(BPT) - When discussing health and wellness, the thyroid gland isn't likely a hot topic between friends and family. This tiny gland is frequently overlooked, yet deserves attention because it plays such a large role in the health of the body, impacting how you look and feel every day.
Small yet mighty, the thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the base of the neck. It produces critical hormones that serve as chemical messengers that help regulate the brain, heart, kidneys, liver, skin, metabolism, growth and even some functions of the nervous system.
"Ensuring the thyroid gland is healthy and functioning properly is vitally important to the body's overall well-being," said Dr. Felice Caldarella, president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology. "However, thyroid disease affects as many as 30 million Americans, and more than half remain undiagnosed because symptoms are often similar to the signs of other medical conditions."
When your thyroid doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone, your system slows down. When it produces too much hormone, your system goes into overdrive. Several disorders can arise if the thyroid produces too much hormone (hyperthyroidism) or not enough (hypothyroidism). There are also thyroid diseases with long-term impact, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Graves' disease and thyroid eye disease.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: Also called Hashimoto's disease, is the most common thyroid disease in the United States. This inherited condition affects over 10 million Americans and is about seven times more common in women. Hashimoto’s disease involves the production of immune cells and autoantibodies by the body’s immune system that can damage thyroid cells and compromise their ability to make thyroid hormone. Hashimoto’s disease may result in hypothyroidism in some patients, but not all, who have autoantibodies.
Graves’ disease: Graves’ disease is caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the thyroid, which causes it to become overactive. It's unknown why this happens. Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism in the United States and is seven times more likely to affect women.
Thyroid eye disease: Thyroid eye disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes your immune system to mistakenly attack the tissues behind your eyes. Up to half of the people who have Graves’ disease may develop thyroid eye disease over time.
If the thyroid does not function correctly, it can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Some common signs of thyroid disease include:
* Unexplained changes in weight
* Depression, anxiety or feelings of irritability
* Changes in memory or ability to concentrate
* Joint or muscle pain or weakness
* Fatigue or trouble sleeping
* Fast or irregular heartbeat
* Irregular menstrual periods
* Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
* Feeling unusually hot or cold
How to check your thyroid at home
A simple, quick at-home thyroid neck check can help you detect lumps or enlargements that may be a thyroid condition. All you need is a handheld mirror and glass of water.
Start by holding the mirror in your hand, focusing on the lower front area of your neck, just above the collarbones. Your thyroid gland is located in this area of your neck.
Then, while focusing on this area in the mirror, tip your head back. Take a drink of water and swallow. As you swallow, look at your neck to check for any protrusions in this area when you swallow. Reminder, don’t confuse the Adam’s apple with the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is located further down on your neck, closer to the collarbone.
If you see any lumps, swelling or protrusions in this area, or have ongoing symptoms of concern, see your health care professional or an endocrinologist. An endocrinologist is a doctor that specializes in hormone-related diseases and conditions, including all those related to the thyroid gland. Remember, although thyroid disease is often a life-long condition, it can be managed.