January is Thyroid Awareness Month

Physicians Health Network Health & Awareness Articles


January is Thyroid Awareness Month. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland
found in the front of the neck. When functioning properly the thyroid often gets little
attention. However, a malfunction can have a profound impact on health and wellness. The
thyroid gland regulates the human body and its metabolic processes much like a thermostat
regulates a furnace or a gas pedal regulates an automobile engine. In other words, the thyroid
gland, by producing thyroid hormones, affects how our cells use energy. Like the gas pedal,
thyroid hormones increase the body’s metabolic rate. In fact, most of your cells have receptors
for the thyroid hormones which means that the thyroid has an enormous effect on our body.
The thyroid regulates body temperature, it influences brain health, heart function, muscle
strength, bone density, and much, much more.

The thyroid hormones have powerful effects and so the thyroid must be carefully
controlled by the body. Too little thyroid hormone and key processes around the body slow to a
crawl. Too much thyroid hormone and the same processes rev dangerously high. Dr. Liz Zurich,
D.O. from Sheboygan Internal Medicine Associates explains, “While the thyroid gland controls
many processes in the body, it is itself controlled by other glands.” That control comes down
from the pituitary gland in the brain in the form of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) As the
name implies, TSH signals the thyroid gland to release two hormones. One is triiodothyronine,
also known as T3, and the other is thyroxine, also known as T4. Just as the thermostat in a
house signals the furnace to shut off when the house is getting too warm, the release of T3 and
T4 into the bloodstream signals the pituitary gland to stop producing TSH. This type of control
forms an elegant loop known as a feedback loop.

Imagine a malfunctioning thermostat leading to either an overworked furnace or a furnace that
will not kick on when needed. Dr. Zurich says, “The thyroid gland can malfunction in a similar
way, becoming either underactive or overactive. We call these disease states hypothyroidism
and hyperthyroidism.” When normal thyroid function is disrupted many essential metabolic
processes can also become either underactive or overactive and lead to profound negative
health effects.

Dr. Zurich says, “There are several causes of hyperthyroidism, such as inflammation, viral
infection, or cancer, but most cases are caused by Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is an
autoimmune disorder in which immune antibodies overstimulate the cells of the thyroid.” This
results in an enlarged and hyperactive thyroid that is producing too much T3 and T4. This
condition is most common between the ages of 30 and 50 and afflicts women more than men.
Because the thyroid influences so much that goes on in the body it is no surprise that almost
every organ can be affected by hyperthyroidism. It is also no surprise that the list of
hyperthyroid symptoms are diverse:

● Increased appetite
● Weight loss
● Nervousness or anxiety
● Irritability
● Increased perspiration
● Racing or irregular heartbeat
● Hand tremors
● Difficulty sleeping
● Muscle weakness
● Osteoporosis
● Diarrhea
● Goiter
● Bulging eyes or vision issues

The numerous and diverse symptoms associated with thyroid dysfunction means that,
sometimes, other health issues can resemble thyroid dysfunction. The thyroid may unfairly take
the blame. Your physician is best equipped to help you determine if you have a health issue
related to the thyroid gland. Dr. Zurich says, “When we want to test for thyroid dysfunction we
can check the levels of TSH, T3, and T4. These levels can tell us if the thyroid is overactive or
underactive. We may also test for the relevant antibodies in cases where Graves’ disease is

The best course of treatment for hyperthyroidism is determined by the patient and his/her
physician. In some cases, it is necessary for the patient to have their thyroid gland ablated, or removed. Thyroid hormone replacements are then taken to maintain normal levels. “Treatment for Grave’s disease, or other cases of hyperthyroidism, include anti-thyroid medications, surgery, or radioactive iodine,” said Dr. Zurich.

Observe thyroid awareness month with an appreciation of the important role the thyroid gland
plays in our health and wellness.

Smith, T. J., & Hegedüs, L. (2016). Graves’ Disease. New England Journal of Medicine, 375(16),
1552–1565. doi:10.1056/nejmra1510030