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What you should know about your thyroid

Doctors for USA WEEKEND

Your thyroid is a small gland with a huge job: It produces hormones that help regulate the rate of many of your body's activities, from how quickly you burn calories to how fast your heart beats. It also influences the function of the brain, liver, kidneys and skin. If the gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormones, it can cause body systems to slow down; if it churns out too much, it has the opposite effect, speeding up the body's processes.

A number of different factors could affect thyroid function: an autoimmune attack, genetics, pregnancy in some cases, or too much iodine. A study even suggests certain chemicals found in carpets and cosmetics could be linked to thyroid problems.

As many as 30 million Americans have a thyroid disorder, and more than half remain undiagnosed, according to The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. That's partly because many symptoms are similar to those of other conditions.

The way to know for sure is to get tested. Your doctor can check your blood levels of thyroid stimulating hormone, for example, to determine whether your thyroid is over- or underactive.

Here are four reasons to consider a thyroid evaluation:

It runs in your family. Your chances of thyroid disease are higher if your parent, sibling or child has a condition. Women are much more likely to develop thyroid disorders than men.

You're exhausted often. Granted there are a million reasons you might feel especially tired. But if fatigue is accompanied by an overall sluggishness, unexplained weight gain, coarse hair, dry skin, brittle nails, constipation, muscle cramps and an increased sensitivity to cold, those are signs of hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid), the most common thyroid disorder.

You notice a lump. The thyroid is at the base of your neck, and a number of related disorders could cause it to become enlarged or develop nodules, such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), hypothyroidism, inflammation or cancer. To help with early detection, do a simple neck-check at home: Stand in front of a mirror, tip your head back, and take a drink of water. As you swallow, check for any bulges or protrusions (remembering the thyroid gland is below the Adam's apple, closer to the collarbone).

You've been exposed to radiation. Some thyroid conditions can be caused by radiation treatments for certain cancers.

The Doctors is an Emmy-winning daytime TV show with pediatrician Jim Sears, OB-GYN Lisa Masterson, ER physician Travis Stork, plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon, health and wellness expert Jillian Michaels and psychologist Wendy Walsh. Check www.thedoctorstv.com for local listings.

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