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Decoding thyroid health: Essential tips for awareness

| Healthy You | Aging Well

Woman doctor uses fingers to check the throat of a young woman

About 20 million Americans have thyroid conditions, and more than half don’t know it.

Unexplained weight gain or loss. Low energy. Sweating. Feeling cold. Brain fog. Always feeling sick. Anxiety or depression. Mood swings. Hair loss. Difficulty swallowing or breathing.

These are a few symptoms you might experience if there’s a problem with your thyroid.

Your thyroid is a gland (about two inches long in adults) located in the front of your throat.  

Experts estimate about 20 million Americans are affected by some form of thyroid condition. And surprisingly, more than half of people don’t know it.

As you might expect, a healthy thyroid is important for helping you feel good overall. George Ang, MD, a PeaceHealth endocrinologist in Bellingham, Washington, shares insights on thyroid health.

Importance of the thyroid

Here’s what to know about this small, but mighty part of our bodies.

Your thyroid releases hormones in your body to control metabolism.  

It also influences your:

  • Breathing
  • Nervous system
  • Cholesterol  
  • Heart rate
  • How much you weigh
  • How hot or cold your body feels
  • Muscle strength and coordination
  • Monthly menstrual cycles

Thyroid conditions are more common in women than men. One out of every eight women will develop a thyroid disorder in her lifetime, according to the American Thyroid Association.

Common thyroid conditions

A few of the most common conditions that affect the thyroid include:

  • Thyroid nodules – these are extremely common. Dr. Ang says that by age 60, about half of all people have a thyroid nodule. Nodules can be found either through examination or imaging. The good news is that over 90% of such nodules are not cancer.
  • Hypothyroidism – this is when the gland doesn’t make as much thyroid hormone as it should. Someone with this condition may feel overly tired, depressed and forgetful. They may also gain weight.  
  • Hyperthyroidism – this is when the gland makes more thyroid hormone than it should. Someone with this condition may feel irritable, nervous and weak. They may also lose weight for no apparent reason. Eye or vision trouble and sleep issues can also be symptoms.
  • Graves’ disease is a form of hyperthyroidism. It affects the immune system (affecting the thyroid gland).  
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is a form of hypothyroidism. It is an autoimmune disorder (affecting the thyroid gland).

Dr. Ang emphasizes that while Graves’ and Hashimoto’s affect the immune system, neither causes other autoimmune disorders like lupus. That’s a common misconception.

Thyroid cancer

One other condition to be aware of is thyroid cancer.  

It’s not as common as other cancers. As of 2018, about 900,000 Americans were living with thyroid cancer. And an estimated 2,000 people die of thyroid cancer every year.

Fortunately, thyroid cancer is usually very treatable and is often cured with surgery and, when appropriate, radioactive iodine. Endocrinologists along with thyroid surgeons and nuclear medicine providers work together to treat thyroid cancer, notes Dr. Ang.

Diagnosis and treatment

No one knows exactly what causes thyroid conditions to develop. A few risk factors for thyroid issues include age, someone whose parent has or had thyroid issues, not getting enough iodine and exposure to radiation.

Endocrinology professionals recommend thyroid screening for those over 60 or who have symptoms outlined above.

Doctors can diagnose thyroid issues using blood tests and scans. Learn more about the blood test.

And while most thyroid conditions are life-long, they can be treated successfully.  

If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, ask your healthcare provider if you should be screened for hypothyroidism as it can cause preterm labor and/or problems for the unborn child.

How to support thyroid health

There are a few things you can do to support your thyroid. These include:

  • Follow general guidelines for overall health, such as:
    • Eating nutritious whole foods
    • Exercising daily  
    • Getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night
    • Keeping your stress levels in check
  • Get the right amount of iodine in your diet. A few iodine-rich foods include sea vegetables (also called seaweed), yogurt, fish, eggs, milk and iodized salt. Ask your provider for recommendations.
  • Be aware of the signs and symptoms of thyroid conditions. Untreated thyroid issues can raise your risk for other conditions such as heart disease, bone loss and infertility.

Could you be among the millions of people with an undiagnosed thyroid condition? Talk to your PCP, especially if you have some of the symptoms noted above. 

portrait of George J. Ang MD

George J. Ang MD

Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
Internal Medicine
George Ang, MD, practices endocrinology at PeaceHealth Medical Group specialty clinics in Bellingham since 2022. He has special interests in diabetes, thyroid and metabolic bone disorders. He received his medical degree at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, and completed his fellowship in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the State University of New York in Syracuse. He’s provided compassionate patient care in both private practice and public health settings in New York, New Mexico and Washington. Dr. Ang’s wide range of experience also includes roles as a community physician, assistant professor, consultant and researcher in osteoporosis and Paget’s disease of the bone. Dr. Ang is fluent in Tagalog. Dr. Ang enjoys bicycling and playing tennis.