About 20 million Americans suffer from a thyroid disorder. Many of them don’t even know it. Symptoms of thyroid disorder can be subtle and contradictory. Often, patients and doctors attribute thyroid symptoms to PMS (premenstrual syndrome), depression, stress and anxiety.
Some people with thyroid problems say that it’s impossible to get out of bed in the morning. All they want to do is sit on the couch and watch television. They often have no interest in activities that used to be pleasant to them. Other people with thyroid problems feel as if their systems are racing. They eat without gaining weight, they can’t calm down, they feel very anxious. Sometimes their vision is affected.
Ask yourself if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Irritability, impatience
- Rapid heartbeat
- Increased perspiration
- Fatigue, exhaustion
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling hot or cold
- Changes in skin or hair
- Gaining or losing weight for no known reason
- Extreme moodiness
- Depression, anxiety, panic
- Little interest in taking part in life’s activities
- Post-partum depression
If you answered “yes” to even one of these questions, there’s a chance you could have a thyroid disorder. Which shows you how important it is to have a healthy thyroid gland, because thyroid function has such wide-ranging effects on your body.
How the thyroid works
The thyroid is an endocrine gland. Endocrine glands make the hormones that regulate the functions of your body. In addition to the thyroid gland, other endocrine glands include the pancreas, the pituitary gland, the adrenal glands, the parathyroid glands, the ovaries and the testes.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the middle of your lower neck. It’s below your voice box (larynx) and above your collarbones. The thyroid gland releases thyroid hormone. This hormone regulates the rate at which your body carries out such functions as growth, metabolism, heart rate and weight gain or loss.
The two most common thyroid problems
The two most common thyroid problems are an overactive gland or an underactive gland. Both of these problems are much more common in women.
Underactive thyroid: This is called “hypothyroidism.” People with this condition don’t make enough thyroid hormone. The most common form of hypothyroidism is called Hashimoto’s disease. Hypothyroidism causes the more “sluggish” symptoms of thyroid disease—the depression, deep fatigue, weight gain, etc. It can also cause hair and skin to become dry and nails to become brittle.
Overactive thyroid. This is called “hyperthyroidism.” The most common hyperthyroid condition is called Graves disease. Hyperthyroidism occurs when there’s too much thyroid hormone in your system. Hyperthyroidism causes more of the rushing-type symptoms of thyroid disease—the racing heart, nervousness and anxiety, perspiration, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, etc. Hyperthyroid also sometimes causes the eyes to bulge out, the thyroid gland to enlarge (also called a goiter) and the legs to swell.
Blood tests can reveal whether the thyroid is over- or –under-active. Both conditions are typically treated with medication. If you are currently being treated for a thyroid condition, be sure to see your doctor regularly, because it can sometimes be difficult to stay regulated on your treatment, and adjustments to your regimen may become necessary.
What triggers thyroid dysfunction?
Thyroid problems typically run in families. But often, they’re triggered by a specific event.
Major stressful events—a divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job, pregnancy, birth of a child—can sometimes cause the thyroid to malfunction. This can start a downward spiral, because a poorly functioning thyroid makes it more difficult than normal to handle the effects of the stress. This is why patients and their doctors often think they’re suffering from depression. In fact, they may be suffering from depression, but the thyroid condition is making things worse. Often, if the thyroid condition is treated, the depression is resolved as well.
The main message about your thyroid gland is that thyroid problems are very common and very often go undetected. If you think it’s at all possible that your thyroid isn’t functioning well, be sure to ask your doctor about it. Simple blood tests are usually all it takes to find out.
American Academy of Otolaryngology; R. Arem, The Thyroid Solution, Ballantine Books, Mew York, 1999; M. S. Rosenthal. The Thyroid Sourcebook for Women. Lowell House, Los Angeles, 1999.