The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the neck. Most people don’t even know it exists, let alone what it does. But in truth, this small gland is a hormone factory that powers your entire body. When the thyroid doesn’t work right, you feel the effects in every area and function of your body.
What the Thyroid Does
The thyroid’s primary function is to produce thyroid hormones that influence three major areas in the body: your metabolism, your cardiovascular system, and your body’s development. These in turn affect nearly every other function in the body.
Here’s a partial list of the different areas the thyroid’s function affects:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Cholesterol level
- Nervous system
- Respiratory system
As you can see, the thyroid influences your body from head to toe.
When the Thyroid Malfunctions
The pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland at the base of your neck, releases a hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). This hormone causes your thyroid to manufacture thyroid hormones using iodine. When the thyroid is not working at its optimal level, the pituitary gland releases more TSH. When the thyroid is working too hard, it releases less. For that reason, a blood test measuring the level of TSH in the blood is the most effective way to diagnose a thyroid problem.
When the thyroid is not producing enough hormones, it’s called hypothyroidism. Symptoms can be felt all over the body, including:
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Puffy face
- Muscle weakness
- Elevated blood cholesterol level
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints
- Heavier than normal or irregular menstrual periods
- Thinning hair
- Slowed heart rate
- Impaired memory
Hypothyroidism is extremely common, especially among women. When it’s uncontrolled for too long, it can cause severe and permanent damage to the body. Fortunately, it’s easy to treat with synthetic thyroid hormone (brand name Synthroid) taken in a daily pill.
When the thyroid gland produces too much hormone, it’s called hyperthyroidism. Symptoms are often the opposite of hypothyroidism, while some symptoms are the same. Symptoms include:
- Sudden weight loss
- Rapid heartbeat
- Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
- Increased appetite
- Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
- Tremor — usually a fine trembling in your hands and fingers
- Changes in menstrual patterns
- Increased sensitivity to heat
- Changes in bowel patterns, especially more frequent bowel movements
- Fatigue, muscle weakness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Skin thinning
- Fine, brittle hair
Treatment for hyperthyroidism usually includes anti-thyroid drugs or radioactive iodine to slow the thyroid’s production. Sometimes treatment will require surgical removal of the thyroid, in which case the person becomes hypothyroid and takes synthetic thyroid daily.
When either thyroid disorder develops in older adults, the symptoms can be very subtle. Some medications common among seniors, such as beta blockers, can also mask signs of thyroid disease.
Because the thyroid affects so much of the body, you should get your thyroid levels checked whenever you experience such symptoms.