First: What is a thyroid, exactly?
iStockMany patients don’t know much about thyroid basics, says Alan P. Farwell, MD, chief of the section of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition, and director of endocrine clinics at Boston Medical Center. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that controls your metabolism. Generally, an overactive thyroid (called hyperthyroidism) could make you feel anxious, shaky, sweaty, and hot, and cause weight loss and trouble sleeping among other symptoms. Conversely, a person with an underactive thyroid (called hypothyroidism) might feel sluggish, fatigued, and cold, and could experience problems including weight gain and constipation. (This strange skin condition could increase your risk for thyroid problems in the future.) While lifestyle habits like daily diet and activity don’t have much impact on thyroid health, there are a number of things you can do to make sure your thyroid stays healthy. Keep an eye out for the 13 silent signs you may have a thyroid problem.
Find out your family history
iStock“If your family members—mom, dad, siblings—have thyroid disease, you’re much more likely to experience thyroid dysfunction yourself,” says Leonard Wartofsky, MD, MACP, professor of medicine at Georgetown University and past president of the Endocrine Society. For anyone with a family history, it’s especially important to have your thyroid monitored. In an annual physical, for example, your physician will examine your thyroid by touching the neck to feel for a goiter, enlarged thyroid, or nodules. Never ignore these six symptoms of thyroid cancer.
iStockIn addition to the physical exam, if you suspect you may have a thyroid problem—due to either family history or a range of symptoms—ask your doctor about a blood test to check your levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Although it sounds backward, a high TSH result indicates thyroid levels that are too low, and a low TSH result indicates thyroid levels that are too high, Dr. Wartofsky explains. If your thyroid levels are off, your doctor will talk to you about treatment options. For hypothyroidism, the approach is to increase thyroid by taking an oral synthetic thyroid hormone; for hyperthyroidism, the approach is to block thyroid overproduction with a drug, radioactive iodine treatment, or surgery. (These medical tests could save your heart AND your life!)
Pregnant? Supplement your iodine intake
iStockThe thyroid needs adequate iodine to stay healthy, and in the United States we normally get that iodine through our salt (but beware of sea salt which has this gross ingredient), bread, and other foods. “But the one group that sometimes doesn’t get enough iodine is pregnant women because they need extra to ensure that both their thyroid and the baby’s thyroid are normal,” says Michael Tuttle, MD, clinical director of the Endocrinology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “It’s therefore important that pregnant women get multivitamins that contain iodine.” But pregnant women aren't the only ones who need to be extra careful with their thyroid health, millennials do too!
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But don’t OD on iodine
iStockFor everyone else, whether you tend toward the low or high end of thyroid function, too much iodine isn’t necessary, says Dr. Wartofsky. “It’s very common to read in self-help books and diet books that iodine is good for the thyroid, and people will go out and buy rich iodine sources like kelp tablets, and that can be dangerous,” he explains. “So it’s important not to exceed a normal intake of iodine.” And stop wasting your money on these 8 other health supplements.
Don’t fear cruciferous veggies
iStockOne piece of misinformation Dr. Tuttle often hears is that patients are afraid to eat too many cruciferous vegetables, such as kale and cabbage, because they’ve heard such greens can cause the thyroid to develop a goiter. “It’s true but only if you eat a truckload of the stuff,” he says. “We don’t want people avoiding vegetables (here's what happens to your body when you don't eat enough veggies); we want people to have a normal diet and not worry about those sorts of things bothering the thyroid.” Don't be afraid to add these 11 yummy superfood veggies to your plate!
If you take thyroid medication, stay vigilant
iStock“Once you get diagnosed with a thyroid condition and put on pills, you’re not done,” says Dr. Tuttle. “It’s a lifelong thing to keep on your radar screen.” Not only do pills need to be taken daily following doctors orders (for example, don’t mix them with vitamins, because iron or calcium could interfere with absorption), but over the years your thyroid levels should be regularly tested to determine if dosages need to be adjusted. “It can be easy to get sloppy and miss a pill or miss a set of blood tests and not see the doctor once a year, so make sure you keep up with it,” Dr. Tuttle urges. Make sure you ask your doctor these 10 super-important questions before you pop a new pill in your mouth!