Shaped like a butterfly, the thyroid gland is a small, delicate organ, located in the neck that secretes hormones involved with regulating body temperature, weight and energy level. In other words, the thyroid gland plays a key role in converting nutrients into energy.
“The thyroid gland sits just below the notch of the Adam’s apple,” explains Henry N. Ho, M.D., a board certified otolaryngologist specializing in head and neck cancer, president of The Ear, Nose, Throat and Plastic Surgery Associates and co-director of the Head and Neck Program at the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute.
“If you feel the prominent little point of your larynx (which is the Adam’s apple), go down about an inch, and then (out) to the sides on either side, that’s where the thyroid gland sits.”
How Does the Thyroid Gland Work?
The thyroid gland is an integral component of the endocrine system, an intricate network of glands that manufacture hormones that control:
- Tissue activity
- Growth and development
- Reproductive and sexual function
- Mood and emotion
The glands of the endocrine system create, collect and discharge hormones into the blood, in order to nourish the cells throughout the body. Using iodine from the food we consume, the thyroid produces two primary hormones known as triiodothyronine (often called T3) and thyroxine (often called T4).
These hormones manage critical bodily functions, including:
- Nervous system function
- Heart rate
- Body temperature
- Body mass
- Menstrual cycle
- Muscle strength
- Cholesterol level
It is vital that the amount of T3 and T4 in the body stay constant, never reaching excessive or insufficient levels. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, two preeminent glands in our brains, interact and work together in order to keep T3 and T4 levels in balance.
What Are Typical Thyroid Problems?
Roughly 20 million Americans live with some type of thyroid disease, and up to 60% of those with thyroid disease don’t even know they have the condition.
There are two primary types of thyroid disorders, both involving the abnormal production of thyroid hormones.
Hyperthyroidism occurs when an overactive thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone. As a result, all the bodily processes linked to the thyroid are sped up, which can cause:
- Mood swings
- Increased heart rate
- Trembling in the hands
- Excessive sweating
- Weight loss
By contrast, when the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone to meet the body’s needs, many of the body’s functions may slow or shut down altogether. Symptoms of hypothyroidism can include:
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
- Rough, dry hair
- Muscle cramping and aching
- Decreased libido
- Depression and irritability
- Loss of memory
- Irregular menstrual cycles
If you are experiencing any symptoms associated with hyper or hypo thyroidism, it’s important to consult your doctor. Often a simple blood test will be enough in order to obtain a diagnosis.
What Causes Most Thyroid Disorders?
Both the overproduction and underproduction of thyroid hormone are caused by unique factors.
Hyperthyroidism can manifest as a result of:
- Graves’ disease: a condition in which excessive thyroid hormone is produced.
- Toxic adenomas: when nodes appear in the thyroid gland and start to emit additional thyroid hormone, throwing the delicate chemical balance of the body out of whack.
- Subacute thyroiditis: swelling of the thyroid causes leaking of surplus hormones (this type of hyperthyroidism can last up to several weeks, but can also persist for months).
Hypothyroidism can be caused by the following:
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis : the most common cause of hypothyroidism. This autoimmune disorder destroys the thyroid tissues, resulting in the decay of the thyroid and putting an end to hormone production.
- Removal of the thyroid gland by surgery.
- Excessive iodide exposure: certain cold and sinus medications, amiodarone (a heart medication), or some contrast dyes given prior to X-rays, can expose patients to too much iodine.
- Lithium : given mainly to treat depression and bipolar disorder, it slows the production of thyroid hormones, and can eventually lead to hypothyroidism.
How Do I Know if I Have a Thyroid Issue?
According to Dr. Ho, the thyroid gland is normally difficult to feel because it’s soft and blends in with the surrounding tissue. Therefore, if one is able to feel a bulge or lump in the neck, it should be checked by an ear, nose and throat specialist.
“If you feel a thyroid gland, nodule or bump, that’s not normal, and it should be evaluated,” says Dr. Ho.
“The thyroid gland is located in the front of the lower part of the neck and is attached to the windpipe or trachea. A nodule in this area, that moves up and down with swallowing, suggests a possible mass in the thyroid gland.”