What is Thyroid Disease? An Explainer.

Thyroid conditions can affect any of us. There are lots of ways the thyroid can encounter problems—and those problems can have significant, systemic effects. An estimated 20 million Americans are impacted by thyroid disease, and up to 60 percent of those people are unaware and undiagnosed, according to the American Thyroid Association. Here’s some basic information about how thyroid disease affects you–and how it’s treated and managed.

What is the thyroid?
The thyroid is the shape of the letter H and is about the size of your thumb. It sits right between your voicebox and your collarbone. And while it may be small, EndocrineWeb states, it’s crucial to basically all of the body’s processes. It produces hormones that affect every cell in your body, and influences how quickly you burn calories and how fast your major organs work. In other words: It’s a big deal.

How does the thyroid work?
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the thyroid gland produces three hormones:

  • Triiodothyronine, also known as T3
  • Tetraiodothyronine, also called thyroxine or T4
  • Calcitonin

So it goes like this: Iodine is a main building block of T3 and T4. Because our bodies can’t produce iodine on its own, we need to get enough of it in our diet. You can get iodine from any of the following foods, according to Healthline.

  • Seaweed
  • Cod
  • Dairy
  • Iodized salt
  • Shrimp
  • Tuna
  • Eggs
  • Prunes
  • Lima beans

Once we’ve absorbed iodine from our food, It gets carried to the thyroid gland, where it is converted into hormones.

How much of our thyroid hormones our body needs can vary. It relies on your pituitary gland to tell indicate whether to release more or fewer hormones into your blood. The T3 and T4 hormones increase your basal metabolic rate. They make all of the cells in your body work harder, so the cells need more energy too. They’re responsible for all of these effects:

  • Your body temperature rises
  • Your pulse quickens and your heart beat stronger
  • Food is used up more quickly because energy stored in the liver and muscles is broken down
  • Activation of the nervous system leads to improved concentration and faster reflexes

It also helps children grow and develop their own organs.

So what can go wrong with the thyroid?
Sometimes the thyroid overproduces its hormones (called hyperthyroidism)—and sometimes it underproduces (called hypothyroidism), WebMD reports.

Hyperthyroidism can be caused by genetics, Graves disease, toxic adenomas, inflammation, or tumors and cancer. Hypothyroidism, similarly, can be caused by an autoimmune disorder like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lithium and an overexposure to iodine.

Thyroid conditions, diseases and disorders can lead to lots of complications but are, fortunately, treatable.

What does treatment look like?
Depending on the nature of your diagnosis, your doctor may recommend something as simple as a daily pill or something more permanent, such as surgical removal of the thyroid. But don’t worry. The Cleveland Clinic says, “Thyroid diseases are life-long conditions. With careful management, people with thyroid disease can live healthy, normal lives.