Thyroid disease affects millions of people. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 12% of women will develop a thyroid disorder at some point in their life. There are a variety of reasons that people develop thyroid disorders and that they are more common in women than men.
For example, we’re starting to learn more about the link between birth control and thyroid disease.
The following are key things to know about thyroid disorders and disease and how they could affect your life.
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What is Thyroid Disease?
Thyroid disease is a broad term for a condition that affects your thyroid’s ability to make hormones at the right levels.
Your thyroid is a small organ that’s in the front of your neck. It’s butterfly-shaped, and it’s a gland. Your thyroid makes hormones that control many of your body’s vital functions.
When your body makes too much thyroid hormone, it’s called hyperthyroidism. When your body makes too little, it’s hypothyroidism.
The thyroid hormones released control metabolism. Metabolism is what your body uses to make food into energy.
The energy is then used all over your body to keep all of your systems working properly.
Specifically, your metabolism is controlled by T4 and T3, which are hormones. These are created by the thyroid, and they tell the cells of your body how much energy to use. The pituitary gland supervises all of this. It’s located below your brain, in the center of your skull.
Thyroid disease is a general term for a condition that affects the gland’s ability to make the right amount of hormones.
If you make too much thyroid hormone, you use energy too quickly. That can make you tired, cause a rapid heartbeat, and it can cause you to lose weight even when you aren’t trying to. It can also cause you to feel nervous.
If you make too little thyroid hormone, you might gain weight, not be able to tolerate cold temperatures, and can feel tired.
Thyroid disease can be inherited or passed down through families, or it can be caused by different conditions.
What Causes Thyroid Disease?
Some of the potential causes of thyroid disease can include:
- Thyroiditis: This condition causes swelling and inflammation of the thyroid gland, which can, in turn, lower the amount of hormones produced by your thyroid.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: This disease is an autoimmune condition where your body’s cells attack and cause damage to your thyroid. It’s a genetic condition.
- Iodine deficiency: Your thyroid uses iodine to make hormones, so if you’re deficient, it can cause imbalances.
- Postpartum thyroiditis: This occurs in up to 9% of women after childbirth but is usually temporary.
- Non-functional thyroid: Some people are born with a thyroid gland that doesn’t work properly.
- Graves disease: This condition causes the thyroid to be overactive, meaning it produces too much hormone.
- Nodules: There may be nodules that are overactive within the thyroid.
The above are some of the more common conditions that can cause a thyroid problem, but there are many others as well.
For example, if you have an existing thyroid problem and you take birth control, your levels should be regularly monitored.
When you take certain types of birth control, they can affect the balance of free and bound thyroid hormone in the body.
For example, estrogen in birth control pills can increase the amount of thyroid-binding proteins that can bind to thyroid hormones. That means you’ll have less free T4 in your body.
Sometimes if you take medicine for hypothyroidism and you also take birth control, you might need a higher dose of your thyroid medicine to maintain normal levels. If you stop taking birth control, you may need a lower dose.
What Are the Symptoms of Thyroid Disease?
If you have too much thyroid hormone, symptoms can include:
- You experience nervousness, anxiety, and irritability
- You have problems sleeping
- Weight loss
- Having a goiter or enlarged thyroid gland
- Muscle weakness
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Sensitivity to heat
- Vision problems
- Eye irritation
If you have an underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism, symptoms can include
- Weight gain
- Frequent, heavy menstrual periods
- Dry, coarse hair
- Hoarse voice
- Cold intolerance
- Hair loss
Diagnosing Thyroid Disease
If you think you have thyroid disease, whether that’s hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, it’s tough to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to so many other conditions.
There are tests that can help make a determination, luckily.
Blood tests are one of the most definitive ways to diagnose thyroid problems and disease.
Blood tests will look at the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) produced in the pituitary gland. A hormone deficiency will usually be associated with elevated TSH, and an excess of thyroid hormone is usually associated with a low TSH.
The normal range of TSH for an adult is between 0.40 and 4.50 mIU/mL.
Thyroxine or T4 tests for hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. It’s used to monitor how treatment for thyroid disease is going. Low T4 is associated with hypothyroidism, and high T4 is associated with hyperthyroidism. The normal T4 range for an adult is between 5.0 and 11.0 ug/dL.
Other tests that could be done include tests for thyroid antibodies. These tests help identify types of autoimmune thyroid disorders. Common thyroid antibody tests include microsomal antibodies, thyroglobulin antibodies, and thyroid receptor antibodies.
An ultrasound could be done to look at the size and shape of the thyroid.
Treating Thyroid Disease
The goal of a health care provider is to get your thyroid levels back to normal. If you have hyperthyroidism, treatment can include antithyroid drugs, radioactive iodine, beta-blockers, or surgery.
If you have low thyroid hormone levels, the primary treatment is thyroid replacement medication. These drugs are a synthetic way to add hormones back into your body. Levothyroxine is one type of thyroid replacement medicine frequently used.
Treatment is important to manage symptoms, improve your quality of life and avoid potential complications that can occur with unchecked thyroid disease, including hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
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