

[12] Test, Serum TSH. "For Primary Care| Top tips Top Tips: Hypothyroidism."

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