Getting to Know Your Thyroid Gland

Getting to Know Your Thyroid Gland

When Brooke Burke-Charvet recently revealed her thyroid cancer diagnosis, the television personality and Dancing with the Stars co-host quickly became the very public face of a disease that affects 56,000 annually in the U.S. alone.

Add to that the estimated 30 million Americans who suffer from some other type of thyroid condition – including many who are not aware of their illness or who have been misdiagnosed – and it becomes evident that disease and disorders of the thyroid gland are among the most common health problems in this country, although many people don’t even know what the function of the thyroid is.

That’s why the American College of Endocrinology (ACE) is increasing its efforts to educate the public about the thyroid gland, beginning with Thyroid Awareness Month (January) and continuing throughout the year.

In order to appreciate the vital role the thyroid plays in the proper functioning of the body as well as the constellation of conditions that can impact its performance, it’s best to begin with the basics.

The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located centrally in the neck, in front of the trachea (windpipe) and below the larynx (voicebox). It is comprised of two halves, known as lobes, which are attached by a band of thyroid tissue called the isthmus. The thyroid produces two hormones – triiodothyronine [trahy-ahy-oh-dohthahy-ruh-neen] (T3) and thyroxine [thahy-rok-seen] (T4) – that travel through the blood to the body’s tissues, influencing the function of virtually every organ system.

Thyroid hormones tell organs how fast or slow they should work and regulate how the body breaks down food to use as energy immediately or store it for the future. Thesehormones also manage the body’s consumption of oxygen and production of body heat. During infancy and childhood, adequate thyroid hormone is crucial for brain development.

The American College of Endocrinology is pleased to announce the launch of its Same/Same/Same campaign.

The newest element in our efforts to enhance awareness about thyroid disorders and their treatment, the initiative stresses the importance of thyroid patients taking the same dosage of the same medication (whether brand name or generic) at the same time every day.

While it may sound like plain old common sense, the message is particularly important because precise dosing and consistently taking thyroid medications are critical for effective control of hormone levels. Even the slightest variance in the manufacturer of the prescription, the time of day meds are taken and – of course – the medication dosage can interfere not only with the effectiveness of the medication, but also result in a host of side effects that can range from mildly uncomfortable to severe, with direct effects on your heart, brain and on how many other organs perform.

It’s not uncommon for an insurance company or a pharmacy to make the decision to substitute one medication with another (in the same dosage) without notifying the patient.

Thus, to ensure a consistent and more successful treatment, thyroid patients are encouraged to visit the MyPillCheck section of where they can compare the pills they received from the pharmacy with a user-friendly, searchable photo gallery of all available thyroid medication pills to ensure the correct pill and dosage prescribed by their doctor was received.

When on thyroid medication, it’s also important to keep your physician informed about all prescription and nonprescription medications you are taking, including dietary supplements, as certain medicines can affect the way that thyroid medicines work.

The level of hormones secreted by the thyroid is actually controlled by the pituitary gland. Located at the base of the brain, the pituitary – often called the “master gland” of the body since it regulates many activities of other endocrine system glands – produces thyroidstimulating hormone (TSH) that signals the thyroid to produce and release the appropriate type and amount of hormones to meet your body’s needs.

In turn, the pituitary is regulated in part by the thyroid (via a “feedback” effect thyroid hormone has on the pituitary gland) and by another gland called the hypothalamus [hahy-puh-thal-uh-muhs], which releases TRH (thyroptropin-releasing hormone) to stimulate the pituitary to release TSH (see Figure 1 on page 15 for illustration).

There are a number of factors that can contribute to the development of thyroid disorders. If overactivity of the pituitary, which is rare, or the thyroid occurs, an excessive amount of thyroid hormones can be produced, resulting in hyperthyroidism. Classic symptoms of hyperthyroidism include weight loss, rapid heart beat, heat intolerance, anxiety, insomnia, excessive sweating, diarrhea and high blood pressure. Hyperthyroidism can also lead to osteoporosis, a disease of the bones that leads to an increased risk of fracture.

Conversely, if any of these glands are underactive, a deficiency of thyroid hormones can lead to hypothyroidism, which will take your body in the opposite direction, resulting in chronic fatigue, depression, mood swings, impaired memory, dry hair and skin, brittle nails, weight gain, constipation, poor circulation and hypersensitivity to cold.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, also known as autoimmune or chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, is the most common of the thyroid diseases: the condition affects more than 10 million Americans and is about seven times more common in women than men. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis occurs when the thyroid gland is attacked by a variety of immune cells and autoantibodies as if it were a foreign tissue, reducing its ability to produce thyroid hormone. The thyroid may also enlarge, forming what is known as a goiter. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis tends to run in families and is associated with a cluster of other autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease.

Yet another common condition is a thyroid nodule. Nodules can be caused by an overgrowth of normal thyroid tissue, fluid-filled cysts, inflammation (thyroiditis) or a tumor (either benign or cancerous). Most patients with thyroid nodules have no symptoms whatsoever and are found by chance to have a lump in the thyroid gland on a routine physical exam during an imaging study of the neck done for unrelated reasons (for example, a CT or MRI scan of the chest or the spine). Occasionally, patients discover nodules by noticing a lump in their neck while looking in a mirror, buttoning their shirt collar, or fastening a necklace. Yet others become aware of a gradually enlarging lump in the front portion of the neck or may experience a vague sensation of pressure or discomfort when swallowing. Obviously, finding a lump in the neck should be brought to the attention of your physician, even in the absence of symptoms. The good news is that 90 percent of such nodules are benign.

Because symptoms of thyroid disease can mirror those of other conditions, vary widely or be altogether absent, the first line of defense if you think you might have a thyroid problem is being informed. To that end, ACE’s robust website,, offers in-depth content about thyroid disease risk factors, symptoms and typical treatments. Downloadable PDFs about the varied thyroid conditions are available, as well as Neck Check cards detailing how to perform a selfexam to detect a thyroid abnormality. And the website also features an interactive “find an endocrinologist” function to assist in locating a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders.

Given the prevalence of thyroid disease, we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to share the message of thyroid awareness…not only during the month of January, but on an ongoing basis. You can show your support by taking advantage of the many resources offered by ACE and by posting our iconic blue paisley ribbon -- a symbol of thyroid awareness -- to your Facebook or Twitter profile. Simply visit and choose how you’d like to support the campaign.