Worldwide, thyroid-related disorders affect about 200 million people, the majority of whom are unaware of their condition. January is Thyroid Awareness Month, aiming to raise awareness about the importance and functions of the thyroid gland. January was the chosen month because it marks the founding anniversary of the American Thyroid Association, an organization that was established in January 1923 and currently has over 1,600 members from 43 different countries. The organization is in charge of the advancement, diagnosis, and treatment of thyroid disorders and cancer.
When talking about thyroid awareness month, it is crucial to emphasize what the thyroid is and its functions. The thyroid gland is located in the front of the neck under the skin, and it is in the shape of a small butterfly. It controls many of the body’s functions by releasing hormones and is a part of the endocrine system. Still, its main role is to regulate the speed of metabolism, which is how our body transforms food into energy. The endocrine system is made up of several glands that produce and release hormones. Hormones carry messages through the blood to the organs, muscles, skin, and other tissues. They basically tell the body what and when to do certain things. The thyroid gland produces thyroxine, triiodothyronine, reverse triiodothyronine, and calcitonin hormones. These hormones affect metabolism, heart rate, breathing, digestion, body temperature, brain development, mental activity, fertility, and skin and bone maintenance. The thyroid needs iodine to produce hormones, so if someone has too much or too little iodine in their body, it will affect the level of hormones the thyroid produces and releases.
There are a couple of thyroid diseases, generally split into two parts, which are primary and secondary. In the primary ones, the disease originates from the thyroid, whereas in the secondary ones, it originates from the pituitary gland and affects the thyroid. The main four thyroid diseases are hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), goiter (enlarged thyroid), and thyroid cancer.
An underactive thyroid is the result of the thyroid gland not releasing enough hormones and therefore slowing down metabolism. It is a common disease since, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), 5 out of 100 Americans over the age of 12 have it. Most of the time, it is mild and can be treated with daily hormone replacement tablets. Hashimoto’s disease, inflammation of the thyroid, iodine deficiency, thyroid gland removal, and overusing hyperthyroidism medications may cause hypothyroidism.
As the name suggests, an overactive thyroid is the opposite of an underactive thyroid, and it is the result of the thyroid gland producing more hormones than needed, which speeds up metabolism. According to the NIDDK, 1 out of 100 people over the age of 12 in the US have it. Anti-thyroid drugs like propylthiouracil and methimazole can be used to treat it, but it is important to remember that rarely these drugs have the potential to seriously harm the liver. Causes of hyperthyroidism include Grave’s disease, thyroid nodules, inflammation of the thyroid, excess iodine in the body, a noncancerous tumor in the pituitary gland, and overusing hypothyroidism medications.
Goiter is the enlargement of the thyroid gland, and it is relatively common, as it can be seen in approximately 5% of all Americans, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Simple, endemic, and sporadic goiters are the three types of goiters, each with a different cause. Simple goiters are the result of the thyroid not producing enough hormones and growing larger to make up for it. Endemic goiters happen when people don’t get enough iodine in their diet. On the other hand, the cause of sporadic goiters is somewhat mysterious, as they typically have no known cause, though in certain cases, specific medications may be the reason.
Finally, thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the thyroid tissues. It is actually one of the most common cancer types, with 43,720 new cases in the US in 2023, according to the American Cancer Society. Experts aren’t sure why some cells become cancerous, but some causes of thyroid cancer include radiation exposure, a diet low in iodine, and faulty genes.
Different types of thyroid diseases have varying symptoms, but since the thyroid plays a large role in some of our body’s functions and processes, there are some common symptoms. These symptoms include a slow or rapid heart rate, unexplained weight loss or gain, depression or anxiety, irregular menstrual periods, and difficulty tolerating heat or cold. It is recommended that individuals experiencing any of these symptoms consult with their healthcare provider.
Many of these diseases are related to iodine intake since it is the main substance that affects the function of the thyroid. Therefore, the best way to avoid thyroid diseases is to get enough iodine while still being careful not to overdo it. Most people already get enough iodine because of iodized table salt and foods, but if those are not enough, some of the other foods that contain iodine include cheese, cow’s milk, eggs, yogurt, shellfish, seaweed, soy milk, and soy sauce.
American Cancer Society. “Key Statistics for Thyroid Cancer.” Www.cancer.org, 18 Jan. 2023.
Cleveland Clinic. “Thyroid Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment & Types.” Cleveland Clinic, 24 Oct. 2022.
Cleveland Clinic. “Thyroid: What It Is, Function & Problems.” Cleveland Clinic, 7 June 2022.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Goiter.”.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Hyperthyroidism (Overactive Thyroid).” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2019.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Hypothyroidism (Underactive Thyroid).” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 7 July 2019.