You may have heard the importance your thyroid has in maintaining a healthy body. In fact, the thyroid took center stage last year when Oprah Winfrey revealed that her sudden, dramatic weight gain was due to her struggles with thyroid disease. But what exactly is your thyroid and what does it do? Why is it so vital to your overall health?
Rapid weight loss or rapid weight gain.
Slow heart rate or rapid heart rate.
Sensitivity to heat or sensitivity to cold.
Have you experienced any of these symptoms recently? Each grouping contains clear-cut polar opposites, and more importantly, none of them are signs of a healthy body. But they may be an indication of a serious condition – thyroid disease.
Thyroid Disease – the Statistics
Thyroid disease is a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Many people who have thyroid disease are unaware that they have it—in the United States, only half of the 27 million people affected have been diagnosed and treated—and if they don’t catch the early warning signs, the overall impact on their health can be deadly.
Thyroid disease affects the body in two distinct ways. The first, hyperthyroidism, occurs when the hormone-producing thyroid gland (located at the base of the neck above the collarbone) is overactive, resulting in rapid weight loss, accelerated heart rate and sensitivity to heat. Hyperthyroidism can be caused by the autoimmune disorder Graves’ Disease, toxic goiters or nodules, postpardum thyroiditis, excessive iodine intake, and overmedication with thyroid hormones.
In severe cases, the thyroid is treated with anti-thyroid drugs, radiation or is removed through surgery. In traditional Chinese medicine, hyperthyroidism is treated with seaweed, oyster shells, clam shells and pumice that are thought to remove masses, and ‘blood-revitalizing’ herbs, including white peony, prunella and gardenia.
In the opposite and more common version of thyroid disease, hypothyroidism, the thyroid doesn’t make enough hormones and weight is gained, the heart rate is slower and the body is more sensitive to the cold. Like hyperthyroidism, it can be brought on by autoimmune disease and iodine treatments, but can also occur after the use of drugs such as lithium and is also likely to develop spontaneously.
Underactive thyroids are easily treated with a daily dose of the medicine levothyroxine. According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, untreated thyroid disease can lead to heart disease, infertility muscle weakness and osteoporosis, among other ailments.
Who is at Risk?
Who is most at risk for thyroid disease? Women, for starters, who account for 80 percent of all cases and are five to eight times more likely to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism than men. In the United States, one out of 50 women receives that diagnosis while they are pregnant, and 17 percent of all women will develop an underactive thyroid by the time they are 60 years old (compared to nine percent of men). Women of a certain age are often misdiagnosed because the early symptoms—sweating, menstrual irregularities, mood swings, fatigue—are attributed to menopause.
If you are concerned that you might have thyroid disease, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to an endocrinologist, a specialist with advanced knowledge of diseases that affect the thyroid and other glands in the body.