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August 28, 2019 • read
Constantly hungry but losing weight? Your thyroid might be to blame
Unintended weight loss and a reduced need for sleep are high on most of our wish lists. But as symptoms of overactive thyroid, these aren’t the blessings they may seem at first. While initial symptoms can seem innocuous and nonspecific, the condition can be dangerous, and even deadly if left untreated. So read on to learn more about what happens when your thyroid works overtime.
What is hyperthyroidism?
The thyroid produces the hormones T3 and T4 which regulate our metabolism, so it has effects throughout the body. Hyperthyroidism is caused by an overactive thyroid, and can be triggered by a few different conditions, both genetic and situational. Graves’ disease, which is an autoimmune condition, is the most common cause. It often runs in families — meaning there is a genetic basis, and it causes your body to release antibodies that overstimulate the thyroid. Other causes of hyperthyroidism include lumps or nodules in the thyroid gland that cause the thyroid to produce excessive amounts of thyroid hormones (known as toxic nodular or multinodular goiter.) inflammation of the thyroid. Inflammation of the thyroid (known as thyroiditis) is also a precursor.
Symptoms of overactive thyroid
Many miss the initial signs and symptoms of hyperthyroidism as they may be subtle in the beginning. Weight loss and a reduced need for sleep are among the initial symptoms, but others can include:
- Increased sweating and/or sensitivity to heat
- Brittle hair and nails
- Anxiety and racing thoughts
- Increased bowel movements
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty sleeping
- General weakness
- Bulging eyes
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism in women vs. men
Women are much more likely than men to have thyroid issues — one in eight women will experience them. Symptoms of overactive thyroid in both females and males can include fertility issues. Women may experience irregular periods, or miss them entirely with the condition. In men, hyperthyroidism can instead cause premature ejaculation, although the condition can also affect sperm health and count. While both sexes can experience the general symptoms listed above, men are more likely to notice excessive sweating. Men may also suffer from decreased levels of testosterone resulting in gynecomastia. This is the development of breast tissue in men, and can happen on one or both sides. While this can have profound effects on self esteem, the condition is easily treated by addressing the underlying cause.
Overactive thyroid in children
In children, 95% of hyperthyroidism cases are caused by Graves disease. Although 25% of these cases resolve themselves over the child’s lifetime, the majority do not. Children experience the same symptoms as adults, however, they may also exhibit accelerated growth because of the condition. In children, hyperthyroidism medication that interferes with thyroid function is usually the first line of defence. As with adults, surgery and treatment with radioactive iodine are used, but typically come later as they result in lifelong hypothyroidism.
Potential side effects
Increased appetite can also be a byproduct of hyperthyroidism, and weight gain sometimes follows. Many, however, don’t find that they gain weight unless they develop hypothyroidism as a result of treating their hyperthyroid issue (more on that below). While the initial symptoms of hyperthyroidism may seem innocuous or even beneficial (who doesn’t like unintentional weight loss?), it’s crucial to treat the condition. Untreated, hyperthyroidism does have the potential to be fatal. Since the heartbeat can be affected, cardiac arrest is a potential risk for both men and women, and other complications such as osteoporosis and increased risk of bone fractures can occur.
Is there a hyperthyroidism test?
While a doctor will take your medical history and ask about specific symptoms, a conclusive diagnosis of hyperthyroidism is made through a simple blood test. This test measures the level of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood. Low or non-existent levels of TSH show hyperthyroidism. This is because when thyroid hormone levels are high, that signals to your brain that your body should produce less thyroid hormones, which the brain attempts to make happen by decreasing TSH secretion. But your thyroid is doing its own thing — it’s not listening to the body’s TSH cues — instead of responding, it just keeps going. In cases of hypothyroidism, TSH levels are high, which is due to your brain signalling your thyroid it needs to produce more thyroid hormones to make up for the deficiency. Same thing goes though, your thyroid is ignoring this and refusing to get to work.
Treatment for overactive thyroid depends on the severity and cause of your symptoms. In many cases, you’ll be referred to an endocrinologist to develop a suitable treatment plan — they specialize in treating hormone related conditions so they’re the go-tos for thyroid conditions. The plan they develop with you could range from taking prescription medications, to more invasive treatments. When medication alone isn’t enough, doctors instead focus on knocking out the thyroid completely. They do this either by surgically removing the gland, or by giving patients radioactive iodine. Although that may sound extreme, the thyroid is actually the only part of the body that absorbs the iodine. This destroys the thyroid but doesn’t damage the rest of the body. Unfortunately both the iodine and surgery leave the patient without an active thyroid gland — which results in hypothyroidism. This means they then have to take synthetic thyroid hormones for the rest of their life. So whether you have hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, it’s possible that you’ll end up on the same prescription medicine once all is said and done.
Is there a diet for overactive thyroid?
The thyroid requires iodine to function, so consuming too many foods or supplements containing it can cause hyperthyroidism as well. In some cases, your doctor might suggest eating according to a hyperthyroidism diet. Fish, seaweed and dairy products are all big sources of iodine, but speak to your doctor for a specific list of what to eat if they recommend a diet for your overactive thyroid.
The thyroid gland is crucial to the overall functioning of our entire body, and when it overproduces T3 and T4, many of our bodily processes speed up. When this happens, we need medical intervention to help our bodies get back on track. If you suspect that you have an overactive thyroid, our doctors are here to help. They can order the tests you need in as little as a few minutes. Get in touch to learn more.