We have all felt tired. Felt sluggish. In a fog. Can’t seem to shake it. Speaking of shaking, you can’t seem to shake those extra five or 10 pounds. And you exercise, but still feel tired, and now your muscles and joints are hurting, too.
What’s going on? Is it the weather? Your diet? Not enough sleep? Or …
Perhaps your thyroid’s not working right.
What is a thyroid?
The tiny, butterfly-shaped thyroid gland, located at the base of your neck, has as its primary job spreading thyroid hormones in the body. The gland’s role is vital for brain growth in youngsters, while in adults, the endocrine gland has multiple roles: regulating heart and digestive function, muscle control, bone maintenance, as well as metabolism. When the thyroid is out of whack, problems often result. When the gland doesn’t produce enough thyroxine, or T4, the condition is called hypothyroidism. When it produces too much T4, hyperthyroidism develops.
According to data from the American Thyroid Association, a significant 20 million U.S. residents have an issue with their thyroid and more than 12 percent of Americans will have a thyroid condition during their lifetimes. Even more frightening is the fact that some 60 percent do not realize they may have a thyroid problem.
Symptoms of thyroid problems
Hypothyroidism (not enough hormones) is much more common than the rare hyperthyroidism (a surplus of hormones).
We asked Lara Fakunle, M.D., at KentuckyOne Health, how to tell if your underactive or overactive thyroid is behind your malaise. She gave us some great answers and things to watch out for.
Here are some signs that may indicate you have hypothyroidism:
- Weight gain: We all gain weight from time to time, but if the thyroid is the issue, it’s not your diet behind the weight gain. Worst of all, the weight is incredibly hard to lose.
- Fatigue: There are normal fatigue patterns for all of us, upon waking or during that midday slump in the afternoon. This type of fatigue is constant or just more intense than normal.
- Cold intolerance: True, there are people who are cold all the time. This is not a normal range of cold. Sufferers find that they are wearing a sweater or a jacket when it’s hot outside. When you cannot get warm, there is a problem.
- Dry skin: If you notice your skin is very dry and flaky and almost sapped of its normal glow, that could be a thyroid problem.
- Muscle cramps: Muscle cramps not related to any sports injury or strain may be a sign that you have an underactive thyroid.
- Constipation: When your regular day becomes irregular, it is time to take notice. Bowels are usually an important indicator of illness in the body.
- Forgetfulness: This goes hand in hand with the fatigue, as you are tired and prone to forgetting basic elements of your day or things you need to do.
- Abnormal menstrual cycles: Like your bowel, your menstrual cycle is a very telling indicator of a problem. Women who were formerly regular may become irregular if there’s a thyroid problem.
- Pregnancy problems: When your menstrual cycle is off, that means that there might be a fertility issue. This issue will create problems for those desiring to get pregnant or even during the pregnancy.
If you have hyperthyroidism, the symptoms are the polar opposite of hypothyroidism:
- Unexplained weight loss: While maybe a nice thing at first, this can be alarming once it gets going. Weight loss for no reason is an indicator of illness in the body.
- Insomnia: Sleepless nights because your body cannot slow down and rest are a recurring problem of hyperthyroidism.
- Racing pulse: You may be sitting still and your heartbeat is on overdrive, without having exerted any extra energy.
- Sweating: It’s not hot, you’re not exercising, but you’re sweating for no reason.
- Loose bowels: Like your heart rate, your bowels are racing, as well, which is a major inconvenience and source of distress.
When to go to the doctor
If you have these symptoms, be sure to get a full work-up at the doctor. Here’s an interesting thought from Fakunle: “The symptoms for hypothyroidism are sensitive for the disease, but not necessarily specific for hypothyroidism. If symptoms persist, it is time to get a good work-up and look for other health issues that may be causing the symptoms. Often patients are quick to attribute all their symptoms to hypothyroidism, while other underlining health problems are getting worse.” What does this mean exactly? It means that hypothyroidism may be a smaller symptom of a larger condition, like an autoimmune disease. That is why it is important to get an all-inclusive checkup from your doctor, specifically an endocrinologist.
Why do women seem to suffer from thyroid problems more than men? According to the ATA, women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. Fakunle believes that while “there is no one explanation for why it is common in women, autoimmune thyroid disease is a common cause of thyroid disorder, and women in general have higher incidence of autoimmune disease. Women are also more likely to present with menstrual disorders, hair loss and other symptoms that lead to screening for thyroid disorders.”
Treatment for hypothyroidism is thyroid hormone replacement. Doctors will measure the levels of both your T4 (the main hormone thyroxine) and TSH, which is a thyroid-stimulating hormone, produced by the pituitary gland. Doctors will then prescribe additional T4. Additional T4 in the body should cause the body to naturally convert this hormone into the active thyroid hormone, also called T3. This treatment will cause hormone levels to fall within the normal range and help your symptoms clear up.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism, which is much rarer, also involves testing hormone levels and prescribing medicine to bring them into normal ranges.
There are alternative treatmentsm as well. Some doctors recommend avoiding certain foods that might trigger a sensitivity in the body. They also recommend supplementing with probiotics. Relaxation methods, such as meditation, exercise and other means to destress, all are lifestyle changes, as well.
Thank you to Lara Fakunle, M.D., with KentuckyOne Health Endocrinology & Diabetes Associates
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