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Dr. Diane Hood, St. Luke's Hospital

Don't underestimate the role of your thyroid gland

Do you think your heart or brain is in charge of your body? Think again. It is an often overlooked gland in the front of your neck, the thyroid, that is really in charge. The function of your thyroid gland affects virtually every aspect of your health. So, if your thyroid is not functioning properly, neither are you.

Your thyroid gland produces hormones that are active in your body. If you are not producing these hormones correctly you will develop thyroid disease.

There are many risk factors for developing thyroid problems. Women develop thyroid disease seven times more often than men. Women 60 and older are at greatest risk. Other risk factors include having just had a baby, being menopausal, having a family member with thyroid disease, having another endocrine disease, smoking, taking certain medications and prior exposure to radiation.

Two of the most common thyroid diseases are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism means your thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormone. Symptoms include tiredness, weakness, weight gain, depression, constipation, dry skin or hair, irregular menstrual periods and being cold when others are not. Conversely, hyperthyroidism means your thyroid is producing too much thyroid hormone. Symptoms include unexplained weight loss, feeling moody or depressed, shaky hands, a rapid pulse, hair loss, frequent bowel movements or being hot when others are not. Remember that with both diseases you may have all of the symptoms, some of them or none.

If you have any of these symptoms or risk factors for thyroid problems, you should talk with your doctor about testing your thyroid. Thyroid function can be checked with a simple blood test.

Treatment of thyroid disease varies widely depending on the specific thyroid problem. Treatment may include taking a daily pill to supplement what your body is not producing. Other times the treatment is taking a pill to shut down the function of your thyroid. And in rare cases, your thyroid must be surgically removed. No matter what thyroid problem is found, it is important that it be treated and not ignored because thyroid disease can be fatal.

Dr. Diane Hood is a board-certified internist at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-205-6788 or visit her Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 12, 2010.