Clearing up the stereotypes and misinformation
By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
An underactive thyroid can affect your life in many ways. Hypothyroidism happens when your thyroid doesn’t create and release enough thyroid hormone into your body. The effect makes your metabolism slow down and is a common condition. The thyroid gland is a small organ that’s located in the front of the neck, wrapped around the windpipe. It’s shaped like a butterfly, smaller in the middle with two wide wings that extend around the side of your throat.
“People need to know about thyroid issues because it can truly affect your quality of life. It can lead to several health ailments like weight issues, constipation and menstrual difficulties,” said Ajay Chaudhuri, a board-certified endocrinologist. “Some of these symptoms, if left unchecked, can cause tremendous health problems.”
However, thyroid diseases have many stereotypes and misinformation. Chaudhuri, who is also a clinical professor of medicine and chief of endocrinology at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Science in Buffalo, discusses five aspects of thyroid.
Thyroid-related symptoms can be present as many different medical conditions. Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, heart palpitations, dry skin and high blood pressure. Lower-than-normal T4 levels usually mean you have hypothyroidism.
Some people may have increased thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels while having normal T4 levels. The thyroid helps regulate the heartbeat so it is not pumping blood too fast or too slow. Yet sometimes thyroid gets blamed for several negative symptoms in your overall health.
“People make assumptions and self-diagnosis about thyroid issues. That is why it is essential if you start seeing symptoms for you to go to your physician and ask for a blood test,” said Chaudhuri. “We are able to detect rather easily if your thyroid level is above or below normal.”
Chaudhuri added that what complicates the matter is that even when the test reveals that the thyroid is not the cause of their medical issues, patients still are determined with their original diagnosis.
“Once we find out that it is not the thyroid, our best plan is to pivot and see what other ailments it could be. It doesn’t help you to keep believing that you have a thyroid problem if the blood and test work doesn’t back that up,” said Chaudhuri.
Many of the symptoms for thyroid are universal. Thyroid-related symptoms can be present in many different medical conditions. Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, heart palpitations, dry skin and high blood pressure. Lower-than-normal T4 levels usually mean you have hypothyroidism.
Some people may have increased TSH levels while having normal T4 levels. The thyroid helps regulate the heartbeat so it is not pumping blood too fast or too slow. In addition, some may confuse hypothyroidism with hyperthyroidism. The latter, which is diagnosed as an overactive thyroid, has symptoms that include nervousness, anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, sensitivity to heat and muscle weakness.
“An underactive thyroid can cause a significant amount of weight loss, your heart is racing, sweating and trembling,” said Chaudhuri.
A diagnosis is made with a physical examination and laboratory tests that measure the amount of thyroid hormone. Blood tests that measure thyroxine and thyroid-stimulating hormones can confirm the diagnosis. High levels of thyroxine and low or nonexistent amounts can indicate an overactive thyroid.
Often times hypothyroidism is caused by a condition called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis where a patient’s immune system attacks and destroys the thyroid. Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.
“This autoimmune disease can progress very slowly during a number of years. It may have different symptoms in the beginning,” said Chaudhuri.
In cases of hyperthyroidism, the most common diagnosis is Graves disease. Graves’ disease is caused by a malfunction in the body’s disease-fighting immune system. It’s unknown why this happens. The immune system normally produces antibodies designed to target a specific pathogen. In Graves’ disease, the immune system produces an antibody to one part of the cells in the hormone-producing gland in the neck. Although Graves’ disease may affect anyone, it’s more common among women and in people younger than 40.
4. Thyroid and pregnancy
Untreated thyroid conditions during pregnancy are linked to serious problems, including premature birth, miscarriage and stillbirth. If your thyroid condition is treated during pregnancy, you can have a healthy pregnancy.
“That is also why it is important to ask your physician if you are taking any thyroid medication because that can also affect your pregnancy,” he said. “Because the thyroid makes hormones that help your body, if it makes too little or too much it can affect your pregnancy.”
When it comes to diet and food, thyroid treatments have mixed messages. Some believe in iodine treatments. Iodine is an element that is needed for the production of thyroid hormone. The body does not make iodine, so it is an essential part of your diet. If you do not have enough iodine in your body, you cannot make enough thyroid hormone, according to the American Thyroid Association. Remedies such as iodine supplements are not viewed as necessary if you live in the United States or most developed countries.
“We typically don’t have problems with iodine in our diet living in the United States because salt is often part of our diet,” said Chaudhuri.