The thyroid is one of those functional parts of the body that doesn’t get a lot of attention until it starts having problems. Although this little gland in your neck is a small one, it produces the thyroid hormone that affects your metabolism——and indirectly, every other function of your body. Having a sleepy, underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can lead to some real health problems, making diagnosis and treatment essential.
According to the American Thyroid Association, an estimated 20 million Americans are suffering from some type of thyroid disease. Because thyroid problems often occur slowly or have vague, masked symptoms, about 60 percent of those affected don’t even know about their condition.
In addition, the NIH states that 4.5 percent of Americans over age 12 have developed hypothyroidism specifically. Clearly, this condition is affecting many Americans and should be addressed.
What Causes an Underactive Thyroid?
An underactive thyroid can happen for several different reasons, including: an autoimmune response, thyroid surgery, thyroiditis, pregnancy and even some medications. Family history also plays an important role; so, you should consider testing if a family member has the condition.
Symptoms for an underactive thyroid include
- a puffy face
- goiter (enlargement in the neck)
- cold intolerance
- dry skin or thinning hair
- irregular periods
- fertility problems
- slowed heart rate
- weight gain
First of all, most cases of underactive thyroid occur due to an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease. Hashimoto’s causes your immune system to attack the thyroid, instigating inflammation.
As a result, the gland cannot make enough of its hormone, and your metabolism along with other functions then become affected. If your doctor has diagnosed you with hypothyroidism, you should ask about testing for Hashimoto’s.
Next, thyroiditis occurs when the thyroid becomes inflamed. This condition actually causes some of the gland’s stored thyroid hormone to leak out, initially increasing hormone levels in the blood.
Eventually, the thyroid stops over-producing and slows into hypothyroidism. With treatment, many people can eliminate this condition; however, some do live with it permanently.
Sometimes, an underactive thyroid presents itself during pregnancy. In a normal, healthy pregnancy, the common hormone hCG will stimulate the thyroid to produce a slight amount more of the thyroid hormone. You may even have an enlarged gland, but not enough to be noticeable during an exam.
In some cases, however, the expectant mother may develop or notice abnormal symptoms. Overall, thyroid problems in pregnancy can be difficult to diagnose.
Common signs include unexplained weight loss or problems with normal pregnancy weight gain, nausea and vomiting associated with hyperemesis gravidarum, tremors and an irregular heartbeat.
To deal with your hypothyroidism, you will likely receive a hormone replacement. With this treatment, your doctor will start with a dose of the thyroid hormone, checking your progress with a blood test every few months.
He will then repeat this process until your thyroid is able to function properly. After your dose has been set, your doctor may recommend testing every year to check your thyroid’s function.
In addition to the hormone replacement, you may need to avoid foods and supplements with iodine. Specifically, Hashimoto’s disease or other autoimmune responses may cause your body to develop a sensitivity to the mineral.
Foods naturally high in iodine include sea vegetables like kelp, cranberries, raw cheeses or dairy products and potatoes. Be sure to talk through these dietary changes with your doctor first, especially if you’re pregnant.
Dealing with the Weight Gain
Because an underactive thyroid directly affects your metabolism, you may experience unwanted weight gain. Fortunately, you can work to keep your weight under control, but you may have to work harder than others in order to achieve your goals.
Dr. Marilyn Tan from the Stanford Endocrine Clinic told Women’s Health that “normalizing the thyroid with thyroid hormone will not cause the weight gain to be reversed. To lose that weight, you actually need to work at it, which I know seems very unfair because you just gained it easily.”
In order to effectively work off the unwanted pounds, you may need to wait until your doctor has established your ideal medication dosage first. Once your thyroid function is under control, you can focus on progressing with weight loss more normally.
Sherri Findley, an R.D. for the University of Florida Health, says that you should focus on controlling blood sugar. Eat regular meals with a good caloric intake and focus on unprocessed foods. These changes coupled with regular exercise should help you attain your weight goals, even with your thyroid working against you.
An underactive thyroid affects millions of Americans, even many who are unaware of their condition. If you’re thyroid isn’t functioning properly, you may be experiencing fatigue, unexplained weight gain, an abnormal heartbeat or problems with fertility. The good news is that you can manage this condition easily with hormone replacement and start getting back to your normal, energized self again.