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7 Facts About Your Thyroid

(And Why It Is So Misunderstood)

With vague symptoms like feeling tired or cold, it is no wonder a thyroid disorder is often a suspect in many health problems.

These typical hypothyroidism symptoms are nonspecific and overlap with multiple other conditions. So, while it is important to check thyroid function in anyone with symptoms, your thyroid is not always to blame.

"Thyroid problems are very, very common," explains Northwestern Medicine Endocrinologist Ioannis Papagiannis, MD. “But they’re not necessarily to blame for all fatigue and physical issues you experience.”

Dr. Papagiannis and Anna B. Shannahan, MD, a family physician at Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Health, share why the thyroid is often misunderstood. They also address some myths about the gland.

A Look at the Thyroid

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck. It makes and secretes thyroid hormones. The pituitary gland controls the thyroid gland. The thyroid depends on iodine intake from your diet.

Here are seven more facts you should know about your thyroid.

1. Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) blood tests are really accurate.

The TSH blood test is used to screen for thyroid dysfunction.

"Many people don't realize a general thyroid function screen actually tests the thyroid-stimulating hormone as opposed to the actual amount of thyroid hormones," says Dr. Shannahan. "In general, this is a great measure of how the overall thyroid hormone system is functioning."

Even small changes in your levels of triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) hormones will cause very big changes in TSH secretion. If your thyroid is unable to make enough thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), your TSH will rise quickly and stay elevated. If your thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism), your TSH will drop to zero. In most cases, a TSH blood test is the best test to screen for thyroid problems.

2. Women are more likely than men to have thyroid issues.

It is estimated that one in eight women will develop thyroid problems during their lifetime. This is especially likely after pregnancy and during menopause. The most common thyroid condition is hypothyroidism. Some symptoms include fatigue, feeling cold, muscle weakness and unexplained weight gain.

3. Most thyroid disorders cannot be prevented.

There is no way to cure or slow the progression of thyroid disease. But, if you are one of the 20 million Americans affected, you can manage the condition. Dr. Papagiannis says the best approach to get a diagnosis, prevent it from becoming a big problem, and take measures to decrease its impact on your body and your life.

4. Stress and other factors can worsen thyroid disorders.

Managing overall health can reduce symptoms.

"Factors like illness, pregnancy and stress can impact thyroid function," Dr. Shannahan says. "We always work with patients on tailoring personalized, specific stress management strategies and decreasing overall inflammatory processes."

Exercising each day and maintaining healthy relationships can help your thyroid, too. Rest is also important. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

This can be tricky if you have a thyroid disorder, because thyroid issues can impact sleep. To improve sleep:

  • Follow a sleep-wake routine.
  • Limit your exposure to light. Do not scroll through your phone or watch TV before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and exercise too close to bedtime

5. Thyroid disorders need to be addressed before and during pregnancy.

Thyroid hormones help provide an environment for your baby to thrive, particularly during the first three months. This is why it is important to monitor hormone levels before and during pregnancy if you have a thyroid problem.

6. Thyroid disorders should be managed.

Abnormal thyroid hormone levels can cause serious health effects, so managing your thyroid disorder is very important. If you have a thyroid problem, it should be treated using evidence-based guidelines and prescription medication, say Dr. Papagiannis.

If you want an integrative approach to your thyroid care, consider a consultation at the Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Health.

"At the Osher Center, we try to support the body's innate ability to heal itself as much as possible," says Dr. Shannahan. "Sometimes we'll recommend supplements, which have been shown in research to be promising for certain patients."

Dr. Shannahan cautions that it is important to consult with a physician before starting any supplement. Many supplements can be dangerous when taken in high amounts or without regular monitoring by your physician. Improper use of supplements can cause side effects. These can range from nausea and diarrhea to serious kidney problems or nerve damage.

7. Certain myths can be dangerous to your health.

With an overwhelming abundance of information available online, it can be tricky to know what is true. "There’s a lot of unproven ‘treatments’ out there, and you should be careful,” says Dr. Papagiannis. “Healthy living and diet and less stress is good advice, but you should always get any medical advice from your clinician.”