Thyroid awareness month: support a worldwide health issue

Kyra Abbott ‘24, Student Life Editor

January is the designated month for world awareness of a very important endocrine gland: the thyroid. Now, what is this thyroid gland, you might ask? Well, it is an organ located at the base of your neck, just below your larynx—often referred to as your Adam’s apple; the larynx is usually more noticeable in males than females. The gland is in the shape of a butterfly, and most people do not even realize how essential the thyroid truly is. This gland is essential to help the human body properly function. It quite literally affects every organ and cell in the human body. 

The thyroid gland is responsible for releasing hormones in order to control the body’s metabolism, which determines how effectively your body uses energy. According to Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan Health, “The thyroid gland uses iodine from food to make two thyroid hormones: triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).” These hormones are then stored in the thyroid until it is necessary to release them or stop releasing them—such as when the level of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream is too low or too high. 

The production of these hormones all depends on the brain. For instance, Michigan Medicine said, “The hypothalamus releases thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH), which stimulates the pituitary gland to release thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).” This means that when hormones are too low, the brain secretes more TRH and TSH in order to stimulate the thyroid gland. In turn, the butterfly-shaped gland produces more thyroid hormones and releases them into the bloodstream. On the other hand, when hormone levels are too high, the brain secretes less TRH and TSH in order to slow the hormone production of the thyroid. 

Unfortunately, many thyroid disorders can occur if the exchange of communication between the brain and the thyroid gland are disrupted. In compliance with EndocrineWeb, there are around 15 different conditions that can occur due to a lower or higher functioning thyroid. An online resource, MedicareGuide, said, “More than one in eight Americans will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime, but up to 60 percent are unaware of it.” The manifestations of a thyroid disorder can range from benign goiters and nodules to lethal cancer. 

Fortunately, benign thyroid conditions are fairly common in comparison to cancerous thyroid conditions. This includes hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. The two conditions have symptoms that are opposite to each other. For instance, hypothyroidism can cause a lower than normal production of thyroid hormones, extreme weight gain, a slow heart rate, and a cold body temperature, whereas hyperthyroidism can cause a higher than normal production of thyroid hormones, extreme weight loss, a fast heart rate, and a warm body temperature. There is one other condition that presents with similar symptoms, but it has a different pattern: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This causes a short bout of hyperthyroidism, followed by a longer period of hypothyroidism, which usually only improves with hormone treatment. 

In addition, goiters and nodules—which manifest as lumps under the skin of the throat—can form on the thyroid gland. These are usually harmless and will most likely go away on their own. However, if they get too large or cause bothersome symptoms, treatment may be advised.

Thyroid cancer comes in many forms: anaplastic, follicular, medullary, papillary, and hurthle cell thyroid cancer. The main differences between these different forms of thyroid cancers is the type of cells in which they develop and how fast they develop. They all share common symptoms. The American Cancer Society said, “Thyroid cancer can cause any of the following signs or symptoms: a lump in the neck, sometimes growing quickly; swelling in the neck; pain in the front of the neck, sometimes going up to the ears; hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away; trouble swallowing; trouble breathing; and a constant cough that is not due to a cold.” Likewise, it is critical to seek medical attention if you have or develop any of these symptoms; like most cancers, treatment is more effective when the cancer is caught early in its course. 

Overall, thyroid awareness month can prove to be a pivotal time in one’s own health and in the medical care and treatment that those afflicted with thyroid disorders receive. More awareness and support can cause more people to be attentive to their health. In turn, doctors will be able to diagnose any thyroid dysfunctions early on in order for optimal treatment to be administered. 

If awareness does not strengthen, around 12 million people will continue to live with bothersome symptoms of undiagnosed thyroid conditions—some of which may be life threatening. Therefore, in January and beyond, make sure to support the blue thyroid awareness ribbon. 

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